- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2000

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Muslim militants scored a victory this week when military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf backed off from public threats to rein in Islamists and instead granted them interviews, photo opportunities and new privileges.
Newspapers across Pakistan on Tuesday showed Gen. Musharraf holding talks with two of the country's most powerful conservative Islamic leaders.
One of them, Samiul Haq of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, is the chief of the largest Islamic school in the country an institution accused of training its students for jihad, or holy war, in Kashmir, Afghanistan and other flash points.
Gen. Musharraf did not disclose what he told Islamic leaders Monday. However Mr. Haq told reporters that the general had adopted a pro-Islamic stance.
"The general has assured me that the Islamic identity of the country would not be changed as he does not support secularism," news reports quoted Mr. Haq as saying.
Since Gen. Musharraf seized power in October, he has pledged to halt religious killings, disarm Islamic militias and rein in a drift toward religious extremism and intolerance flowing across the border from Afghanistan, where a fundamentalist Islamic regime is in power.
A senior Western diplomat dismissed Gen. Musharraf's effort at conciliation with potential rivals as "throwing the Islamists a bone" to keep them content while he completes reforms that would force merchants to pay taxes to revive the dying economy.
"I believe the government sees [the confrontation coming], but it may be the time has not come for the battle" with the Islamists, said the diplomat, who spoke on condition he not be identified.
Gen. Musharraf and others in the military government have pressed religious schools known as "madrassas" to add science, math and other modern subjects.
The schools' curriculum for hundreds of thousands of Pakistani youths teaches hatred of the West, of India and of Israel.
"We are here to produce Islamic scholars, not doctors or engineers who do not know much about Islamic education," Mr. Haq said.
But Mr. Haq denied that the madrassas teach terrorism, and said, "No interference in the religious schools would be tolerated."
Many parents send their children to the madrassas because Pakistan's education system is bankrupt and corrupt.
In 1995, UNESCO said that 62 percent of adults were illiterate, and that among women, illiteracy was 75 percent.
In Pakistan's remote Northwest Frontier province this week, Islamists declared religious law, or Shariah, would now prevail over Pakistani law.
There is little likelihood of mass Islamist takeovers in the Punjab in central Pakistan, where about 70 million of the country's 130 million people live. More moderate Islamic traditions prevail in Punjab than along the Afghan border.
Gen. Musharraf, in his meetings this week, backed away from a plan to require accusations of blasphemy, a serious charge under Islamic law, to go through civil courts before police can make arrests. Islamists had threatened mass protests if the plan went ahead.
Gen. Musharraf, a devout Muslim who is widely believed to be moderate and tolerant, also gave the Islamists a victory recently when he included strict Islamic guidelines in the provisional constitution that will carry Pakistan toward planned elections in two years.
A U.S. diplomat said yesterday that he is worried about Islamic extremism growing stronger as the economy stagnates.
"There is a drift I worry about, promoted by the bad economy young men with no jobs," said the diplomat. "The kids go to the madrassas and come out ready for jihad."
The Western diplomat however, expressed hope that down the road, when Gen. Musharraf has cleared his desk of the current struggle to make merchants declare their income and pay taxes, the military government will take on the Islamists.

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