WASHINGTON DC, July 23, 2005 | ISSN: 1684-2057 | www.satribune.com

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Nothing Will Change Until Musharraf Closes Pakistan's Militant Madrassas

By Ahmed Rashid

LAHORE, July 23: In her first thriller, At Risk, Stella Rimington, the former head of MI-5, writes about a Pakistani militant who arrives by ferry boat in Britain to blow up the commander of a US-British air force base in the Fens. His main helper is an English girl who has converted to Islam and has been in a training camp in Pakistan, while MI5 misses several signals that an attack is coming.

Not surprisingly, when you are reading a novel by someone who has spent 35 years in the secret service, fact and fiction merge. The suspected Pakistani mastermind of the July 7 bombings is believed to have arrived by boat to trigger the four bombers, then left the country a day before the attack. Yesterday's bungling bombers seemed to lack such foreign expertise.

"There is no way you can deal with this menace [of terrorism] except head-on," said Prime Minister Tony Blair. Yet the truth of the matter is that neither government has tackled the issue of Islamic extremism head-on.

Until this month, terrorist attacks were long-distance events for most British people, but not for Pakistanis - 1,000 civilians and the same number of security personnel in that country have died since September 11 in terrorist and sectarian violence.

Britain has allowed militant Muslim preachers freedom to preach their message of hate in the mosques, the meeting halls and the sitting rooms of British Muslims. Literature and videos promoting extremism have been allowed to spread deep into the Muslim community. While some outsiders saw this as typical British eccentricity or liberalism, foreign intelligence agencies have been furious with British laxity for some years.

The four July 7 bombers did not have to enroll in a Pakistani religious school or madrassa to learn about Islamic extremism, because it was available in Yorkshire. Experts now think it unlikely that the three London bombers who came to Pakistan last year enrolled in a madrassa to become ideologised. Instead, they arrived fully brainwashed and probably used their time making contact with Al-Qaeda and Pakistani militant groups to train in explosives.

And every Pakistani who saw the TV pictures of how British Pakistanis live in Leeds was shocked at how no attempt has been made to integrate them. The Leeds suburbs looked like ghettos or a typical poverty-stricken Punjabi village, except in red brick.

British Muslims also must share a great part of the blame for failing to speak out against the extremists living in their midst, refusing to integrate or agree to mixed marriages, and insisting upon bringing prayer leaders from their home villages - men who are either totally ignorant of the world or are extremists.

Immigrants are traditionally torn between their traditions and the modernity offered by the host country, but no group has more rigorously spurned modernity then Asian Muslims, which is a crying shame.

At the same time, the overwhelming anger that more than 60 per cent of Britons feel about Blair's policies in Iraq - according to a Guardian poll - is felt far more strongly in the Muslim community. The truth is that Blair will have great difficulty countering extremism among Asian Muslims while continuing to pursue the same Iraq policy.

Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, has done even less to curb extremism, despite the daily hemorrhaging of his citizens on the streets of Pakistani cities due to terrorist attacks. On Monday, the general gave a tub-thumping speech to a youth conference, wagging his angry finger at the madrassas and repeating for the umpteenth time that banned militant groups were forcing their ideology on others.

This week, more than 250 militants have been arrested and, in a speech to the nation last night, Musharraf again asked the public to join him in a jihad against Islamic extremism. But since September 11, such crackdowns have taken place frequently, and those arrested are invariably freed after 90 days in jail.

Pakistanis now respond to such speeches with a wave of the hand and a bored look, commenting that it is all for the gallery of Western onlookers. Since September 11, the general has been through this routine so many times that people have lost count and interest. Despite all the political pressures on the military from the West since September 11, all the debt forgiveness by Western countries, the lavish foreign aid - $3 billion from Washington alone, new weapon systems and intelligence equipment and the rush of cash to reform the madrassa system - nothing much has changed.

Last night, Musharraf still failed to order the closure of madrassas controlled by extremist groups. The promised reform in 2002, which Musharraf pledged at meetings with Bush and Blair in Washington and London, has not been implemented. Until the London bombings, neither leader had bothered to ask Musharraf why not, although both have given funding for education.

Madrassas controlled by militant Pakistani groups who work for Al-Qaeda continue to function freely. One of the largest extremist groups in the country, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, has members who have helped Al-Qaeda It now operates under a new name and has even changed the look of its largest madrassa complex to become a model it can show to the Western press. It's like the Earls Court motor show without the short-skirted models.

The enormous Islamic extremist infrastructure that the military maintained before September 11 to fight its wars in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and Indian Kashmir have not been broken up, only put to temporary sleep while clandestine training camps still spring up at new locations. Some militant groups have been banned three times, only to re-appear under different names.

The failure of the West since September 11 has been to conduct its entire relationship with Musharraf in secret, as though that would give him the time and space to do the right thing. What is needed is a heavy dose of public diplomacy that would force the military to act rather than to deny and fudge. At the same time, Britain needs to wake up to the new post-July 7 world in which it will have to do far more to integrate its Muslim minority than it has done so far. - Daily Telegraph, London

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