The bloody siege of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid underscores the danger of runaway religious radicalism in Pakistan. One hopes that it will end the ambivalence of president Pervez Musharraf’s regime towards Islamic militancy.
That the crisis could have been averted is beyond doubt. The government — or at least a certain part of it — gave Lal Masjid militants a free hand to kidnap and intimidate. For months, under the nose of Pakistan’s super-vigilant intelligence agencies, large quantities of arms and fuel were smuggled inside to create a fearsome fortress in the heart of Pakistan’s capital.
Even after Jamia Hafsa students went about their violent rampages in February, no attempt was made to cut off electricity, gas, phone or website, or even to shut down their illegal FM radio station. Operating as a parallel government, the mullah duo, Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi and Maulana Abdul Aziz, received the Saudi Arabian ambassador on the mosque premises and negotiated with the Chinese ambassador for the release of his country’s kidnapped nationals. But for the outrage expressed by China, Pakistan’s all-weather ally, the status quo would have continued.
What explains the explosive growth of extremism in Pakistan? Imperial America’s policies in the Muslim world are usually held to blame. But its brutalities elsewhere have been far greater. In tiny Vietnam, the Americans had killed more than one million people. Nevertheless, the Vietnamese did not invest in explosive vests and belts. Today, if one could wipe America off the map of the world with a wet cloth, mullah-led fanaticism will not disappear.
I have often asked students who toe the Lal Masjid line why, if they are so concerned about the fate of Muslims, they did not join demonstrations organised by their professors in 2003-04 against the immoral US invasion of Iraq. The question leaves them unfazed. For them the greater sin is for women to walk around bare faced, or the very notion that they could be considered the equal of men.
Extremism is often claimed to be the consequence of poverty. But deprivation and suffering do not, by themselves, lead to radicalism. Lack of educational opportunity is also an insufficient cause. The 9/11 hijackers and the Glasgow airport doctors were highly educated men supported by thousands of similarly educated Muslims in Pakistan.
There are more compelling explanations: the official sponsorship of jehad by the Pakistani establishment in earlier times; the poison injected into students through textbooks; and the fantastic growth of madrassas across Pakistan.
Most of all, it has been the cowardly deference of Pakistani leaders to mullah blackmail. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had suddenly turned Islamic in his final days as he made a desperate, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to save his government and life. A fearful Benazir Bhutto made no attempt to challenge the Hudood and blasphemy laws during her premierships. Nawaz Sharif went a step further by attempting to bring the Shariah to Pakistan.
Such kow-towing had powerful consequences. The crimes of mullahs, because they are committed in the name of Islam, go unpunished today. The situation in Pakistan’s tribal areas is dire and deteriorating. Inspired by the fiery rhetoric from mosques, fanatics murder doctors and health workers administering polio shots. They blow up girls schools, kill barbers who shave beards, stone alleged adulterers to death, and destroy billboards with women’s faces. No one is caught or punished.
Public silence has allowed tribal extremism to migrate effortlessly into the cities. It is now increasingly difficult for a woman to walk bare-faced through most city bazaars. Reflections of Jamia Hafsa can be found in every public university of Pakistan. On April 12, to terrify the last few hold-outs, the Lal Masjid mullahs declared in their FM radio broadcast that Quaid-e-Azam University had turned into a brothel.
What explains the ambivalence of the Pakistani establishment towards extremism? In good part it comes from not knowing whether to cultivate the Taliban — which can help keep Indian influence out of Afghanistan — or whether to fight them.
Now that the guns have stopped firing, the government must move fast before other Lal Masjids erupt. Hate-preaching mullahs must be stopped. The government should announce that any citizen who hears hate-sermons can record them and lodge an official charge that will be taken seriously. In the tribal areas the dozens of currently operating illegal FM radio stations should be closed down. Run by mullahs bitterly hostile to each other, they incite tribal and sectarian wars.
Second, the government must not minimise the danger posed by madrassas. It is not just their gun-toting militants, but the climate of intolerance they create in society. Where and when necessary, and after sufficient warning, they must be shut down. Introducing computers or teaching English cannot transform the character of madrassa education away from brainwashing. It is time instead to radically improve the public education system.
The Lal Masjid battle is part of the wider civil war within the Islamic world waged by totalitarian forces that seek redemption through violence. Their cancerous radicalism pits Muslims against Muslims, and the world at large. It is only peripherally directed against the excesses of the corrupt ruling establishment, or inspired by issues of justice and equity.
Remember in Prayers
Syed Kashif Ali