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Saturday, September 5, 1998 Published at 20:07 GMT

The 'Islamisation' of Pakistan

The border where "anything, absolutely anything, could happen"

Just after the American missile strike against Afghanistan, the Pakistani government announced plans for greater "Islamisation". Our South Asia correspondent Mike Wooldridge examines if that was just a coincidence.

The Pakistan - Afghanistan border region has always seemed to me the kind of place where anything, absolutely anything, could happen.

A supposedly surgical missile strike into a large salient of Afghan territory is, in a way, just another notch on the belt of centuries of extraordinary and often violent history.

The Khyber Pass

It is a famously spectacular region. At its heart that gateway to a sub-continent, the Khyber Pass. The sandstone forts scattered across the area bear witness to the shifting military tides down the ages.

Guns are widely on sale - and are carried by almost all the male population of what are called the tribal areas closest to the border.

[ image: Peshawar: one of the world's great crossroads]
Peshawar: one of the world's great crossroads
Drugs are freely traded, too. And there have always been rumours of heroin factories buried in the hills.

On the Pakistan side, in Peshawar - the main city in Northwest Frontier Province and the setting off point for the Khyber Pass - Afghan merchants, students, clerics and refugees rub shoulders with the local Pakistani population.

It is one of the world's great crossroads, literally, a thoroughly distinctive place and thoroughly distinctive people.

Osama bin Laden

Islam is a binding force, and faith and culture combine in an unusually powerful tradition of hospitality and loyalty.

It is this society then into which Osama bin Laden - regarded by the Americans as one of the world's biggest sponsors of terrorism - could slip and find a haven on the Afghan side with apparent ease.

[ image: Osama bin Laden: A 'guest' of Taleban]
Osama bin Laden: A 'guest' of Taleban
As the Taleban rulers of Kabul have said, they inherited him. The millionaire Saudi exile had been around on the Afghan scene for years before they came into being as a movement, involved with the Muslim Mujahideen groups who battled to oust the Soviet forces.

It is not just because they maintain that the Americans have failed to prove terrorist connections and involvement with the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassy bombings that Taleban continue to shelter bin Laden.

The shared Muslim identity and the concept of being a 'guest' are, they insist, crucially important.

I was to hear echoes of this line constantly during my time in Peshawar, and indeed elsewhere in Pakistan.

Especially from those who represent the driving force behind Pakistan itself putting the 'Islamic' back into the name 'The Islamic Republic of Pakistan' and who charge that it has been neglected.

In the 'madrassa'

A potentially significant move towards this was announced by the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, a few days ago.

In one of the narrow streets of the old city of Peshawar is a madrassa, one of the Islamic religious schools that have sprung up across Pakistan. Like others, it has both Afghan and Pakistani students.

In the mosque within the madrassa there were boys as young as five rocking back and forth, rhythmically reciting passages from the Koran in the manner of learning practised for centuries.

In a classroom nearby senior students in their twenties were having the Koran's teachings interpreted for them.

In rooms upstairs, girls and young women across a similar age range were engaged in the same process.

In this madrassa, for a good many students, this education is complemented by studies in a more secular environment. Some who emerge from here will be doctors or teachers or other professions.

They too, are Taleban, they will tell you.

'Spare time' fighting

They do not see eye to eye on all things with the regime of the same name across the nearby border but they excuse them for the present harshness of their rule by saying that Afghanistan has been in a state of chaos for many years and it first needs to be brought under control.

[ image: Pressures grow for an 'Islamic Republic of Pakistan']
Pressures grow for an 'Islamic Republic of Pakistan'
Taleban's version of an Islamic revolution is one they clearly admire, in principle. The head of the madrassa acknowledges that "in their spare time" some of the students have probably taken up arms in support of it, though military training is not part of the school's syllabus, he says.

He maintains that Pakistan is long overdue an Islamic revolution, too. From here, they came out onto the streets of Peshawar to join in anti-American protests soon after the missile strikes. Protests that fuelled tension in the city and a flight of foreigners to the capital.

In religious schools like this, just as in the offices of some political figures in Islamabad, the argument runs that there is a distinction between terrorism and Jihad, or holy war, revolving around the targets and the territory.

But prove conclusively that Osama bin Laden has been involved in the first rather than the second and he should face the full wrath of Islamic justice, some say. A Muslim guest is not beyond the reach of sharia law.

Government under fire

It was not simply in reaction to the missile attack in Afghanistan that the Pakistan government is now proposing to make Islamic law supreme.

It has been long mooted. And the argument runs that applied with customary Pakistani moderation it could stave off growing pressures for a far more radical and turbulent pro-Islamic shift.

But such are the prime minister's difficulties these days that he is immediately been accused of turning himself into a dictator by one set of political opponents and of tokenism by another.

And alongside that the issue still simmers of whether his government colluded in some way with old ally the United States in the missile attack, even though it stoutly denies this.

As those missiles snaked across Pakistani territory in the night sky they may not have left a trace on the radar screens - but they have left their mark on the country beneath them.

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