Moderates In Peril
The assassination of Pakistani opposition leader and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto is not just a sickening blow to her people. It also gives the whole world cause to worry.
Bhutto was a moderate who wanted a civilian, democratic, secular future for Pakistan -- in other words freedom for a people who have suffered for centuries at the hands of kings, military dictators, colonising powers and temporary invaders.
The early indications are that the 21st century's oppressive power in the region, Islamic fundamentalism, is to blame for yesterday's bloodshed.
To the fanatics who want to stop democracy in its tracks and establish an Islamic crescent of influence from Pakistan to the Mediterranean, the sort of freedoms espoused by Bhutto pose a threat.
Pakistan and Afghanistan represent a fault line running between great civilisations, in the same way the Balkans was the space between east and west in the lead-up to World War I.
Both countries are bordered by Iran in the west, by China in the northeast, and for centuries have been considered the gateways of the Middle East and Central Asia. The giant Hindu power of India, an old foe of Pakistan, is in the southeast.
US-backed Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Australian troops are serving with NATO forces to provide stability and order, represent plum pickings for Islamic radicals. This is the region where Osama bin Laden has his power base among al-Qaeda, where the Taliban flourishes and where terrorism training schools abound.
Islamic radicals have made it clear they want to sweep away the normal rule of law, the fruits of democracy and the freedoms normally afforded to people living in a secular society. They want to establish religious states, operating under Sharia law.
Attempts by the West to hold back extremism and exert influence in this area began in earnest with the arrival of English forces in 1839 and with the subsequent establishment of British colonial power up until 1947. The US Carter administration and the Russians also tried to exert control over Afghanistan from the late 1970s, accidentally inspiring the creation of extremists such as the Taliban.
The killing of Bhutto is the latest and most telling chapter in the long power struggle in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Moderate and secular politicians are under attack from ruthless Islamic zealots.
This is a disturbing development for moderate Islamic states everywhere -- in Turkey north of Iraq and in Malaysia and Indonesia in our neighbourhood.
We know, from the pressure brought to bear by extremist Muslim clerics and by the establishment of radical networks in South-East Asia, that fundamentalists are single-minded in their drive to establish Islamic states.
And we know, from their bomb attacks against young Westerners in Bali and their brutal attacks on Christians in Sulawesi, they can be savage when they want to oust non-Muslims from what they perceive to be their own territory.
The policy of containment of the insurgents by Western forces in Afghanistan is not guaranteed of success.
Nor can we be sure that unstable countries such as Pakistan will be saved from the grip of the Islamic fundamentalists. Disorder and chaos are the tools of these terrorists.
The concern is that widespread civil unrest in the wake of the Bhutto assassination and the possibility of next month's Pakistani elections being cancelled will create a power vacuum, allowing al-Qaeda and the Taliban to move in.
There is one other concern, and it is a big one. Pakistan has nuclear weapons and long-range missiles which, in the wrong hands, could prove disastrous for the world. Bhutto's passing proves that radicals see moderates as a threat, and Western nations must take something from that. It reinforces the belief that, without moderating forces such as our Diggers in Afghanistan, the fundamentalists would spread their poison far and wide.
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