The faithful, the patriotic and the curious have journeyed from across Pakistan. Many came
in the hundreds of gaudily painted buses parked in fields beside the Grand Trunk Road that traverses the fertile Punjab plain.
On foot, thousands are surging down muddy side roads, watched by police and bearded men in camouflage-colored garb. Their
destination, near the village of Muridke, 25 km from Lahore, is a vast tent-city. They have come for a three-day celebration
of militant Islam, from Nov. 3 to 5.
This 200,000-strong gathering is the annual congregation of the Lashkar e Taiba
(Army of the Pious), arguably Pakistan's largest organization committed to the defense of Islam through jihad (holy war).
This year's assembly, the twelfth, "is nearly half as big again as last year's," says Abdullah Muntazer, a senior Lashkar
official. "Next year we expect even more."
Lashkar is the militant wing of the Markaz al-Dawa wal Irshad (Center for Preaching and Guidance),
which runs a local Islamic university. Though the Army has been recruiting since the late 1980s, its rise to prominence has
been more recent. With funds from Saudi Arabia and local donations, Lashkar has 2,200 units across Pakistan, military training
camps in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, and thousands of active members and many more sympathizers. It also enjoys shadowy
but close links with Pakistan's ruling military establishment. Lashkar fighters are at the forefront of the Islamabad-backed
conflict in Kashmir against India.
The group's unabashed championing of privatized warfare has won it a place on Washington's
terrorist watch-list. Lashkar leaders reject the charge as a slur. In fact, they argue, highlighting the difference between
jihad and terrorism is one aim of this year's congregation. "We are fighting for the oppressed, fighting to prevent terrorism,"
says Muntazer. And international borders won't get in the way. "We don't believe in geographical dividing lines," he adds.
"We only believe in one international Muslim ummah [community]."
Around the Markaz complex stretches a sea of green-
and blue-roofed tents. Workers have erected a huge central marquee, where scores of thousands gather for prayers and speeches
that echo across the encampment on a public-address system. Stalls do a brisk trade in the accoutrements of holy war - boots,
army jackets, posters glorifying Kalashnikov and Koran, religious literature and tapes of speeches by celebrated scholars.
Many foreign fighters came in 1998. This year, they are keeping a low profile, apparently in deference to the new
military regime and international criticism over Pakistani support to globe-trotting holy warriors. Nor is there much talk
of jihad in Afghanistan, Chechnya and other hot spots. Indeed, Lashkar spokesmen blandly deny their fighters are even in Afghanistan
- despite evidence to the contrary.
The focus this year is Kashmir. In the marquee, the faithful listen to religious
leaders extolling martyrdom and commanders relating tales of miraculous victories over Hindu infidels. Later, veterans display
their military skills with mock ambushes. Says Muntazer: "Thousands of people change their lives after coming to our congregation.
Many of those martyred in Kashmir came here as casual participants and after three days resolved to fight jihad."
first afternoon brings news instantly broadcast across the encampment: a dramatic operation is under way in Kashmir. Two Lashkar
fighters have infiltrated the high-security Srinagar headquarters of the Indian Army, and killed seven enemy soldiers. (Both
the guerrillas were later slain.) The timing is not a coincidence. "Our mujahideen [holy warriors] struck at this time so
our voice could be heard all over the world," says professor Hafez Sa'eed, the bespectacled Markaz chief. Jihad is intensifying
in Kashmir, he adds, as Indian troops are stretched thin. Domestically, says Sa'eed, the giant rally aims to spark popular
pressure to counter foreign demands on Pakistan to curb support for the insurgency.
"Whenever Muslim forces achieve
something, you see international pressure on Muslim governments to get them to negotiate and accept external decisions," fumes
Sa'eed. He insists he has no desire to confront the new military regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Still, Sa'eed warns: "No
government in Pakistan can take a decision on Kashmir that goes against the interests of the mujahideen." That remains to
be seen. But there is little doubt that for any government seeking to improve relations with India, the biggest obstacle will
be the militants.