Pakistani clerics back government offensive, denounce Taliban tactics

McClatchy NewspapersMay 19, 2009 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani religious leaders and scholars Tuesday issued a strong denunciation of the tactics of Taliban militants, providing what could be major boost to the country's U.S.-backed battle against Islamic extremism.

The high-profile convention of clerics in the Pakistani capital was the second in three days to condemn suicide attacks and beheadings, two of the Taliban's favored tactics, as "haram," or contrary to Islam.

Both conventions also supported the Pakistani military offensive against Taliban in Swat and two adjoining districts, although almost all the clerics share the militants' goal of establishing Islamic law in Pakistan.

Pakistani public opinion has turned against religious extremists over the last few weeks, and if that shift is durable, it could prove to be a significant setback to the Taliban and their al Qaida allies, not just in Pakistan but also in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf and elsewhere in the Islamic world.

The shift, coupled with intense pressure from Washington and a more sober assessment of the threat posed by the militants, appears to have roused the government of President Asif Ali Zardari.

Zardari has said that Pakistan would extend its military offensive to Waziristan, the area along the Afghan border that's a base for Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, and also for al Qaida. That would trigger a major conflict, in which the support of the clergy could be vital.

However, the plight of the more the than 1 million people who've been displaced by the military offensive could turn opinion against the government again, and the Obama administration Tuesday pledged an additional $110 million in humanitarian aid to support international efforts to provide food, water, tents, radios, generators and local grain.

The displaced "are going to be absolutely a litmus test for us," said Nasim Ashraf, a former Pakistani minister in charge of human development now at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. If not given sufficient help, "these same refugees in two months' time, they will become our enemies," he said.

Announcing the additional U.S. aid, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was "encouraged by the very strong positions" across the Pakistani political spectrum in support of the military operations.

The $100 million from the State Department and $10 million from the Defense Department are in addition to $60 million in humanitarian aid the U.S. has provided since last August, and separate from a $1.5 billion aid request before Congress.

The U.S. also will help Pakistan launch a text-messaging system to deliver alerts about assistance to Pakistanis who've fled the region. "We know that a lot of the Pakistanis who are being displaced by the conflict have cell phones," Clinton said.

A deeply religious people, Pakistanis tend to take guidance from senior clerics, and their previous ambivalence and confusion about Islamic extremism rose in part from the clergy's silence or from denials that Muslims could have perpetrated acts of violence against civilians.

At the two religious conventions, however, there was even criticism of the Pakistani military's past patronage of jihadist groups.

"We are now harvesting the crop we sowed three decades ago," Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman told a lively convention of some 4,000 clerics on Sunday, referring to the policy of backing Afghan "mujahedeen" guerrillas in the 1980s under U.S.-backed dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq.

Khalid Zaheer, the director of education at al-Mawrid, an independent group that promotes research on Islam, said the clerics were shaken into going public by the pronouncements of the Swat Taliban's political interlocutor, Sufi Mohammad, whose position has grown increasingly extreme. On the eve of the military operation, Mohammad denounced democracy and the Pakistani constitution as contrary to Islam.

"They (the clerics) have come together after a pretty long while, in the meantime, it was pretty unclear what they stood for," said Zaheer. "But you can't say the Ulema (clerics) are condemning everything the Taliban stand for. They're condemning the fact that the local population was subjected to murder (by the Taliban), that soldiers were killed. But the fact that women were prevented from coming out of their homes is something that would probably delight many of them."

"We want to give the clear picture of Islamic to the world, that Islam has nothing to do with extremism, Islam has nothing to do with militancy, Islam is a religion of peace and love," said Hanif Tayyeb, one of the organizers of both events and a former petroleum minister, in an interview.

Sunday's meeting was organized by clerics from the Barelvi sect, the dominant Islamic school in South Asia, a Sunni creed that preaches a tolerant brand of religion but whose voice is often drowned out by firebrands from more radical sects.

Tuesday's conference was sponsored by the government and involved broader participation, including from Shiites, Pakistan's other main Islamic denomination, and even some clerics from the Deobandi school, a branch of the Taliban that preaches a purist Islam akin to the Wahabi faith of Osama bin Laden.

While the majority of Pakistanis are Barelvi, the Deobandis run most of the madrassas — Islamic schools — that churn out religious scholars and foot soldiers for the Taliban and other extreme religious groups.

In Washington, U.S. defense officials said they began preparing humanitarian aid for Pakistan more than a week ago as nearly 2 million people began fleeing their homes. However, the military couldn't begin sending food, water and tents until the State Department received an official request from the Pakistani government, and that didn't come until Friday, two officials told McClatchy.

Clinton, briefing reporters at the White House, indicated that Obama wants to maintain a low profile for the U.S. military while conveying Americans' involvement. She said that U.S. military "will be delivering a lot of these supplies, but they'll be handing them off to the Pakistani military and to the relief groups.

She urged individual Americans to donate $5 apiece to United Nations refugee efforts in Pakistan by using their own cell phones to text "swat" to the number 20222. "We don't want this just to be government-to-government," she said. "We want Americans weighing in to try to help, and we think this does that."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Talev reported from Washington. Nancy A. Youssef and Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article from Washington.)

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