Gen Pervez Musharraf's liberal image is coming apart at the seams. Pakistan's chief executive suffered a setback when his government succumbed to pressure from fundamentalist parties over proposed changes in the controversial Blasphemy Law. And it was a strike - the first large-scale protest against the junta - called by the religious parties that forced Musharraf to backtrack. He now intends inviting the right-wing parties for talks on their demands which include declaring Friday a weekly holiday and incorporating a number of laws pertaining to religion in the Provisional Constitutional Order (pco), which was enforced soon after Musharraf assumed power.
Musharraf's climbdown came after Pakistan's major cities witnessed a complete shutdown in response to a strike called by the Milli Yakjehti Council - an alliance of religious parties - on May 19. The strike coincided with the three-day small traders' strike against the proposed general sales tax. Musharraf, while claiming that he won't be cowed by such pressure tactics, also seems to be scared of the "Pakistani Taliban". Perhaps prompted by this fear, he sought to allay right-wing hostility while visiting the residence of Sunni religious leader, Maulana Yosuf Ludhianvi, who was assassinated in Karachi on May 22. "I'm the first head of state to make the US understand the difference between jehad and terrorism. Those fighting for Islam are freedom fighters," the general told the condolence gathering.
The Maulana's murder sparked off yet another wave of sectarian killings in the metropolis which the government seemed incapable of stopping. "The government has arrested many political persons without any charges, but they could not arrest those burning petrol pumps, attacking newspaper offices and threatening people of the other sect," says Nisar Khusro, the ppp's Sindh president. This inability to contain the extremists is being seen as part of Musharraf's gradual retreat from his earlier liberal stance. He first withdrew his claim of ushering in an era of "Ataturkism" and then stopped operations against 'deeni madaris' (religious schools) allegedly providing arms training to recruits. He'd also proposed a change in the system of registration of firs for blasphemy after allegations that the existing procedure had been misused by extremists. But later he reneged and restored the old practice under which a Muslim can go to a police station and book anyone under the Blasphemy Law without evidence.
"Musharraf's biggest setback came when, despite his volte-face on the blasphemy issue, the religious parties went ahead with their strike," says Prof Sajjid of Karachi University. The strike established that while the religious parties can barely manage two per cent of seats in the elections, they can harness tremendous street power - what with over 3,000 such madrasas existing in Karachi alone. "The madaris culture is nothing new but it took a different turn in the post-Afghan war era. Now they're a potent force as witnessed on May 18 and 19, when thousands of bearded young men went on a rampage raising slogans for Taliban rule," says former parliamentarian Mir Hasil Bizenjo.
But then, almost every Pakistani ruler has come under threat once they decided to challenge the fundamentalists. One of the reasons behind the policy of confrontation adopted by the religious parties, particularly the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (jui), is to block all attempts to regulate the 'deeni madaris'. "Time and again we've told the authorities that none of these madaris give any arms training. But if they attempt to enter our places they'll face resistance," says jui leader Qari Afzal. Says Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani, chief of the religious alliance, "The campaign against 'deeni madaris' has been launched on the directives of the Americans who're scared of Islamic forces. The strike should be an eye-opener for the military ruler and we hope they'll not attempt to touch or remove Islamic laws in the Constitution."
Observers believe the next three months are crucial for the junta. While the religious parties seem to be Musharraf's natural ally in his fight against Nawaz Sharif and Benazir (both of whom are likely to be disqualified from contesting elections), Musharraf's problem is that in the process he may entirely lose his liberal image. "Whatever concessions he gives to the fundamentalists, the latter have their own agenda and Musharraf isn't a fit person for them," says a retired general. Liberalism, it seems, may well have to be put on hold.