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Earthquake Galvanizes Pakistani Islamists

When a massive earthquake struck South Asia last month, many Pakistanis criticized the government's relief efforts as sluggish. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports from Washington, humanitarian efforts by militant Muslim groups in the afflicted region have helped solidify the political gains of Islamic radicals in Pakistan.

The earthquake, which the Pakistan government says killed more 73,000 people and injured 69,000 more, shook not only the geological fault line, but rippled across Pakistan politics as well.

Much as the U.S. government was criticized for its slow response to Hurricane Katrina in August, so too was the government of President Pervez Musharraf criticized for its sluggish reaction to the quake.

Pakistan Human Rights Commission Chairman Asma Jehangir points out militant Islamic groups operating in the Kashmir region were among the first on the scene with food and blankets for the shell-shocked victims.

"They were in the forefront of giving relief to the people," said Ms. Jehangir. "They were the first ones there, and they were in the forefront. People had rightly praised them that they were there when we needed them. And they asked the question, where was our military? Where was our government?"

To be sure, the earthquake was a huge event that would strain any government, and massive international aid was needed to assist the relief and recovery effort. Nevertheless, Ms. Jehangir says, the rapid response of the Islamic militant groups has helped them politically.

"It does amaze me that this had happened. And the absence of government made me fearful because if a government becomes dysfunctional, and there is no replacement for it except organized groups of militant Islamists, people will have no option but to depend on them," explained Ms. Jehangir.

President Musharraf, an army general who took power in a coup in 1999, is the unelected head of the government, but his rule is not that of a classic military dictator. There is, for example, still a robustly free press.

But as Larry Robinson, a recently retired diplomat last posted as the U.S. Embassy political counselor in Islamabad, says, human-rights abuses continue. "It is a highly dysfunctional society and a place where, very famously, democracy just has not seemed to work," said Mr. Robinson. "It is a place with probably more different kinds of serious human-rights abuses in a more open environment, a more open society, than anywhere else in the world."

Although a Muslim country, Pakistan has always had a strong secular streak, particularly among the well-educated members of the elite. But religious parties, many of whom sympathize with Islamic militants, have shown a surprising growth in political clout in recent years, particularly in the poorer border provinces of the Northwest Frontier and Balochistan.

The Pakistani-run part of Kashmir, which was hardest hit by the quake, is also home to armed militant groups mounting attacks across a decades-old cease-fire line into Indian Kashmir with, India charges, Pakistani government support. Pakistan denies the charge.

These groups are in broad sympathy with al-Qaida. President Musharraf's decision to ally himself with the United States in its bid to root out remnants of the Taleban and the al-Qaida terrorist organization in Afghanistan and in Pakistan's border areas has displeased the legal religious parties and the armed militant groups alike.

Mr. Robinson notes that many of those Islamist militant groups, including the Taleban and al-Qaida, have their roots in the U.S.-led proxy war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

"We as Americans have to take a much close look at our own role in encouraging the development of the concept of jihad," he said. "We did it because we thought it would be unidirectional, that it would be focused only on our shared enemy of the 'godless Communists.' We did not think enough about the possibility that it could boomerang on us. We were all in it together: the U.S., Pakistan, Saudi Arabia in particular. We are all in it together."

Ms. Jehangir, an avowed secularist and Musharraf critic, says she understands how Pakistanis who feel mistreated or neglected by President Musharraf and his government might turn to Islamic militancy as an alternative.

"In fact, he has made a system which is already stinking into a worse stinking system," added Ms. Jehangir. "And if General Musharraf is the answer for the United States as a reformer of Pakistan, then honestly I must look towards Allah."

Pakistan's main alliance of Islamic religious parties has voiced opposition to any U.S. or NATO role in earthquake relief.