Americans, and our friends, have been surprised by the positive role played by our newest ally, President Pervez Musharaff of Pakistan.
His nation is mainly illiterate and has had four military dictatorships, including his own. But from time to time, Pakistan joins the West, as in the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and now in the war against terrorism. His stance is heroic, especially since the most vocal part of his population violently expresses its opposition to the West in the streets and threatens to depose him.
Why should a nation of 140 million, 98 percent of whom are Muslims, some of them of the extremist variety, join with America in its war against religious zealots?
His cooperation has been outstanding, far beyond what was expected of him in the early days after September 11. He has granted us the use of Pakistan’s airspace. And although Islamabad doesn’t verify it, reportedly 800 Special Operations troops with support helicopters are stationed in bases in Dalbandin and Jacobabad. From there, we are making incursions into Afghanistan in search of remaining al Qaeda members. Mr. Musharraf has even arrested fleeing Taliban soldiers and turned the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan over to Americans.
Perhaps his most vital long-range support of the West comes from his plans to modernize the madrassahs, the religious schools of Pakistan that often preach hatred of America and the West. The state now helps to support 7,000 religious schools with the “zakat,” a national tax. The anomoly of Pakistan is that the public schools charge a small fee while the madrassahs often provide free tuition and room and board, which increases their popularity with the poor and makes for greater religious indoctrination. As one religious leader recently stated “not only do we study the Koran, but we recruit for jihad.”
Mr. Musharaff has declared he will reduce or cut off support for those schools which continue to preach hatred and which maintain semiliterate curriculum based mainly on the Koran. He will reward those schools which adopt a modern curriculum of English, science and computer training. Meanwhile he expects to enlarge public education, the core of Western societies.
But why? Why didn’t Mr. Musharaff choose the Muslim extremists, who seek vengeance against a West that has passed them in freedom, medicine, science, education and technology? Why not yield to the Street, which dreams of a Holy War to regain the power that was theirs during the period of Muslim glory in the 11th through the l4th centuries?
Cynics will say it is the allure of American dollars, but the real reasons go much deeper than that. Obviously, Mr. Musharaff understands that the Muslim jihad against the West is futile, now and in the future. Educated in English schools in Pakistan, through university, he understands that ultimately the West, with its freedoms and opportunities, has inescapable magnetism for the average person. The Muslim world is trying to fight back with terrorism, but it is naive for them to believe that crippling a plane, or a building, or even making a rogue nuclear attack, can bring down the West.
The West is a frame of mind, drawing from the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, from such thinkers as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. It is the embodiment of power of the individual, one which makes governing states secondary. It especially turns its ideological back on theocracy, the distortion of God as a political leader. The West is finished with that, while the Muslim world has yet to learn that valuable lesson.
When the Muslim world led by people like Mr. Musharaff realize their traditional theories only stimulate misery, their antagonism and terrorism will stop.
The West sometimes requires war to stop the distortion of certain nations. But most often it merely has to demonstrate the superiority, not of America, but of the Western idea. That was the case in the 70-year history of communism, when an educated Russian Mikhail Gorbachev, a doctor of law who understood the Western ideal yielded an empire virtually by himself.
Neither Messrs. Gorbachev nor Musharaff had a track record of democracy, but they contributed to its development as transitional players: Mr. Gorbachev with “glasnost,” the opening up of communism, and Mr. Musharaff by this bold step in support of the West. Mr. Musharaff can become the Gorbachev of the Muslim world. He appreciates the Western concepts, which made his choice for our side inevitable. Besides the financial incentives, one would hope and believe he will fulfill his promise to bring Pakistan even closer to the West by creating a true democracy, as we also hope to do in Afghanistan, where our victory owes a great deal to Mr. Musharaff.
The Muslim world desperately needs its own reformation. If successful, it will bring 1 billion people out of the shadow of the ancient world and into the 2lst century with dignity.
That is the challenge of not only the West, but of Muslim leaders such as Pervez Musharaff.
Martin L. Gross is a nationally syndicated columnist.