Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf has portrayed himself as a staunch ally in the fight against terrorism and a foe of religious extremism. However, a recently issued report by an independent monitoring group charges the Pakistani leader has done little to rein in hard-line Islamic radicals.
In the report, titled Unfulfilled Promises: Pakistan's Failure to Tackle Extremism, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group says President Musharraf's actions have not matched his rhetoric.
The report, which was issued last week, says Mr. Musharraf has not followed through on his promises to reform the controversial Islamic religious schools. Many of the schools, called madrassas, are viewed as breeding grounds for terrorism because of the extremist brand of Islam taught in them. The radical Taleban movement that once ruled neighboring Afghanistan had its birth in the madrassas of Pakistan.
In January 2002, Mr. Musharraf outlined a series of measures to regulate the madrassas and bring them back into mainstream education. Robert Templer, the Asia director of the International Crisis Group, says the reforms never took place.
"Well, we found that despite promises that the Pakistani government would control madrassas by registering them and reforming the curriculum or what people are taught in these schools," he said, "in actual fact very little has happened in the past two years, and not just in the area of madrassas, but also in financing extremist groups and also in the freedom in which these extremist groups operate within Pakistan."
Mr. Templer says that while Mr. Musharraf tries to placate the West with his pledge to crack down on extremism, he is also reliant on religious parties to maintain his power.
Last Saturday, Mr. Musharraf gave a speech to parliament in which he called for a jihad, or holy war, against extremism. The speech drew boos and sparked a walkout by members of the Islamic parties.
Asked about that negative reaction, Mr. Templer says the hardline Islamists are bitter about any attempts to rein them in and seek even more government support for their activities. But he adds the religious parties have worked with Mr. Musharraf to help the president neutralize the secular political parties that ruled Pakistan during most of the 1990s.
"What they want is a much more full-bore sort of support for this Islamic jihad that emanates from Pakistan," he said. "Now to a certain degree he's been unable to do that. So they're critical of him on one hand for not doing enough. On the other hand, they've actually worked quite closely with him on a number of political amendments to the constitution, and in terms of consolidating their own rule at the state level in Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province. So it's a slightly contradictory situation, a very dangerous one in some ways because of this delicate balancing act that Musharraf has been trying to play."
Despite repeated requests, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, could not be reached to directly comment on the International Crisis Group's report. But in a recent speech in Washington, he defended the Musharraf government's approach to the madrassa reform issue.
"We're trying to do this on a voluntary basis as far as is possible," he said. "We're bringing in laws, though, which will have to be adhered [to], so it's not entirely voluntary. They will have to sort of, you know, abide by those laws. But we are doing it through persuasion. And we're meeting with a positive response, even though the rate of progress sometimes in slow."
Mr. Qazi reiterated that the government is determined to deal with political or religious extremism.
"But we're certainly determined that no madrassas are going to be the source of any kind of extremism because we're determined to sort of, you know, confront extremism of all stripes, whether political, sectarian, religious, whatever," he said.
He pointed out that the government has just approved a series of new projects to reform madrassas and integrate them into the regular educational system.