Just a few weeks ago, General Pervez Musharraf’s regime seemed in severe trouble. Chief Justice Chaudhry had strangely emerged as a popular hero inspiring the country after his summary dismissal by the Musharraf. Lawyers were rioting all across Pakistan’s major cities. The state’s crackdown on media had backfired. NYT, WaPo, WSJ had all put out editorials questioning Musharraf’s rule and US support of it. The extensive electricity outages in Karachi and the lack of federal response to the heavy monsoon rains which caused hundreds of deaths in Sindh and Baluchistan had further deteriorated any remaining support for Musharraf. More and more, this General was resembling that old General Yahya and the end-game seemed in sight.
How quickly things change. The Lal Masjid seige/showdown is now front-page news everywhere. The photographs of Army helicopters hovering silently behind the mosque’s great white dome surely caused frisson of excitement to those accustomed to the way the War on Terror is being fought across Iraq. After all, those burka-clad shaolin seminarians with their bamboo lathis and the young men with their faces wrapped and their automatics raised are all simple enough signifiers for the Great Islamic Threat ®. Soon enough the editorials will change their tone. The White House will stand and acclaim the tough job Musharraf is doing to curtail the Talibanization of Islamabad. Fareed Zakaria will declare some other inanity like “Pakistan is an army with a state in a box containing an angry mullah sitting on a nuke with the evil-but-ok-maybe-not Musharraf trying to hammer the box shut” and the intelligentsia will sigh in relief. The Pakistani TV programs that I watched yesterday were all filled with how this latest showdown is playing out in US and how will it affect policy – the panopticon of American neo-Imperialism is never far from the minds of Pakistani punditry. Even the print press, long critical of Musharraf’s overreaches, is willing to forgive Musharraf’s sins if he can save the country. As an aside, just let me point out that even this small fact, that the Press is proclaiming a dictator for standing up to radicalization of their society, upends the conventional wisdom that Pakistan teeters forever on the brink of an Islamic Revolution.
For those of us, who have long argued that Pakistan must immediately hold elections, that Musharraf cannot retain US support and that the only way to teach Democracy is to practice Democracy, these new developments are quite disheartening. The populist uprising against Musharraf may or may not survive now that the PR advantage is finally squarely with the General. One can even argue that this confrontation with Lal Masjid was deliberately provoked by the State for expressly changing the political landscape. But, before one can argue that, we need to cast a wider glance behind this Waco-abad.
Following, I will offer a brief overview of the history of Lal Masjid, a small timeline of the events leading up to the recent crisis and offer a few mitigating factors that can help contextualize Lal Masjid.
I hate to begin all stories with the Islamization policy of the last military dictator of Pakistan Zia ul Haq but, at least in this case, it is justified. One significant aspect of Zia’s efforts was a reaction to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in neighboring Iran and his fear that it will lead to Iranian aggression inside Pakistan. The building of close ideological and material ties to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the support of Jama’at-i Islami and its radical agenda of jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan, the creation of counter-Sunni groups like Sipah-e Suhaba, the construction of madrasas across Pakistan [from 200-odd seminaries in 1947 to nearly 3000 by 1988] and the Majlis Ahl-e Shur’a were some of the steps implemented by Zia from 1978 to 1988. A significant part was also his material support for anti-Shi’a, pro-jihad firebrands like a certain Maulana Abdullah – the man in charge of one of Islamabad’s central mosque, the Markazi Jamia Masjid (Lal Masjid) founded in 1966.
A Baluchi by birth, Abdullah was a devout adherent of the Deobandi school. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the Islamic Revolution in Iran and Zia’s proclamations of impending Shari’ah across Pakistan were enough incentives for Maulana Abdullah to swing his support firmly for Zia and the Afghani cause. Lal Masjid received significant land grants from Zia in Islamabad and the mosque solidified with a large membership of civil society, military brass and state functionaries saying their obligated five prayers – including the Chief Martial Law Administrator, Zia ul Haq. It also incorporated an extensive pedagogic and civic relief agenda. Jami’a Faridia – a seminary for young men was present since the inception of the mosque. In 1984, it moved to the exclusive E-7 sector of Islamabad after a generous land grant by Zia ul Haq. Jami’a Hafsa was established for the girls in 1992. The curriculum for these seminaries was fairly traditional and modeled after Jami’a Ashrafiya in Lahore with Qur’an Studies, Hadi’th, Arabic, Law and, basic Sciences [I.T. was started in the late 90s]. There are currently about 6000 students in both the seminaries – no one is charged a fee for attendance. These students not only live and participate in seminary activities but are also responsible for the extensive food kitchens run by Lal Masjid and perform other civic duties across the region.
Throughout the 80s and 90s Lal Masjid and Maulana Abdullah remained on the fore-front of Afghani Jihad and, later, the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Their support include supplying fighters from the seminary, teaching Afghan students and maintaining funds for the jihad effort. All of which did not detract Maulana Abdullah from his anti-Shi’a rhetoric. A consequence of which was that, in 1998, he was gunned down by unknown assailants – thought to be from rival Shi’a groups.
His death put his sons, Abdul Aziz and the younger Abdul Rashid, in charge of Lal Masjid and the two seminaries associated with it. Abdul Rashid Ghazi was a veteran of the Afghani front – as attested by his honorific of ‘Ghazi’ – and made clear his support for Talibans and Osama b. Laden. In September 2001, he led the efforts to prohibit Musharraf from siding with the US efforts in Afghanistan and send fighters against the US forces. Even as Musharraf sallied forth with his support, Lal Masjid attempted to sway the public opinion against him – largely to no avail, as the religious right never had a clear channel into Pakistani society. All this would have stood as it was – in that limbo necessary for the continuation of civil society – but things were no longer the same, anywhere.
Baluchistan erupted. The brothers belong to the Mazari tribe from Baluchistan and a large contingent of students in the two seminaries come from the region. It should come as no surprise then, that Abdul Aziz was at the forefront of protesting Musharraf’s actions in Waziristan. In 2004, he issued a fatwa declaring non-Muslim burials for Pakistan Army members killed in Baluchistan and Waziristan. It was this action that put Musharraf and Lal Masjid on a collision course. This caused not only a split with the military but also within the religious elite in Pakistan – with Abdul Aziz breaking relationships with many leading ulemas – not surprisingly, another major beneficiary of Zia’s largesse, Jama’at-i Islami remained steadfast with Lal Masjid.
In early 2007, a number of mosques were demolished around Islamabad by the CDA. The official rational was that these mosques were illegal settlements – often on prime development real estate – and had to be cleared out [even though this action was against religious law]. Jami’a Hafsa was institution involved in this illegal land grab – though the details are too convoluted even for me. In retaliation, the Shaolin Burqas of Jamia Hafsa occupied a Children’s Library on Feb 22, 2007. As a response, the State agreed to re-construct one of the seven mosques. On March 27th, female seminarians kidnapped (and released after repentance) Auntie Shamim – a madame to some luminaries in Pakistan’s political scene. Things escalated from this point. The seminarians kidnapped policemen in order to facilitate a prisoner exchange with the state. On March 31st, Abdul Aziz gave a deadline to impose Sharia in Pakistan. By early April, the government had shut down the website of Lal Masjid [www.lalmasjid.org and www.faridia.org] and revoked their radio broadcast license [Jami’a Hafsa still has an operational off-site].
The rest is all recent news.
The strengthening of miltant forces in Pakistan – and their inward gaze – has not come from any radicalization of Pakistani society but from the incomplete operation of US forces in Afghanistan. The war in Iraq drained away any plan for a viable and functioning Afghanistan. The defeated troops carried their tribal allegiances back across the border into the Northern and Western regions of Pakistan – and turned their attention onto Pakistani state. Musharraf, busy consolidating the military’s dominion had no viable way of combating these tribes – he has no legitimacy. I could be writing an alternative version of this recent past, if democratic tendencies had actually been allowed to develop in Pakistan since 2001. You may call it ‘paradoxical’ but the only solution to de-Islamization of Pakistan is democracy – not the support of dictatorships.
Lal Masjid was an ally (and a pawn) in Zia’s strategy in Afghanistan [and through that relationship, an ally of then United States foreign policy]. Soviets may have lost and that war may have ended for the United States but it continued on for the Pakistanis and the Afghanis. The immense influx of refugees and fighters into Pakistan during the 90s helped only strengthen the political and material basis for institutions such as Lal Masjid. While many western observers praise Musharraf’s brave decision to side with the United States, the truth is that it was a no-brainer for him. The majority of Pakistan’s population has long maintained a healthy distaste for the involvement of religious leaders into statecraft – taking perhaps as axiomatic Bulleh Shah’s old verse: Mulla tay mashaalchi dohaan ikko chiz / Loukan karday chananan, aap anhairae vich [The Cleric and the Light Bearer are both the same / Trying to illuminate others, but in darkness themselves]. The outpouring of support for the Chief Justice is just one indication that the country is hungry for relief – note, please note, that Chaudhry Iftikhar is not some bearded mullah with any agenda for Shari’ah implementation in Pakistan. And yet, that old canard is forever being bandied about that if given democracy, the insane mullahs will control Pakistan. The choice has never been between Musharraf and the Mullah or the Mosque and the Ballot. The truth is that there never has been any choice. And the Pakistani public demand a choice. And they can be trusted to make the right decision just as much as any other citizen in any other democracy in any nation of this world [cf. 2000 and 2004, United States of America.]