Outside editorial

Mr. Musharraf speaks

Posted: Tuesday, January 15, 2002

The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

The bold televised address by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf over the weekend has been measured first by its impact on India, which has massed a half-million troops on Pakistan's border and threatens to go to war. Mr. Musharraf condemned recent terrorist attacks on the Indian parliament and a state assembly, banned five Pakistan-based extremist groups, and said "no organization will be allowed to indulge in terrorism in the name of Kashmir," a territory governed mainly by India, where Pakistan has been supporting a violent insurrection. The Indian reaction has been tempered; government spokesmen have cautiously welcomed Mr. Musharraf's words and have suggested they will give him some time to follow them with action. Though the situation on the border remains tense, the likelihood of war has diminished, at least for the time being.

Mr. Musharraf's speech also contained a breakthrough of potentially deeper consequence over time. Drawing on the momentum of the successful U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, and his own previous steps against extremists, Pakistan's president passionately denounced the radical Islamic ideology that fuels terrorism in his country and around the Muslim world. He pledged to root out not just terrorists targeted by India or the West but preachers, schools and other institutions that foment religious intolerance. "The day of reckoning has come," he declared; rather than allowing Pakistan to become "a theocratic state," he would fashion an alternative: "a progressive and dynamic Islamic welfare state," where religious diversity is respected, secular education promoted, and economic development pursued through trade and foreign investment.

The importance of that agenda, if Mr. Musharraf forcefully pursues it, can hardly be overstated: It would not only reverse Pakistan's drift in recent years toward tolerance of Islamic militancy but would also provide an alternative vision to that of governments who arrest militants but ignore or even support their ideology. Arab governments that say they back the U.S. war on terrorism, and are themselves targets of groups such as Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida, have done little to counter extremist versions of Islam -- much less offer a competing vision of tolerance and modernization. Like the extremists, these regimes might be threatened by what Mr. Musharraf seems to have in mind: education that includes science and math as well as religion, and girls as well as boys; jihad against "illiteracy, poverty, backwardness and hunger," rather than Israel or the West; and a governing system based on political and economic freedom, rather than military rule or Islamic law.

The war on terrorism will never be won unless the political program articulated by Mr. Musharraf is successful in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Islamic world. That's why it makes sense for the Bush administration to publicly endorse the president's agenda as strongly as it has, while quietly pressing him to carry it through. It won't be easy; there will be strong opposition from the militants in Pakistan, and maybe from parts of Mr. Musharraf's own army, which has trained and supported them in the past. Mr. Musharraf himself took power through a military coup, and has yet to prove he is serious about elections. Further provocations by the terrorists, or an attack by India, could destroy his effort before it starts. Yet, as the war shifts and deepens following the first phase of Afghanistan, Mr. Musharraf has taken the lead on what may be its most important front.

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