Page last updated at 08:27 GMT, Tuesday, 22 May 2007 09:27 UK

Pakistan faces the Taleban's tentacles

By Barbara Plett
BBC News, Bannu, northern Pakistan

Pakistani Taleban on a truck
The Taleban say they are enforcing Islamic law
In a remote Pakistani town, a singer lives in fear.

Zaher Uddin used to perform at weddings, now he sings only in the privacy of his home. The white walls are draped with festive garlands, tools of his newly defunct trade. Music has been banned by local religious militants, or Taleban.

Mr Uddin talks about the hardship of his job, but he won't talk about the Taleban, he's too afraid.

Vigilante vice squads have recently begun to patrol the streets of Surai Norang, located near the city of Bannu in north-western Pakistan.

Wheat field rendezvous

Armed Pakistani tribesmen had been imposing their own hardline version of Islam in the lawless border region near Afghanistan. But their influence is spreading, and the state seems powerless to stop it.

Pakistan Taleban leader Qari Sarfraz
We believe that you are justified in carrying out suicide bombings against the enemies of Islam
Pakistan Taleban commander Qari Sarfraz

One music shop owner in Surai Norang has learned that the hard way. He switched to selling Islamic cassettes after his store was bombed. In the two months since he's made less than $4.

"The police are not helping or protecting us," he says. "In fact they called us and told us not to sell these music cassettes, otherwise we'd be in trouble."

The members of this radical religious movement are Pakistani, but they're inspired by the Afghan Taleban. They support its leader Mullah Omar, rather than Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf.

A Taleban commander, Qari Sarfraz, agrees to meet us.

He and his men drive across a riverbed in their pick-up trucks for a rendezvous in a wheat field. They have Kalashnikov rifles thrown over their shoulders, and pistols stuck into holsters slung across their chests.

'Not involved'

The commander tells us he's the head of a mobile unit sent from the tribal region of North Waziristan to the Bannu area. He says the Taleban have a duty to enforce Islamic law wherever they can because the government has failed to do so.

He supports those who've tried to assassinate the president in the past - they were "doing the right thing", he says.

"We don't have the power or capacity to remove this government. We cannot bring down the Musharraf regime, so we don't intend to do that. What we are trying to do is that in our area, if we see something un-Islamic happening, we try to stop it, because we are responsible for our own area."


The Pakistani Taleban are also blamed for a recent wave of suicide bombings. Qari Sarfraz says his men haven't been involved.

"We believe that you are justified in carrying out suicide bombings against the enemies of Islam," he says. "But if you do it the way they are doing it in Pakistan, killing their own people and civilians... I don't know. Those who are doing it, sponsoring it, they have to answer Allah and justify it."

After extending an invitation to lunch the men clamber into their trucks and speed away.

All this seems a world away from the capital city, Islamabad. It's a liberal, secular place by Pakistani standards: men and women mingle freely, they're able to buy the latest Western music, DVDs and fashion.

But in the centre of town the radical Red Mosque, or Lal Masjid, has also been challenging the government to enforce Islamic law.

Its religious students have occupied a public building to put pressure on the authorities. And they've launched their own self-styled anti vice campaign: the women abducting alleged prostitutes, the men torching a pile of videos and DVDs in the middle of town.

Sign of weakness

Among their targets was the tourism minister, denounced by the mosque for an innocent hug while paragliding in France. It was reacting to newspaper pictures of Nilofar Bakhtiar embracing her elderly instructor.

But Mrs Bakhtiar says the government can't fight fire with fire.

DVDs and CDs being burnt
'UnIslamic' DVDs, CDs and videos have been publicly burnt

"Now [the Taleban] are showing up in the capital and they're trying to show their strength," she says. "So we want to negotiate and convince them they're wrong; if we just start shooting tomorrow, then we will also be Taleban, and we don't want to do that."

The government's failure to enforce its authority in the heart of the capital has infuriated Pakistan's Westernised elite. Some accuse it of cultivating the Lal Masjid crisis to distract attention from growing domestic problems.

But others say the Lal Masjid shows just how far Talebanisation has reached. They say the government's refusal to act is a sign of weakness, and in the vacuum, Talebanisation grows stronger.

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