Pakistan is making concessions to religious extremists. What’s the cost?

The Washington Post reports: In the past 10 days, two dramatic events — the government’s capitulation to a violent protest by radical Muslims and the release from house arrest of an anti-India militia leader — have crystallized the sway that hard line Muslim groups increasingly hold in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state whose military leaders claim to be fighting extremist violence.

The freeing of Hafiz Saeed, a Islamist cleric accused of masterminding a deadly rampage in Mumbai nine years ago, came as no surprise. Although denounced as a terrorist by the United Nations and the United States, Saeed enjoys a large following in Pakistan as a fiery champion of Muslim rights in Kashmir, the disputed border region with India. He has been repeatedly detained and released by the courts, a sign of Pakistan’s often-contradictory efforts to secure both domestic Muslim loyalty and international support.

In contrast, the chaotic scenes in late November of angry Muslim demonstrators throwing stones at police near the capital, then rising up across the country to protest a minor change in an electoral law, shocked the nation and raised the specter of mass religious unrest — a permanent worry in an impoverished nation of 207 million, 95 percent of whom are Muslim, most from the same Sunni branch as the protesters.

But the quick resolution of the problem also raised worrisome questions about the long-term capability of the Pakistani government, a fragile democracy whose prime minister was recently ousted, to push back against religious extremism and the risks of bringing in the powerful military to settle civilian disputes.

Saeed was released Nov. 24 after a provincial court found “insufficient evidence” to link him to the four-day Mumbai terror spree in 2008 that killed 164 people. This time, the court action came amid intense pressure from the Trump administration on Pakistan to prove it is not harboring Islamist militias. It also met with especially sharp denunciations from India, an archrival whose Hindu nationalist prime minister has developed a warm relationship with the new administration in Washington.

American officials demanded that Saeed — who was detained in January under U.S. pressure — be arrested again. The U.S. Embassy here expressed “serious concerns” over his release and charged that his now-disbanded militia, Lashkar-e-Taiba, was responsible for the deaths of “hundreds of innocent civilians” in numerous terrorist attacks. Six victims in the Mumbai bombing and shooting attack, which Indian and U.S. officials believe was carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba commandos, were U.S. citizens.

In Pakistan, though, Saeed remains a force to be reckoned with and a political survivor who has continually reinvented his movement, changing its name and founding a charitable offshoot that helps people in emergencies. In October, after years of denouncing electoral politics, he also formed a political party, and its candidate performed better than expected in a race for parliament. After he was released, he triumphantly returned to his Friday pulpit in Lahore and demanded that his name be removed from the U.N. sanctions list.

While Saeed’s supporters were celebrating his return to the public arena, a tense drama was playing out in the capital between another religious firebrand and government security forces. The confrontation that erupted early on Nov. 25 quickly escalated into a nationwide protest surge and ended 24 hours later in triumph for the protesters and embarrassment for the government, which accepted virtually all of their demands. [Continue reading…]

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