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We are hostages of Taliban, says Pakistan leader

We are hostages of Taliban, says Pakistan leader

Author: Esther Oxford
Publication: The Independent
Date: April 29, 2001

Pakistan's military leader General Pervez Musharraf has declared that 99 per cent of the country is being "held hostage" by religious extremists who constitute just one per cent of the population. That has caused concern among diplomats and politicians in the West, fearful of a "Talibanised" Pakistan.

Their fears were confirmed by Pakistan's hosting a conference for 1.2 million Islamic fundamentalists, during which the Taliban leader Mullah Omar addressed a rapturous crowd via a tape-recording, and the Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden wrote a letter urging them to throw their support behind the Taliban. Chants of "Koon Bachai Ga Pakistan, Taliban! Taliban!" ("Who will protect Pakistan? The Taliban!") could be heard several miles away.

Fundamentalists accuse the general of betraying Pakistan's "Islamic dream" with his liberal policies on women and refusal to implement Shariah law. Liberals say he is "pandering to religious forces" by not curbing extremists who take the law into their own hands.

Pakistan was the birthplace of the Taliban. Camps for Afghan refugees have acted as recruiting grounds for extremists since the Afghan-Soviet war. In 1996 Pakistan exported this "student militia" to Afghanistan, where they seized power. Now the movement has been re-exported. Pakistani villages on the border with Afghanistan have become Talibanised. Television and music are banned, women are obliged to wear the all-enveloping burkas, and men to sport beards. An estimated 5,000 madrassas (religious schools) provide a Taliban education to Pakistan's children.

In public, General Musharraf distances himself from the Taliban. "They are fiercely independent", he told Herald magazine, a Pakistani weekly. "We are certainly not for their thoughts on gender issues. I think we are a moderate Islamic country and 99 per cent of our population is moderate. "The unfortunate part is that this one per cent extremist element is holding the 99 per cent hostage."

But his key supporters, the army included, are conservative. They want to preserve the status quo "in the name of Islam". Yet instinctively General Musharraf is quite progressive. He has set aside 33 per cent of parliamentary seats for women and implemented literacy programmes to teach the disfranchised how to vote. He is also pragmatic: Pakistan needs recognition from the West if it is to attract investment and aid from overseas. So his stance on the Taliban remains undecided.

Two weeks ago he astonished the UN by sending a message of condolence to Mullah Omar on the death of his deputy, Mullah Mohammed Rabbani. The message said that Rabbani, one of the key players behind the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddahs, had been a "loyal friend of Pakistan". Just weeks before, General Musharraf had denounced the destruction of the Buddahs.

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