February 13, 2007

Squatter Madrassa Tests Musharraf's Mettle

In his on-off-on campaign against radical Islamist terrorists, the actions of Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf sometimes call into question his tenacity against militant Islam. He faces another such moment in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, as hard-line imams have build a madrassa illegally on public land. They have threatened a wave of terrorism if Musharraf dismantles it, drawing a line in the sand at the heart of Pakistan:

A children's library in Pakistan's capital Islamabad has become the frontline of a tense standoff between President Pervez Musharraf's government and Islamist extremists.

Scores of burka-clad female students are occupying the public library in protest at plans to demolish Jamia Hafsa, a religious school that houses 7,000 students but was illegally built on public land. The protesters, aged between seven and 30, have threatened to violently resist any police operation to end their sit-in; some have threatened to become suicide bombers. ...

The madrasa is run by Abdul Rashid Ghazi and his brother Abdul Aziz, clerics who have met Osama bin Laden and openly call on Muslims to participate in an anti-western jihad during Friday sermons. Security forces raided it after the London bombings of July 2005.

Musharraf wants a negotiated end to the conflict, but that seems unlikely. Even though the government has taken care to treat the school with caution -- they usually toss unlicensed street peddlers aside without much consideration at all -- the extremists have not acquiesced. The imams have declared the government attempts to dismantle the madrassa a "sin", language that will not allow for cooler heads to prevail.

Of course, Musharraf has no one but himself to blame. He used the extremists to grab power, and for a while made sure they stayed happy. Musharraf helped created the Taliban government that oppressed Afghanistan and hosted Osama bin Laden, until 9/11 made those alliances too expensive to maintain. Now these radical Islamists want to ensure their perpetuation, and Musharraf finds himself stuck in the middle of his own conundrum.

He can't afford to ignore it, either. The conflict over Jamia Hafsa has acquired too high a profile to simply walk away. Musharraf has to take some kind of action, or cede forever the government's authority over the placement of madrassas of any stripe, especially those hosting radical teachers in the mold of al-Qaeda. Seven thousand students at Jamia Hafsa will not go quietly if evicted, and Musharraf will have to rely on his security forces -- which may have more sympathy with the madrassa than with their commander.

It's a delicate situation, and one that could either undo Musharraf or find him walking away from the war on terror.


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