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Last Updated: Saturday, 14 July 2007, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
Jihadis tap anti-Musharraf feeling
By Barbara Plett
BBC News, Islamabad

President Pervez Musharraf's decision to storm the Red Mosque in Islamabad and his words about the elimination of terrorism and extremism are a challenge to the home-grown Pakistani Taleban and its attempts to mobilise religious opposition to military rule.

Pakistani paramilitary force officers arrest militants outside the Red Mosque
Musharraf said the Red Mosque was freed from "the hands of terrorists"

It was easy to dismiss the burka-clad students of the Red Mosque as a bunch of fanatics, especially when they started talking about their dreams.

The prophet Mohammed appeared to them, they told me in interviews a few months ago, handing them swords, telling them to conduct jihad against General Pervez Musharraf.

"When we are getting such signs," they asked, "how can we not act?"

The students - many of them are girls - mostly came from the conservative north-west of Pakistan, near the tribal regions along the Afghan border.

I travelled there to meet a commander of the Pakistani Taleban, a radical religious movement inspired by the Afghan Taleban.

'Literal interpretation'

As we were about to set off, my colleague, a local journalist, took off his socks and tossed them to me.

3 July: Clashes erupt at mosque, 16 killed, after long student campaign for Islamic Sharia law
4 July: About 700 students leave mosque, now besieged by security forces; mosque leader caught trying to flee wearing woman's burka
5 July: More than 1,000 students surrender to security forces
6 July: Women are allowed to leave the mosque; students' deputy leader says he would rather die than surrender
8 July: Ministers say wanted militants are holding women and children inside the mosque
9 July: Negotiators talk to mosque leader via loudspeaker without progress; three Chinese workers are killed in Peshawar over siege
10 July: Pakistani troops storm mosque after failure of talks; army says Ghazi killed
11 July: Pakistani army says all militants cleared from mosque

"You must cover yourself," he said in answer to my look of startled confusion, pointing to my bare feet. He threw a blanket around my shoulders.

Clothed in the blazing heat, I was almost relieved when the interview fell through.

The Taleban believe in an utterly literal interpretation of Islam. And they use violence to enforce it.

In the frontier town we were visiting, they had banned music and they zealously policed their decree.

Everyone obeyed.

A wedding singer talked about the hardship of losing his job, but he would not talk about the Taleban. He was too afraid.

A music shop owner switched to selling Islamic cassettes after his store was fire-bombed, even though he lost a lot of money.

He still sold a small stash of forbidden recordings, under the counter, he told us, like drugs.

Sense of duty

We did finally meet a Taleban commander.

He and his men roared across a dry riverbed in their pick up trucks for a rendezvous in a wheat field.

They certainly looked the part, with Kalashnikov rifles thrown over their shoulders and pistols stuck into holsters slung across their chests.

The commander told us the Taleban had a duty to impose Islamic law wherever they could, because the government had failed to do so.

"We've waited 60 years for the police to stop un-Islamic behaviour," he said. "Now we've been forced to do their job."

Government protection

The week-long siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad propelled this Taleban-ised form of Islam into the headlines, with the country shocked by its violent conclusion.

Pakistani students carrying spears and bamboo sticks
Masked Islamic students guarded the Red Mosque in Islamabad

Yet the clerics running the mosque's madrassa, or Islamic school, clearly struck a chord with the students and their parents, as they did in the remoter tribal regions.

Of course, the young people in the mosque and their families were pious, conservative people who implicitly trusted religious leaders. But it was more than that.

I was struck by the reaction of a father outside the barricades during the siege.

He was beside himself with worry over his daughters, aged 10 and 14. They had told him they were willing to stay and be martyred with their teachers.

But he was also furious with the army.

"This country only protects the elite," he said. "The security agencies are just protecting the president and the government, not the common people."

Taking control

It was into that strong sense of injustice and inequality which the clerics also tapped.

Some accept the Taleban as purveyors of a rough justice in the absence of any other sort

That was the line of the mosque's media-savvy deputy leader, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who was killed in the army raid.

"Ours is an Islamic system that takes action where the state fails to act," he had told me. "The system of government in Pakistan doesn't work. It's corrupt, and the people are tired of it."

His vigilante students not only kidnapped alleged prostitutes, they also championed the case of rape victims whose attackers were wealthy, powerful and above the law.

That is the message then. The government is not working, the rule of law is crumbling, so the Taleban are trying to seize power by force.

A restless population

President Musharraf says the government cannot tolerate such a challenge to its rule.

President Musharraf
The president insists he is presiding over a democracy

The weakness of his argument, of course, is that he seized power by force, in a military coup.

At the time he also said he was rescuing the country, that the civilian government had brought Pakistan to the brink of ruin.

At first liberal democrats welcomed him. They were tired of their inept civilian leaders.

Now though, they are tired of their autocratic rulers.

And in the tribal areas, some accept the Taleban as purveyors of a rough justice, in the absence of any other sort.

The president insists he is presiding over a democracy, pointing to Pakistan's civilian institutions, like parliament.

But his liberal critics accuse him of concentrating power in his own hands and marginalising moderate political parties.

The political vacuum has been filled by religious extremists, they argue.

At the Red Mosque, force was used to quell these radical Islamists.

But as I wandered through the blackened, battle-scarred remains of the madrassa, it was evident to me there could be no military solution to Pakistan's problems.

Yet more and more Pakistanis are asking whether there can be anything else while a general sits in the president's chair.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 14 July, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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