Aug. 4, 01:00 EDT

AKRSP faces extremists' ire

Martin Regg Cohn

CHITRAL, Pakistan THE GRAFFITI is hard to miss on the main road to Afghanistan: "Osama bin Laden, The Great Muslim Revolutionary," it proclaims defiantly.

The slogan is an unwelcome reminder to aid workers here, 40 kilometres from the Afghan border, that they remain on the front lines of fundamentalism and that even after years of trying to foster religious harmony in Pakistan's remote northern regions, the influence of extremists hasn't faded away.

Since the mid-1980s, the Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP) had steadily expanded its development projects in the region, winning strong grassroots support.

But over the last three years, the group has often been on the defensive.

After several bomb threats and acts of sabotage, a powerful explosion in late 2000 prompted the AKRSP to shutter its offices here. The closing was only temporary, but it came as a blow to aid workers who thought they had made progress in overcoming years of sectarian strife.

In fact, the growing success of the AKRSP - which has long received Canadian government funding - turned it into even more of a target for extremist religious leaders who felt their own influence waning.

Now, the aid group is back at work in the region, but it remains on guard.

Despite its non-denominational character, the AKRSP has always been a conspicuous target, since it carries the name of the Aga Khan, who is spiritual leader of the world's Ismaili Muslims.

Radical clerics from the rival Sunni branch of Islam bitterly criticize the aid group's progressive social agenda, calling it anti-Islamic and Israeli-inspired.

At one point, the fundamentalist Jarnait Ulema-i-Islam accused the AKRSP of fielding Zionist agents who plotted the mysterious death of a radical Sunni cleric.

The JUI, which was closely linked to the former Taliban government of Afghanistan, also criticized AKRSP's calls for harmony between Ismailis and Sunnis. And it attacked the campaign for greater gender equality, calling it un-Islamic.

Actually, a majority of the AKRSP's staff in the northwestern Chitral Valley has always been Sunni. And the group has long reached out to Sunni communities with health, education and infrastructure-development programs.

But that didn't stop radical Sunni clerics from vilifying the organization as a sinister Ismaili-Jewish front.

"They felt that the AKRSP's reforms were empowering the villagers, who were beginning to question and resist the authority of local clerics," says Miraj Khan, who runs the AKRSP office in Chitral.

"Some people are afraid of development coming into their villages," adds Munir Merali, a Torontonian who has been in charge of the parent Aga Khan Foundation in Pakistan for two years.

"Development is scary for these people who want to hold on to power."