June 13, 2007 / 1:24 PM / 11 years ago

Pakistan "Taliban" bombs shops in morality bid

CHARSADDA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Farmanullah Khan was asleep safe and sound at home when a bomb in the middle of the night ripped through his small music and video store in a northwestern Pakistani town, and destroyed his livelihood.

A man purchases a CD from a shop in Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province (NWFP), in this June 9, 2007 file photo. Militants whose brand of Islam is cut from the same mould as Afghanistan's Taliban movement have targeted Charsadda. Around 22 music shops have been bombed in recent months in Charsadda, forcing around half of the 100 such shops in the area to close down. Similar things have been happening across the province in recent months, barbers are being threatened against shaving beards, girls are being warned against going to schools without observing purdah or Islamic veils.To match feature PAKISTAN-TALIBANISATION/ REUTERS/Ali Imam/Files (PAKISTAN)

Khan was warned in a letter, pushed under the shop’s shutters on March 23, that he had a month to close down his business.

It was signed “Islamic Taliban”. A week after the deadline expired, they struck, bombing his store and two others nearby.

“I did not take this warning serious because such a thing has never happened in Charsadda,” the dejected Khan said, as he sat among the wrecked shelves and racks, surrounded by glum-faced friends and fellow shop-keepers.

Charsadda is the home town of the late Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Pashtun politician revered as the “Frontier Gandhi” for his non-violent opposition to British colonial rule.

These days the little town set among farm land and orchards some 20 km (12 miles) northeast of Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province, is facing the onslaught of an entirely different political creed.

Militants whose brand of Islam is cut from the same mould as Afghanistan’s Taliban movement have targeted Charsadda.

Around 22 music shops have been bombed in recent months in Charsadda, forcing around half of the 100 such shops in the area to close down.

Similar things have been happening across the province in recent months, barbers are being threatened against shaving beards, girls are being warned against going to schools without observing purdah or Islamic veils.

The culture spreading out of the ethnic Pashtun tribal lands on the Afghan border, has been dubbed “Talibanisation” by the Pakistani media.

PAYING THE PRICE

The militants want to destabilise President Pervez Musharraf because he abandoned support for the Taliban in 2001, and has since helped the United States hunt al Qaeda and fight the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

Peshawar has borne the brunt, suffering a wave of bomb attacks over the past nine months.

On April 28, Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, who comes from a nearby village, narrowly survived a suicide attack that killed 28 others at a political party meeting in Charsadda.

Engulfed by a political crisis brought on by the suspension of the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Musharraf has warned his political allies that they had better support him as his leadership is crucial to turning the Taliban tide.

“The militants must be taken head on,” Musharraf told a meeting of the National Security Council this month.

Critics, however, say Musharraf’s political strategy has produced fertile ground for “Talibanisation”, by marginalising liberal parties like the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party, and allowing Islamist parties led by mullahs to prosper.

A highly conservative region, militancy took root in NWFP after the United States and Saudi Arabia funnelled in arms and money for Islamist fighters to wage war on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

“All this is the fallout of our flawed Afghan policy. I had warned the government in the parliament in 1990s against backing the Taliban,” said Senator Asfandyar Wali, the ANP president, and grandson of the venerated Pashtun statesman.

“I had told them it would result in Talibanisation of tribal areas and NWFP and it is happening,” said Wali.

TOO CLOSE TO HOME

In some remote parts of the province, radical clerics are running private FM radio stations to propagate their teachings.

But it is not necessary to travel so far to find evidence of the growing influence of mullahs preaching militant Islam.

Pakistanis have been shocked by the government’s failure to confront the followers of two such clerics at Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in the heart of the capital, Islamabad.

Over the past few months these followers have kidnapped policemen, persuaded music store owners to shut shop, and threatened to unleash a suicide bombing campaign if the government tries to break up their movement.

Musharraf, giving a lecture to some of the capital’s elite at a private function this month, explained his reluctance to use force at Lal Masjid because more than half of the 4,000 or so religious students in the compound were women and girls.

There were weapons and explosives in the compound, and the authorities gave credence to the suicide bomb threats, he said.

“I’m not used to such humiliation,” General Musharraf said.

There are plenty of Pakistanis, however, who believe the Lal Masjid stand-off has been contrived to scare people and build Musharraf’s image as the nation’s protector.

They also believe that Pakistan’s ubiquitous security agencies could really stifle “Talibanisation” if it really suited their purpose.

“They have been talking of strong action against radicals for long. But they have not yet taken anyone and I don’t see any concrete policy by the government, so far, to tackle this problem,” Rahimullah Yusufzai, a journalist and expert on tribal affairs said.

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