Monday, April 20, 2009

Extremist Tide Rises in Pakistan


Washington Post.
After Reaching Deal in North, Islamists Aim to Install Religious Law Nationwide

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, April 19 -- A potentially troubling era dawned Sunday in Pakistan's Swat Valley, where a top Islamist militant leader, emboldened by a peace agreement with the federal government, laid out an ambitious plan to bring a "complete Islamic system" to the surrounding northwest region and the entire country.

Speaking to thousands of followers in an address aired live from Swat on national news channels, cleric Sufi Mohammed bluntly defied the constitution and federal judiciary, saying he would not allow any appeals to state courts under the system of sharia, or Islamic law, that will prevail there as a result of the peace accord signed by the president Tuesday.

"The Koran says that supporting an infidel system is a great sin," Mohammed said, referring to Pakistan's modern democratic institutions. He declared that in Swat, home to 1.5 million people, all "un-Islamic laws and customs will be abolished," and he suggested that the official imprimatur on the agreement would pave the way for sharia to be installed in other areas.

Mohammed's dramatic speech echoed a rousing sermon in Islamabad on Friday by another radical cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who appeared at the Red Mosque in the capital after nearly two years in detention and urged several thousand chanting followers to launch a crusade for sharia nationwide.

Together, these rallying cries seemed to create an arc of radical religious energy between the turbulent, Taliban-plagued northwest region and the increasingly vulnerable federal capital, less than 100 miles to the east. They also appeared to pose a direct, unprecedented religious challenge to modern state authority in the Muslim nation of 176 million.

"The government made a big mistake to give these guys legal cover for their agenda. Now they are going to be battle-ready to struggle for the soul of Pakistan," said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of security studies at Quaid-i-Azam university here. He predicted a further surge in the suicide bombings that have recently become an almost daily occurrence across the country. Two recent bombings at security checkpoints in the northwest killed more than 40 people.

Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to the region, said in an interview broadcast Sunday on CNN that the decision by insurgents to keep fighting in spite of the peace deal should be a "wake-up call to everybody in Pakistan that you can't deal with these people by giving away territory as they creep closer and closer to the populated centers of the Punjab and Islamabad."

Also Sunday, a suspected U.S. missile strike killed three people at a Taliban compound in the South Waziristan tribal region; such attacks have become a powerful recruitment tool for extremist groups in Pakistan as anti-American sentiment builds.

The government agreed to Mohammed's demands in an effort to halt violent intimidation by Taliban forces that the army was unable to quell despite months of operations in the former tourist haven. In recent interviews, Swati leaders and refugees described armed men in black turbans whipping suspected thieves on the spot, cutting off the ears and noses of village elders who opposed them, and selling videos of police beheadings.

"We really had no other choice. We had no power to crush the militants, and people were desperate for peace," said Jafar Shah, a Swati legislator. His Awami National Party, though historically secular, sponsored the sharia deal. "Now people are calling us Taliban without beards," he said ruefully, "but it was the only option available."

Provincial and federal officials also hoped their show of good faith would halt further insurgent inroads and buy time for foreign aid programs to shore up the impoverished northwest against the Islamists' message of swift justice and social equality.

Instead, the evidence suggests that the extremist forces have drawn the opposite lesson from their victory in Swat and are gearing up to carry their armed crusade for a punitive, misogynistic form of Islam into new areas. There have been numerous reports of Taliban fighters entering districts south and west of Swat, where they have brandished weapons, bombed and occupied buildings, arrested aid workers, and killed female activists.

"When we achieve our goals in one place, we need to struggle for it in other areas," Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan told Pakistani news services by telephone last week. "Sharia does not permit us to lay down our arms if the government continues anti-Muslim policies." The goal, he said, is to "enforce the rule of Allah on the land of Allah."

In the northwestern town of Mardan, insurgents attacked girls schools, forced CD shops to close, ordered barbers not to shave beards and bombed the office of a nonprofit aid agency, killing a female worker. Taliban commanders accused the agency of "propagating obscenity." Taliban fighters occupied the Buner district for several days, closed a religious shrine and burned DVDs in the streets. They then toured the region in a convoy of trucks, even entering a secured army area while displaying heavy weapons.

"The inescapable reality is that another domino has toppled and the Taliban are a step closer to Islamabad," the Pakistan-based News International newspaper warned last week after the Buner takeover. The paper compared Pakistan to Vietnam: a weak and corrupt state being "nibbled away" by determined insurgents: "The Taliban have the upper hand, and they know it."

Surprisingly, there has been little official or public protest against the creeping tide of Islamist extremism. Analysts said this is partly because of fear of retaliation and partly because of strong religious sentiments that make Pakistanis reluctant to criticize fellow Muslims.

Even in especially shocking cases, such as the public flogging of a Swati girl suspected of having an affair, the response from national leaders was a muddle of denial and obfuscation. Some said the incident, which surfaced last month on a videotape, had been staged to sabotage the peace deal. Others said it was a minor issue compared with U.S. cross-border missile strikes.

A handful of influential Pakistanis have begun to raise the alarm, warning in newspaper columns or speeches that government and society need to confront the enemy within and acknowledge the difference between conventional sharia and the crude, brutally enforced Taliban version of an extremist Islamist state.

"In Swat they got their system imposed at gunpoint, and now they are ready to Taliban-ize the whole country," Altaf Hussain, the exiled head of the Muttahida Qaumi Majlis political party, said at a teleconference of Muslim clerics in Karachi on Sunday. Denouncing the insurgents' abusive and autocratic methods, he said, "We have to decide between our country and the Taliban."

Sharia in Pakistan, as in Afghanistan, exists in tandem with a modern legal code but does not supersede it. Sharia courts rule on certain religious and moral issues, while other cases are tried by regular courts. Mohammed, Aziz and other radicals espouse a more severe version like the one Taliban rulers imposed on Afghanistan in the 1990s, which segregates women and imposes harsh punishments.

Supporters of the Swat agreement pointed out that residents have been demanding sharia for years to replace the slow, corrupt justice system. But Swati leaders said that the local version of Islamic law was traditionally moderate and that in elections last year Swatis voted overwhelmingly for two secular parties.

Indeed, older natives of Swat like to recall earlier days when serenity and tolerance prevailed in the region of apple orchards, forested hills and glacial streams. Tourists from Japan and Europe came to explore ancient Buddhist ruins, while residents practiced a timeless mix of tribal customs and Islamic faith.

"There was something in the soil that made the people soft," said Asad Khan, a Swat native in his 40s who lives in the city of Peshawar. "Our culture was one of civilized hospitality. Everyone was a Muslim, but almost no one was a fundamentalist. The climate was not good for harsh people and ideas."

This week, after the peace accord was endorsed, officials and pro-government news media described the atmosphere in Swat as relieved and heading back to normalcy. But several people who visited the Swati capital of Mingora this week said they saw worried faces, no women in the markets, and clusters of black-turbaned men watching everyone closely.

"Things are confused and unclear. People have suffered a lot, and they are desperate for peace, but they don't know if it will last," said Afzal Khan Lala, a provincial legislator, reached by phone in Mingora. "If the Taliban are sincere, then peace should prevail. But if they have ulterior aims and seek supremacy over the state, I doubt peace will come to Swat."

Parallel govt won’t be tolerated: Hoti


PESHAWAR: NWFP Chief Minister Ameer Haider Khan Hoti has said the government will take strict action against those who spread terror and want to establish a parallel government in the province.

Talking to journalists after attending a vehicle distribution ceremony of Community Midwifery Schools of various districts at a local hotel on Monday, the chief minister said a ‘national grand jirga’ would soon be convened on the situation in the Malakand division.

He said the situation in Swat was returning to normalcy and the government was trying to implement the Nizam-i-Adl regulation at the earliest.

Mr Hoti said the government wanted to resolve the issues of Dir and Buner through dialogue, but would not allow its writ to be challenged by anyone. No one, he said, would be allowed to set up a parallel government. The government’s writ would be established at any cost, he vowed.

He maintained that peace had been established in 80 per cent area in the Swat valley. According to him, after signing the Nizam-i-Adl Regulation by the president, the federal government had proved its sincerity with the masses and now there was no reason for the opponents to sabotage peace.

The peace accord, the chief minister said, had been signed keeping in view the wishes of the people of the Malakand division. He gave an assurance that the government would implement the Adl regulation in the Swat valley.

He said the rehabilitation process in Swat and Malakand areas would be started soon after the financial position of the province improved.

About the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s opposition to the Nizam-i-Adl Regulation, Mr Hoti advised the party to respect the feelings and wishes of Pakhtuns and cooperate with the NWFP government in maintaining peace.

He announced that the provincial government would establish a national reconciliation jirga at the Malakand level, which would include all stakeholders, for ensuring peace in the region.

Earlier, speaking at the function, the minister said efforts should be made to improve the lives of mother and child. He said the government had increased the number of basic health units in all districts, but this was not enough to provide better health services. He said that in the current situation, development of education and health sectors had become essential.

He announced that such programmes would also be started in Kohistan and Battagram in order to provide better health services to the people of these areas.

He praised the services of lady health workers and also said the government would appoint trained midwives in all districts of the province.

U.N. Opens Racism Conference Amid Boycotts

GENEVA -- U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged the world Monday to rally against the threat that intolerance could rise as a result of the economic crisis, saying "the time is now" to stamp out racism.

Mr. Ban, opening the global body's first racism conference in eight years, said racism including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia needed to be tackled.

"I fear that today's economic crisis, if not handled properly, could evolve into a full-scale political crisis marked by social unrest, weakened governments and angry publics who have lost faith in their leaders and their own future," the U.N. chief said.

"In such circumstances, the consequences for communities already victimized by prejudice or exclusion could be frightening."

Mr. Ban also said he regretted the absence of the U.S. and eight other Western nations that have pulled out because of fears Muslim countries will dominate the conference with calls to denounce Israel and for a global ban on criticizing Islam.

"There comes a time to reaffirm our faith in fundamental human rights and the dignity and worth of us all," Mr. Ban told the gathering of thousands of ministers, diplomats and dignitaries at the U.N.'s European headquarters in Geneva.

The administration of President Barack Obama announced Saturday it would boycott the weeklong meeting because it makes reference to a declaration made in 2001 at the global body's first racism conference in Durban, South Africa.

That document was agreed upon after the U.S. and Israel walked out over attempts to liken Zionism -- the movement to establish a Jewish state in the Holy Land -- to racism.

Organizers have sought to steer clear of the controversies that marred the Durban meeting, but have run into many of the same contentious issues. Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand and Poland also aren't participating, while Iran's hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is scheduled to take the floor later Monday.

The major sticking points in the draft final declaration prepared for the current meeting concern its implied criticism of Israel and an attempt by Muslim governments to ban all criticism of Islam, Sharia law, the prophet Muhammad and other tenets of their faith.

Mr. Obama, speaking in Trinidad on Sunday after attending the Summit of the Americas, said: "I would love to be involved in a useful conference that addressed continuing issues of racism and discrimination around the globe." But he said the language of the U.N.'s draft declaration risked a reprise of Durban, during which "folks expressed antagonism toward Israel in ways that were often times completely hypocritical and counterproductive."

"We expressed in the run-up to this conference our concerns that if you adopted all of the language from 2001, that's not something we can sign up for," Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Ban said no society -- rich or poor, large or small -- is immune to the dangers of racism, which he called a "denial of human rights, pure and simple." Addressing intolerance in its various forms, Mr. Ban said racism "may be institutionalized, as the Holocaust will always remind us," but that it may manifest itself in more subtle forms through the "hatred of a particular people or a class -- as anti-Semitism, for example, or the newer Islamophobia."

Many Muslim nations want curbs to free speech to prevent insults to Islam they claim have proliferated since the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.

They cite the 2005 cartoons of Muhammad published by a Danish newspaper that sparked riots in the Muslim world, and allegations that authorities in the West have targeted innocent Muslims through antiterror and other police action.

Those demands had been largely resisted by the U.S. and other Western nations, some of whom are participating in the conference.

Mr. Ban steered clear of the issue of a global ban on religious defamation, as demanded by Muslim nations, but urged action against a "new politics of xenophobia" that is on the rise and could become dramatically worse as a result of new technologies that proliferate hatred.

Extremist Tide Rises in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, -- A potentially troubling era dawned Sunday in Pakistan's Swat Valley, where a top Islamist militant leader, emboldened by a peace agreement with the federal government, laid out an ambitious plan to bring a "complete Islamic system" to the surrounding northwest region and the entire country.

Speaking to thousands of followers in an address aired live from Swat on national news channels, cleric Sufi Mohammed bluntly defied the constitution and federal judiciary, saying he would not allow any appeals to state courts under the system of sharia, or Islamic law, that will prevail there as a result of the peace accord signed by the president Tuesday.

"The Koran says that supporting an infidel system is a great sin," Mohammed said, referring to Pakistan's modern democratic institutions. He declared that in Swat, home to 1.5 million people, all "un-Islamic laws and customs will be abolished," and he suggested that the official imprimatur on the agreement would pave the way for sharia to be installed in other areas.

Mohammed's dramatic speech echoed a rousing sermon in Islamabad on Friday by another radical cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who appeared at the Red Mosque in the capital after nearly two years in detention and urged several thousand chanting followers to launch a crusade for sharia nationwide.

Together, these rallying cries seemed to create an arc of radical religious energy between the turbulent, Taliban-plagued northwest region and the increasingly vulnerable federal capital, less than 100 miles to the east. They also appeared to pose a direct, unprecedented religious challenge to modern state authority in the Muslim nation of 176 million.

"The government made a big mistake to give these guys legal cover for their agenda. Now they are going to be battle-ready to struggle for the soul of Pakistan," said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of security studies at Quaid-i-Azam university here. He predicted a further surge in the suicide bombings that have recently become an almost daily occurrence across the country. Two recent bombings at security checkpoints in the northwest killed more than 40 people.

Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to the region, said in an interview broadcast Sunday on CNN that the decision by insurgents to keep fighting in spite of the peace deal should be a "wake-up call to everybody in Pakistan that you can't deal with these people by giving away territory as they creep closer and closer to the populated centers of the Punjab and Islamabad."

Also Sunday, a suspected U.S. missile strike killed three people at a Taliban compound in the South Waziristan tribal region; such attacks have become a powerful recruitment tool for extremist groups in Pakistan as anti-American sentiment builds.

The government agreed to Mohammed's demands in an effort to halt violent intimidation by Taliban forces that the army was unable to quell despite months of operations in the former tourist haven. In recent interviews, Swati leaders and refugees described armed men in black turbans whipping suspected thieves on the spot, cutting off the ears and noses of village elders who opposed them, and selling videos of police beheadings.

"We really had no other choice. We had no power to crush the militants, and people were desperate for peace," said Jafar Shah, a Swati legislator. His Awami National Party, though historically secular, sponsored the sharia deal. "Now people are calling us Taliban without beards," he said ruefully, "but it was the only option available."

Provincial and federal officials also hoped their show of good faith would halt further insurgent inroads and buy time for foreign aid programs to shore up the impoverished northwest against the Islamists' message of swift justice and social equality.

Instead, the evidence suggests that the extremist forces have drawn the opposite lesson from their victory in Swat and are gearing up to carry their armed crusade for a punitive, misogynistic form of Islam into new areas. There have been numerous reports of Taliban fighters entering districts south and west of Swat, where they have brandished weapons, bombed and occupied buildings, arrested aid workers, and killed female activists.

"When we achieve our goals in one place, we need to struggle for it in other areas," Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan told Pakistani news services by telephone last week. "Sharia does not permit us to lay down our arms if the government continues anti-Muslim policies." The goal, he said, is to "enforce the rule of Allah on the land of Allah."

In the northwestern town of Mardan, insurgents attacked girls schools, forced CD shops to close, ordered barbers not to shave beards and bombed the office of a nonprofit aid agency, killing a female worker. Taliban commanders accused the agency of "propagating obscenity." Taliban fighters occupied the Buner district for several days, closed a religious shrine and burned DVDs in the streets. They then toured the region in a convoy of trucks, even entering a secured army area while displaying heavy weapons.

"The inescapable reality is that another domino has toppled and the Taliban are a step closer to Islamabad," the Pakistan-based News International newspaper warned last week after the Buner takeover. The paper compared Pakistan to Vietnam: a weak and corrupt state being "nibbled away" by determined insurgents: "The Taliban have the upper hand, and they know it."

Surprisingly, there has been little official or public protest against the creeping tide of Islamist extremism. Analysts said this is partly because of fear of retaliation and partly because of strong religious sentiments that make Pakistanis reluctant to criticize fellow Muslims.

Even in especially shocking cases, such as the public flogging of a Swati girl suspected of having an affair, the response from national leaders was a muddle of denial and obfuscation. Some said the incident, which surfaced last month on a videotape, had been staged to sabotage the peace deal. Others said it was a minor issue compared with U.S. cross-border missile strikes.

A handful of influential Pakistanis have begun to raise the alarm, warning in newspaper columns or speeches that government and society need to confront the enemy within and acknowledge the difference between conventional sharia and the crude, brutally enforced Taliban version of an extremist Islamist state.

"In Swat they got their system imposed at gunpoint, and now they are ready to Taliban-ize the whole country," Altaf Hussain, the exiled head of the Muttahida Qaumi Majlis political party, said at a teleconference of Muslim clerics in Karachi on Sunday. Denouncing the insurgents' abusive and autocratic methods, he said, "We have to decide between our country and the Taliban."

Sharia in Pakistan, as in Afghanistan, exists in tandem with a modern legal code but does not supersede it. Sharia courts rule on certain religious and moral issues, while other cases are tried by regular courts. Mohammed, Aziz and other radicals espouse a more severe version like the one Taliban rulers imposed on Afghanistan in the 1990s, which segregates women and imposes harsh punishments.

Supporters of the Swat agreement pointed out that residents have been demanding sharia for years to replace the slow, corrupt justice system. But Swati leaders said that the local version of Islamic law was traditionally moderate and that in elections last year Swatis voted overwhelmingly for two secular parties.

Indeed, older natives of Swat like to recall earlier days when serenity and tolerance prevailed in the region of apple orchards, forested hills and glacial streams. Tourists from Japan and Europe came to explore ancient Buddhist ruins, while residents practiced a timeless mix of tribal customs and Islamic faith.

"There was something in the soil that made the people soft," said Asad Khan, a Swat native in his 40s who lives in the city of Peshawar. "Our culture was one of civilized hospitality. Everyone was a Muslim, but almost no one was a fundamentalist. The climate was not good for harsh people and ideas."

This week, after the peace accord was endorsed, officials and pro-government news media described the atmosphere in Swat as relieved and heading back to normalcy. But several people who visited the Swati capital of Mingora this week said they saw worried faces, no women in the markets, and clusters of black-turbaned men watching everyone closely.

"Things are confused and unclear. People have suffered a lot, and they are desperate for peace, but they don't know if it will last," said Afzal Khan Lala, a provincial legislator, reached by phone in Mingora. "If the Taliban are sincere, then peace should prevail. But if they have ulterior aims and seek supremacy over the state, I doubt peace will come to Swat."

Chummy Obama, Chávez mark ’spirit of cooperation’ at summit



Despite worries that the agenda would be hijacked by a debate about America's Cuba policy, the Summit of the Americas finished with a feeling of goodwill.

By Howard LaFranchi | Staff writer/ April 19, 2009 edition

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PORT OF SPAIN, TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
With frank exchanges and the appearance of a new maturity, regional leaders including a travel-weary but enthusiastic President Obama breathed new life into the Summit of the Americas – a meeting that at least one member thought had outlived its usefulness before this weekend.

The North and South American leaders who came together in Trinidad and Tobago failed to reach unanimity on a final declaration issued at the summit’s close Sunday. But if anything, the decision instead to end proceedings with only a “consensus” suggested – not acrimony – but a new openness to robust dialogue in regional relations.

At a Sunday press conference, Mr. Obama hailed a “very productive” event that “replaced the ideological divisions of the past with a spirit of cooperation and a willingness to act.”

His determination not to be provoked by aggressive, anti-US leaders such as Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela typified the esprit de corps of the meeting.

Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper admitted at the summit’s close that he was not even sure before arriving if the periodic gatherings continued to serve a purpose – this was the fifth Summit of the Americas since 1994. But he said he had changed his mind after two days of discussions that revealed a new “spirit of cooperation” despite different approaches to common challenges.

Officially, the summit focused on three issues: the regional economic crisis, common security threats, and energy development and global warming.

On the economy, the leaders agreed to urge the Inter-American Development Bank, the region’s international financing institutution, to commit additional lending capital to help struggling countries confront the economic downturn.

One reason some leaders balked at signing the summit’s declaration is that the document was negotiated last fall, before the full impact of the global economic crisis was evident. Publicly, however, some leaders, led by Mr. Chávez, held to their threat to snub any final document unless it included a condemnation of the US embargo of Cuba.

Cuba was a focus of the leaders’ discussions to a degree it never was at earlier summits. But it did not derail deliberations in a way some had predicted. As a Communist country without a democratically elected leadership, Cuba is the only nation of the Americas not invited to the summits.

The leaders agreed the Organization of American States should take up the question of Cuba’s return to the regional body at its June meeting in Honduras. But the lack of fireworks over the Cuban issue reflected recognition of the promise of a new direction in US-Cuba relations under Obama. The summit followed new measures announced by the Obama administration last week loosening some restrictions on US contacts with Cuba.

In response, Havana let be known it was ready for dialogue on all issues between the two estranged countries. But disagreements remain over who should act next, suggesting progress will be slow.

Beyond Cuba, the absence of hostilities stemmed from the relationship between Obama and Chávez, who had made a point of antagonizing President Bush at the last Summit of the Americas in Argentina in 2005. Obama crossed a room at an opening gathering Friday night to greet Chávez. In response, Chávez told Obama in Spanish, “I want to be your friend.” He later presented the US leader with a book – a tome chronicling 500 years of European and American exploitation of Latin America.

Obama refused to interpret the gift as baiting, quipping later: “It was a nice gesture to give me a book, I’m a reader.”

That determination to bury old antagonisms was also present when Obama responded disarmingly to an hour-long opening speech by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, in which the former leftist revolutionary reviewed US action against Cuba including the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. “I’m grateful President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old,” he told chuckling leaders.

The president’s openness to exchange with the likes of Chávez was already being condemned by some in Washington before he left Trinidad’s soil. But Obama said it is his view that America’s interests are served when it opens doors even to its adversaries.

“I did not see eye to eye with every leader on every regional issue at this summit,” he said before departing here [but] “we showed that while we have our differences we can talk together.”
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