Umma Aman said she wanted to die for her God. She was sitting on a pile of sandbags, pressing wet rags to her eyes in an attempt to ease the effects of the clouds of tear gas billowing through her madrasah. Outside, gunfire echoed through the deserted streets of Islamabad as the Pakistani military battled militants holed up in the mosque next door. Aman, just 22, had wanted to fight alongside her brothers, as she called them, in defense of the Red Mosque and Jamia Hafsa madrasah complex that had been the conservative heartbeat of Pakistan's capital for decades. Draped in a black hijab that showed only her eyes, she rushed out of the seminary gate, clutching a bamboo stave and determined to do her part in the battle for God. She returned a few minutes later, dejected. That fight, the men said, was not for her. It was hard to tell if her tears sprang from frustration, or if they were caused by the stinging gas. "I am ready to give my life for Islam," she said. "I am praying to God to accept my martyrdom."
A few days later, her prayers were answered, according to the school's headmistress. Aman, together with some 70 other students and militants, died as the weeklong siege of the mosque and madrasah complex culminated in a final showdown lasting 36 hours. Few Pakistanis had supported the mosque-led vigilante campaign that kidnapped alleged brothel workers, threatened video and music shops selling "un-Islamic" material and declared a fatwa against the popular woman tourism minister who had been photographed hugging her parachute instructor. Still, the government's attack on the madrasah last July was widely condemned. The popularity of President Pervez Musharraf was already on the wane, and the perception that he sent Pakistani troops to kill fellow Muslims sealed his fate. Even though Musharraf, who was elected to a second presidential term in October under dubious circumstances, was not running in Pakistan's Feb. 18 general election, the defeat of his allies in parliament can in some part be attributed to nationwide outrage over his handling of the Red Mosque crisis seven months ago.
The Real War
As politicians wrestle to build new coalitions in the aftermath of the parliamentary polls, it would seem that the worst of Pakistan's struggles are over. With no party achieving a majority, the opposition will have to work together. If the Pakistan People's Party of the recently assassinated Benazir Bhutto can come to an agreement with Nawaz Sharif, the former Prime Minister who was overthrown by Musharraf in 1999, then the opposition may be able to muster the two-thirds of seats necessary to try to impeach the President. The election result is clearly a repudiation of Musharraf's eight years in power, but, perhaps more importantly for Pakistan's longer-term political future and development, it appears to be a rejection of fundamentalist Islam. The religious parties, which took 11.3% of the popular vote in the last ballot in 2002, have gone from 56 out of 272 elected seats in the National Assembly to just five, according to unofficial results; they were hurt by a partial boycott of the polls by Islamist candidates upset with Musharraf over the Red Mosque siege and his pro-U.S. stance, plus public perceptions, ironically, that those who did run were the President's men. The struggle against the forces of extremism will be long and hard, however. Because of the country's history and personality, it would be premature to declare victory.
Pakistan, made up of squabbling ethnic groups with several distinct languages and cultures, has long used Islam to cement a national identity. Those who speak for religion wield enormous influence over a nuclear-armed nation of 165 million that is a key U.S. ally in the global war on terror. This has prompted a race to define the country's founding principles. That contest culminated in the streets of Islamabad last spring when the female madrasah students launched their vigilante campaign against CD shops and massage parlors. "The government point of view is that we challenged the writ of the state, but we believe that the government is challenging the writ of God," says 16-year-old Asma Mazar, a classmate of Aman's who survived the siege. "Pakistan was born an Islamic state, so it is the duty of the government to stop these kind of illegal businesses. But if the government doesn't do its duty, it is up to the clerics or common Pakistanis to step in."
By and large, common Pakistanis see no need to do so. As was made clear in the election, they vote for the mainstream political parties that espouse moderate agendas. Many follow a peaceful, tolerant version of Sufism. Most of the country's educated élite wants to keep religion in the mosque and out of government. Yet when firebrand clerics such as Mullah Fazlullah, a militant leader who spews antigovernment diatribes from his pirate radio station, calls for jihad, threatens girls who go to school and boasts squadrons of suicide bombers ready to detonate explosives, the moderate mullahs stay silent. Virtually unhindered, al-Qaeda has regrouped in the ungoverned tribal areas along Pakistan's long border with Afghanistan, and a newly unified militant group is hounding the military with devastating success. Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the group and al-Qaeda's viceroy in the region, has been blamed for last December's suicide-bomb attack that killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Twelve out of 14 suspects arrested in January for planning terrorist attacks in Spain are Pakistani; all are thought to have trained in the country's tribal areas. Sixty suicide bombings in Pakistan last year left at least 770 people dead and nearly 1,600 injured.
The bombings are decried for the innocent lives lost; Friday sermons promote the sanctity of life in half-hearted efforts to shame the perpetrators. But rarely is there outright condemnation, and never has a movement equal in force and influence arisen to counter the extremists. Why don't the moderates stand up? That's a question posed not just in Pakistan but across the Muslim world and indeed in the West. In Pakistan, the battle for the soul of Islam will determine the country's place in the world: whether it can take the lead as a modern Muslim nation, or whether it crumbles under the forces of extremism. This is Pakistan's holy war, and the first shot across the bow was the very idea that brought the country into being.