Thursday, July 5, 2007

Pakistan's Powderkeg

The events of this week in Islamabad, Pakistan came perilously close to a becoming a radical islamic tsunami, threatening to swamp southwestern Asia in a drowning sea of 7th century fundamentalism. Fighting erupted after the mosque's leadership abducted a group of Chinese women for alleged crimes of vice (i.e., prostitution). The government surrounded the mosque compound and firefights ensued. The mainstream media took casual note of the standoff at Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, which pitted the group of radical students against Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf. The students are led by firebrand imam Maulana Abdul Aziz and his equally outspoken No. 2 man, Abdul Rashid Ghazi. The group professes a "relationship of love and affection with all jihadist organizations," but denies that it has any militants, only "students." Right. As of today, more than 1,100 such "students" had surrendered, but the mosque still contains at least 250 hardcore islamists, armed with AK-47's and explosives that Aziz says were provided by "friends."

The situation in Pakistan is tenuous, at best. President Musharraf is a strong ally of the United States and international efforts to rid the region of Taliban and terrorist influence. Clerics like Aziz (he is far from being the only outspoken radical) are bitterly opposed to the government's support of the Great Satan, and the abduction of the Chinese women was yet another incident in the terrorists' attempts to enforce the Taliban's 7th century flavor of islamic law in Pakistan. Musharraf has also taken intense criticism for his unwillingness to hold free elections in his country, but given the radicals' "relationship of love" with terrorists, Musharraf is navigating between the Scilla and Charybdes. If he holds onto power, he further enrages the radical islamist factions, fuels their violent rhetoric and risks inciting other confrontations. If he gives into international pressures and holds elections, he risks losing power to those who might not take such a hard line stance against terrorism and the Taliban. Musharraf frequently points to the 80/20 rule: That 80% of the country's problems are caused by 20% of the people. But those 20% are increasing the anti-west, anti-secular rhetoric and ratcheting up the violence. While this week's event is likely to end without swamping Pakistan in a sea of bloodshed and radical revolution, there is considerable risk that a future confrontation will have different results. If he wishes to avoid blowing the powderkeg, Musharraf should brutally crack down on the radical imams before they have a chance to push Pakistan into a repeat of the Iranian revolution.