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The ‘Talibanization’ of Pakistan’s Biggest City

By Richard Engel
NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent
September 30, 2008

KARACHI, Pakistan — In the back of a jeep driving through Karachi, a sign on the wall of the citys famous “Village Restaurant” caught my eye. It was just a little piece of frayed white paper plastered next to the restaurant’s much bigger logo, tempting customers to “Experience the Exotic of Traditional Dining.”

But the printed sign expressed an increasingly urgent plea in this teeming port city, once Pakistan’s capital: “Save your city from Talibanization,” it said in English.

But could the Taliban really be taking over Karachi? Karachi is Pakistan’s biggest city, far from the lawless tribal hinterland along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Out there, Taliban and al-Qaida militants have carved out an independent state. In the mountains, militants have their own courts and even issue licenses to local business. Last week in the tribal area, the Taliban publicly executed a group accused of murders. …

U.S. military and intelligence officials consider that border area to be the world’s biggest, most dangerous safe haven for Taliban and al-Qaida fighters. Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and nearly all of their deputies have been based, and may still be based, in this often impassible mountain terrain.

But I was in Karachi, a giant city on the Indian Ocean. If Karachi is being ‘Talibanized,’ Pakistan is in real trouble, and so is everyone else. …

Growing radicalism

We were headed to a neighborhood in west Karachi where I had been told al-Qaida and Taliban militants had established a safe haven. Many Pakistanis make little distinction between al-Qaida and the Taliban. Both want to destabilize Pakistan and Afghanistan, establish an even bigger base of operations and spread their aggressive, intolerant vision of Islamic law.

The majority of people in Karachi want no part of it. Karachi is Pakistan’s cultural capital, the center of the nation’s fashion, high-tech and media industries. But that Karachi is under siege.

After about 30 minutes in traffic, our jeep arrived at the office of a local contact in a slum in west Karachi. Fearing for his safety, he didn’t want to be identified. I’ll call him Malik. …

“It is too dangerous,” he said. “The Talibans have their checkpoints, bunkers and snipers. At night, they patrol, sometimes on horses. They are always coming out with their weapons and RPGs intimidating people.”

Malik said radicals have been flooding into Karachi since this spring, moving in from the border region. The border region is now a warzone, under attack by the Pakistani military and, controversially here, by U.S. drones and Special Operations Forces (SOF) that carry out raids from bases in neighboring Afghanistan.

The Pakistani and U.S. military offensives have killed hundreds of militants, but scattered many more. Increasingly, they are settling in Karachi. Estimates of Karachi’s population range from 12 to 18 million. …

Karachi, Pakistan street.
Empty street in Karachi, Pakistan. (Photo: NBC News)

‘God willing, we will fight them’

Former President Pervez Musharraf promised to reform and regulate Pakistan’s hard-line madrassas [Islamic schools]. It never happened.  According to Karachi’s former mayor Farooq Sattar, there are now more than 2,000 illegal madrassas in Karachi alone. …

“What do you think of the Taliban and their influence here?” More blank stares.

[I asked the students at one madrassa] “What do you think about the U.S. incursions?” …

“God willing, we will fight them,” said one teenager with a purple scar on his chin. “They are the enemy,” he said and launched into a long explanation of America’s goal to occupy Muslim lands and undermine Islam. I’ve heard the same speech from Cairo to Lebanon, Baghdad to Riyadh. …

Full story


1/7/11 Update

In Pakistan Today, ‘Anyone Could Shoot You’

Image: Islamic fundamentalist rally in Manshera, Pakistan (Photo: Aqeel Ahmed / AP)
This rally in Manshera, Pakistan, was staged Friday, Jan. 7, 2011 to demand the release of the bodyguard who killed liberal Gov. Salman Taseer. One rights activist forecast that at the rate Islamist groups are rising, a religious party could be ruling the country in 10 to 15 years. (Photo credit: Aqeel Ahmed / AP)

By Nahal Toosi

January 7, 2011

ISLAMABAD — A 60-year-old university administrator in the southern port city of Karachi is wistful as he recalls the more tolerant, freewheeling Pakistan of his youth.

Once, when a teacher suggested no book can be perfect, the boy asked if that included Islam’s holy book, the Quran. That sparked a candid class discussion about religion. But in today’s Pakistan, Muqtida Mansoor said he would never dare to ask the question in public.

After all, “anyone could shoot you.”

Days after the assassination of Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, one of the few politicians openly challenging the onslaught of religious extremism, Pakistani moderates are facing a new and troubling reality: Pakistan is a country where fundamentalism is becoming mainstream, leaving even less room for dissent, difference and many once-prevalent leisures such as public music, dance parties or other social contact between the sexes.

More liberal-minded Pakistanis have been left with a profound sense of loss, alienation and fear for the future. One rights activist forecast that at the rate Islamist groups are rising, a religious party could be ruling the country in 10 to 15 years.

The transformation is particularly disheartening for many younger Pakistanis.

“There is no concept of freedom of speech in this country,” said Aaisha Aslam, 25, who works for a non-governmental organization. People with fanatic mindsets are “out to snatch this country from us.”

The poles have shifted so much that it was not just bearded students from religious seminaries who this week praised the suspected killer of a politician who opposed blasphemy laws. Some religious scholars who oppose the Taliban also joined in — and lawyers showered him with rose petals. …

Mumtaz Qadri, who allegedly killed Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, sits in a police van in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011. (Photo credit: Irfan Ali / AP)

Well before Tuesday’s killing of Taseer, Pakistan’s liberals had grown increasingly cautious about speaking out for minority protections, women’s rights and other causes. Activists who once publicly advocated repealing the blasphemy laws — which mandate death for those deemed to have insulted Islam or the Quran — are now willing to settle for mere amendments. …

Some Pakistanis are frustrated with what they perceive as a lack of Western support for their causes. They complain of receiving little more than lip service from the U.S., which is dependent on Pakistan’s aid to turn around the war in neighboring Afghanistan and eliminate Taliban and al-Qaida hideouts on its soil. …

Islamists in Pakistan have flourished in part because governments have failed to provide for people’s needs, such as in education and health care. Islamists fill the gap through their welfare organizations, clinics, mosques, religious seminaries and other networks. The impoverished masses then support their philosophies and political activities.

It doesn’t help that those in Pakistan’s small, liberal, secular wing tend to be wealthier and more educated than most Pakistanis, a cultural divide that is hard to bridge, said Burzine Waghmar, who teaches about Pakistan at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

And so many liberals are increasingly nostalgic for the past, before the 1980s rule of army Gen. Zia ul-Haq. Zia, a fundamentalist Muslim, infused Islam into everything from school textbooks to the legal code — including pushing through harsh blasphemy laws and statutes that treated rape victims as adulterers. …

The Islamization has accelerated since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Although Pakistan’s government officially abandoned its alliance with Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, the U.S.-led invasion in the neighboring nation was viewed by many as an attack on the Muslim world. Thousands now routinely show up for anti-U.S. rallies.

In cosmopolitan centers such as Karachi, far more women now wear face veils than in years past. Girls as young as 6 or 7 are wearing headscarves, said Roland DeSouza, a Christian who is a partner in an engineering firm. “That stuff you didn’t see 10 years ago,” he said.

Even in the northwest, which is dominated by ethnic Pashtuns and their conservative culture, life used to be more free. Men would take their wives to the movies, and musicians were routinely hired to perform at weddings. Pakistani Taliban threats and attacks have changed that.

“People were a bit conservative in our province, but still there were opportunities for entertainment, and there was no concept of extremism,” said Zahir Shah, 70, a retired teacher.

Secular-minded political parties have aided the change by kowtowing to Islamists to stay in power. …

In recent years, hundreds of minority Shiite Muslims and non-Muslims such as Christians have been killed by Islamist extremists. On May 29, 2010, nearly 100 members of the Ahmadi sect were gunned down in a massacre.

“Muslims and Christians used to live peacefully. We used to attend each other’s functions. We used to go to churches. They used to visit us on Eid” — Muslim holidays, recalled Ali Muhammad, 65, a retired banker.

The drift toward a more extremist Pakistan has occurred with little interference and sometimes quiet support from outside Pakistan.

The U.S., determined to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980s, propped up Zia and gave him money to fund the mujaheedeen fighters whose descendants now form the Taliban. U.S.-allied Saudi Arabia also has poured in funds to Pakistan, establishing religious schools, mosques and organizations that teach Wahabism, the Saudis’ hardline brand of Islam.

In 2002, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf brought the religious parties into political power in two provinces for the first time in Pakistan’s history by making a degree from a religious school equal to that from a university, thereby qualifying more candidates for office.

With the exception of Musharraf’s era, Islamist parties have had limited success at the ballot box. But at this rate a religious party could be the ruling party within 10 to 15 years, said I.A. Rahman, a human rights activist.

For now, they have enough street power that the ruling People’s Party recently insisted it would not touch the blasphemy laws, and many officials who condemned Taseer’s assassination stopped short of criticizing the harsh laws he died for opposing. …


‘An act of true moral heroism’ (MSNBC, Jan. 4, 2011) — TRMS guest host Chris Hayes pays tribute to Salmaan Taseer, governor of the Punjab, Pakistan, who spoke out against Islamic extremism in his country, knowing that doing so put his life in danger. (02:59)


1/10/11 Update

Thousands rally in Pakistan for blasphemy laws (AP, Jan. 9, 2011)

Image: Supporters of Pakistani religious parties
Supporters of Pakistani religious parties wave flags during a rally to protest against any attempts to modify blasphemy laws, in Karachi, Pakistan, on Sunday,  Jan. 9, 2011. Tens of thousands of demonstrators have marched in Pakistan’s largest city in opposition to any change to blasphemy laws and to praise the man charged with murdering the provincial governor who opposed the legislation. (Photo credit: Fareed Khan / AP)


3/3/11 Update

Pakistan Gunmen Kill Christian Politician

Image: Damaged car of slain Pakistani government minister for religious minorities
A paramilitary soldier examines the damaged car of slain Pakistan’s government minister for religious minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, outside the emergency ward of a local hospital in Islamabad, Pakistan, Wednesday, March 2, 2011. (Photo credit: Anjum Naveed / AP)

By Chris Brummitt and Nahal Toosi

March 2, 2011

ISLAMABAD — Militants gunned down the only Christian in Pakistan’s government outside his widowed mother’s home Wednesday, the second assassination in two months of a high-profile opponent of laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam.

Shahbaz Bhatti was aware of the danger he faced, saying in a videotaped message that he had received death threats from al-Qaida and the Taliban. In it, the 42-year-old Roman Catholic said he was “ready to die” for the country’s often persecuted Christian and other non-Muslim minorities.

The slaying in Islamabad followed the killing of Salman Taseer, a liberal politician who was gunned down in the capital by one of his guards. Both men had campaigned to change blasphemy laws in Pakistan that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam and have been loudly defended by Islamist political parties.

The Taseer slaying triggered fears the country was buckling under the weight of extremism, especially since the government, fearful of militants and the political parties that champion their causes, did not loudly condemn the killing or those who publicly celebrated it. …

Bhatti was hit with at least eight bullets and was dead on arrival at hospital.

In leaflets left at the scene, al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban Movement in Punjab province claimed responsibility. They blamed the government for putting Bhatti, an “infidel Christian,” in charge of an unspecified committee, apparently in reference to his support for changing the blasphemy laws. …

Image: Shahbaz Bhatti in 2007
Shahbaz Bhatti displays a threatening letter a Christian resident received in 2007. (Photo credit: Anjum Naveed / AP)

Full story


Another Brave Man Killed

Editorial Board

March 4, 2011 (p. A26)


Another courageous Pakistani official has been assassinated because he stood for tolerance. We increasingly despair over the hatred and extremism that has Pakistan in a death grip.

The official killed on Wednesday was Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister of minorities and the only Christian in the cabinet. Gunmen ambushed him outside his house in Islamabad. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility, saying he was punished for being a blasphemer.

Like Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab Province who was assassinated in January, Mr. Bhatti called for reform of Pakistan’s unconscionable blasphemy law, which imposes a mandatory death sentence on anyone convicted of insulting Islam. …

Mr. Taseer’s killer was extolled as a hero in rallies held by conservative religious parties. It was especially chilling that the killer’s defenders included lawyers who are supposedly devoted to the rule of law. …

Pakistan’s military and intelligence services are the country’s most powerful institutions. But they are obsessed with India and either blind to the extremist threat or in league with the extremists. They must bring Mr. Bhatti’s killers to justice, protect President Zardari and other officials and cut their ties with all groups that are clear enemies of their nation. …

Read the full editorial at the New York Times

3 Responses to “Pakistan’s #1 City ‘Talibanized’”
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