Turkey and Pakistan, two influential Muslim states, have seen massive public demonstrations in recent days in which huge crowds protested that Islam was playing too big a role in public affairs.
In Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, an estimated 100,000 people took to the streets Sunday to protest plans by an influential mosque to run a “Taliban-style” anti-vice campaign in the capital city of Islamabad.
A day earlier, some 500,000 Turks staged a rally in Ankara urging Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former Islamist and head of the moderate Muslim ruling party, not to run for president, traditionally a secular and nonpartisan post.
The twin rallies come at a time of intense debate over the ability of moderate Muslims across the Islamic world to challenge more radical, anti-Western voices. The Bush administration has made a major push in its public diplomacy to encourage moderate Muslim voices across the greater Middle East.
“This weekend, for the first time in a long time, we’ve seen people power in action on the streets in Turkey,” said Zeyno Baran, director of the Center for Eurasian Policy at the Hudson Institute and a specialist on Turkish politics.
Moderates in Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim country, had been “fairly passive” in the past in defending the country’s institutions from religious forces, Ms. Baran said. They have relied on the country’s staunchly secular military to defend the secular character of the country’s laws and leading institutions.
While a number of leading Muslim figures have spoken out against Islamist militants and jihadist terror networks like al Qaeda, an extensive new study by the Rand Corp. released last month found that extremists have dominated the public debate in recent years.
“By and large, radicals … have been successful in intimidating, marginalizing or silencing moderate Muslims — those who share the key dimensions of democratic culture — to varying degrees,” the study found.
The Rand authors stated that radical forces not only use violence to cow more-moderate rivals, but they generally are better funded and organized, often with links to extremist forces in other Islamic countries.
“This asymmetry in resources and organization explains why radicals, a small minority in almost all Muslim countries, have influence disproportionate to their numbers,” the authors stated.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has tried to walk a fine line, backing the U.S.-led campaign to oust the fundamentalist Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan without cutting all ties to increasingly militant Islamic political forces at home.
Sunday’s rally, held in a southern political stronghold of the president, targeted a new campaign by a prominent mosque in Islamabad to set up a parallel court based on the Islamic Shariah legal code. Students from the mosque have been harassing owners of brothels and music shops in the capital.
“We will strongly resist religious terrorism and religious extremism,” Altaf Hussain, a political ally of Gen. Musharraf, told the crowd.
But in a sign of the hurdles still facing outspoken moderate Muslims, Mr. Hussain addressed the crowd via telephone link from London, where he lives in self-imposed exile.
In Turkey, Mr. Erdogan’s possible bid for the presidency has sparked a wider debate on the future of Turkey’s state, which has been rigorously free of religious interference since its founding in 1923.
Mr. Erdogan said he has moderated his earlier Islamist views, and he remains highly popular with Turkish voters after four years in office.
But his Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party dominates the legislature and critics warn that Mr. Erdogan as president would have far greater control over secular bastions of the state, including universities, the courts and parts of the military.
Outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who has blocked some laws and appointments by the Erdogan government, warned last week that the Turkish republic was “under unprecedented threat” from Islamists.
The president is appointed by the legislature and Mr. Erdogan could easily push through his nomination. But he is under pressure to remain prime minister and pick a more neutral candidate for the presidency.