ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A public backlash is building against the Pakistani Taliban, who looked triumphant after gaining control of the northern Swat region last week.
Since Pakistan’s parliament approved a peace deal turning Swat over to militants on April 13, their leader Sufi Muhammad has moved forces into a neighboring district, rejected the legitimacy of the country’s elected leaders, vowed to spread Islamic law across the country, and offered sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and other foreign terrorists.
These moves have turned hopes for peace in a strife-torn area into fears that the entire country will fall into the hands of militants, said Shoaib Bhutta, a journalist and confidant of Pakistan’s president.”If there is no peace, the government will use force,” Rehman Malik, head of the Interior Ministry, told parliament Wednesday.
Even conservative politicians appear to be distancing themselves from the Swat militants. Sayed Munawar Hasan, new head of the religious Jamaat Islamic party, ridiculed Muhammad for labeling as “infidel” anyone who participates in democratic elections, noting that the militant leader had run — and won — in local elections a few years ago.
“Does this mean he is some sort of infidel?” Hasan said. “Whatever Sufi Muhammad said is not serious. He should not make these statements. He should consult mainstream clerics in the country.”
In Washington on Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “the Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists.”
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose followers include religious conservatives, told USA TODAY this week that he had misgivings about the peace agreement and was worried the militants would try to expand control beyond Swat.
Over the past year, Pakistan’s army proved unable to prevent Swat militants — led in combat by Muhammad’s son-in-law Mullah Fazalullah — from terrorizing the district by executing local politicians, burning schools and publicly flogging anyone who violated their harsh version of Islam by trimming their beards or wearing their pants too long.
The secular Awami National Party, which governs the province that includes Swat, negotiated a peace deal with Muhammad’s militants after seeing its ranks decimated by assassinations. The national parliament approved the deal last week.
But the deal — and Sufi Muhammad’s audacious comments rejecting democracy and calling for imposing Islamic law nationwide — have drawn heavy criticism.
“He is denying the legitimacy of higher courts and the political system,” said Murtaza Mughal, head of the Pakistan Economy Watch think tank. “It’s not the proper attitude.”
“They have a misunderstanding that the government has surrendered,” Bhutta said. “But the government wanted to show the people and supporters of the militants what kind of people they are. Now all those who were in favor of the militants and of the agreement are turning against them and are unified on one issue: supporting this evil, which is eating our own people, would be a sin. If there is war, the public will support the government to crush the militants by force.”