The crisis over the Lal Masjid, which ended with massive bloodshed when the Pakistani military invaded the complex with extreme force on July 10, massacring its occupants, did not come out of the blue. It was, in fact, the culmination of months of increasing tension characterised by the government alternating between provoking and appeasing the leaders of the group, while milking the situation for a national and international audience. The immediate and ferocious response to the massacre from religious extremists, in which they killed hundreds of security personnel and others in a series of attacks and human bombings, was equally predictable. The background to the crisis, which may see the US intervening in Pakistan for its own nefarious designs, no doubt partly to distract domestic attention from its failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, need to be understood.
The Lal Masjid (the ‘red mosque’) and its adjacent women’s seminary, the Jamia Hafsah madrassah, were just one part of a larger and well-established group of Islamic institutions that have been active in Islamabad for many years. The six-month stand-off with the government began when other mosques run by the group in Islamabad were demolished by authorities in January, on the grounds that they had been built illegally on encroached land. The organisation was led by two brothers, Maulana Abdul Aziz and Maulana Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, whose father, Maulana Abdullah, a fiery pro-jihad alim who was assassinated inside the mosque in 1998, had been allotted land for the Lal Masjid in the 1960s. Once it was built it was run by the younger brother, Abdul Rasheed Ghazi. The elder brother, Maulana Abdul Aziz, the more religious and scholarly of the two, ran a number of madrassahs, including Islamabad’s biggest,Jamia Fareedia madrassah, built in the 1980s on land provided by the late General Zia ul-Haq. At any given time, the madrassah boasts over 7,000 students seeking higher degrees in Islamic education.
The father and both sons had close links with the establishment and security agencies. These links were further strengthened during the 1980s, the time of the CIA-sponsored jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when CIA and Pakistani security agency Inter-Services-Intelligence (ISI) wanted as many fighters as possible for use in the war. These priorities changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and ensuing civil war among the Afghan mujahideen. But the jihadis continued their cooperation with ISI under state patronage on other projects, such as Kashmir. Then in the mid-1990s the Taliban force was created by ISI and installed in power in Kabul, and the Lal Masjid leaders aligned themselves with it. The changing relations between the group and the Pakistan government were closely linked to the changing relations between the Pakistani establishment and the Taliban after 9/11, when theUS declared war on the Taliban and demanded the Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf reverse the country’s traditional support for the them.
It is clear that throughout the build-up to the Lal Masjid siege, the government’s stand was based on lies, deception, and use of every opportunity to scuttle any peaceful resolution; the application of force was illegal and disproportionate in an attempt to please the government’s foreign masters. The fundamental issue between the government and the Lal Masjidadministration, common in many developing countries, was of encroachment of adjacent vacant land. The complex of which the Lal Masjid and the Jamia Hafsah madrassah were part included a large number of other mosques, some of which were as old as a hundred years. As is common in Pakistan, some of these may well have been built without official authorisation. In such a situation, the government usually forces the occupants of the land to “regularise” the situation (make it legal) by payment of a fee: a common procedure in all walks of life in Pakistan. Why this was not done in this case is just the first of several questions that demand answers.
In January the government unilaterally decided to demolish five out of seven mosques, in order to curtail the religious and political power of the Lal Masjid administration. Having done so, provoking considerable public anger, the military government switched their tactics to appeasement, promising to rebuild the demolished mosques at new locations. Foundation stones for new mosques were laid with much fanfare by the minister of religious affairs Ejaz-ul-Haq, portrayed as being sympathetic towards the group, but the policy of appeasement had little substance. Similarly, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the president of the ruling Muslim League supporting General Musharraf, negotiated a number of times with the administration of the LalMasjid with open support from Musharraf, but those efforts were always sabotaged by the government though agreement always seemed to be imminent. At the same time, the leaders of the Lal Masjid made increasingly unrealistic demands of the government, such as the immediate implementation of the Shari‘ah. They also angered local people by taking the law into their own hands and attacking businesses that they accused of immoral activities, and establishing parallel shari‘ah courts when the government refused to implement the shari‘ah. The only significant effect of these actions was to provide justifications for the government’s attack on them.
Information that has emerged since the end of the siege reveals that even at the eleventh hour, the night of July 9-10, the leaders of the mosque complex had acceded to all of the government’s demands, through Shujaat Hussain and leaders of the Wafaqul Madaris (the federal association of all madrassahs), resulting in an agreement. However, having extracted as many concessions as possible for six months, the government was determined to attack. The result was that the government made additional demands that were not acceptable even to the mediators. The government gave no time for the changed agreement to go back to the leaders of the Lal Masjid for discussion, and army commandos attacked the Lal Masjid andJamia Hafsah at 5 a.m. One wonders, if the negotiations had almost produced an agreement and were so close to resolving the dispute, why the army action was not delayed. Why was army action held like a sword over the negotiators’ heads?
Then there is the question of disproportionate firepower used against the occupants of the Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsah, when it was known that they were not ‘professional terrorists’ from within or outside the country. The vast majority were simply students in the seminary for study and prayer, whose anger at the government prompted them to take a stand when the government provoked the crisis. The government’s officials and security agencies had, of course, detailed knowledge of the situation, as they had been dealing with them since the 1970s; in fact had themselves promoted and encouraged the Lal Masjid leaders for many years. Even if the occupants had refused every reasonable offer, the government could easily have used measures like cutting off electricity, water or gas to the complex, and preventing people from leaving or entering it. Or they could have taken more proactive measures to force the occupants to come out, short of killing. It seems that the military government promoted these religious leaders over the years specifically so they could one day be sacrificed to instillterror in anyone who might harbour hopes of challenging the government’s writ.
Such calculated duplicity would not be unprecedented. Another operation of a similar kind took place in 2002 when General Musharraf needed crucial votes in the Parliament to become president. A deal was made with the MQM, an ethnic political party from Karachi, whereby the MQM (Haqiqi), an offshoot of MQM that had been set up and promoted by the security agencies some years earlier in an attempt to curb the power of MQM, was liquidated in return for MQM’s support for Musharraf. The operation against MQM (Haqiqi) lasted all night; all its leaders were arrested, its headquarters was bulldozed, and numerous activists and supporters were jailed and tortured. The next morning, the MQM obediently voted for Musharraf’spresidency in parliament. This practice, of government and security agencies creating and promoting an organisation to be sacrificed at a convenient time in a better deal with someone else or with international masters, is not unusual. The rank and file of these organisations generally have no idea about the secret relationship with the government, and even refuse to believe it when presented with evidence; they remain loyal to their leaders, and only find out their mistake when it is too late. It is often such rank and file who pay the greatest price for their commitment. The Lal Masjid leaders seem to have been no exception to this rule.
From President Musharraf down, every government official claimed that their main objective was to save the women and children “held hostage” inside the Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsah. In actual fact, the women and children inside were not hostages to start with; they were students who probably stayed there of their own misguided accord. However, when the army commandos attacked the complex not a single soul was saved and taken alive; everyone was killed. The purpose of the attack, ostensibly to save women and children, failed completely.
Because of the ruthlessness of the attack, everyone being killed without exception, it became a public relations nightmare for the government. There could be no explanation for why the intelligence agencies and the government officials did not know how many persons were inside before attacking. After the massacre, the government closed the Lal Masjid complex to everyone, including all the media, for two days, until the place was “sanitised”, as the government put it. However, some people saw enough to realise that the army was putting two or three bodies in each body-bag. Hundreds of people were buried in a mass grave while families to this day are searching for relatives and cannot get straight answers from government officials. There is similarly no explanation of why the army attacked, when the issue was purely civil and bureaucratic, and there is no information available about under which law the army acted. Who ordered the army to besiege and attack the complex is unclear. Thus the government’s failure is multi-dimensional -- civil, bureaucratic, intelligence, dispute-resolution methodology, and the army’s failure to ‘save’ anyone.
The backlash, foreseen and warned of by a number of people beforehand, was no less ferocious than the army’s operation. Within a week a number of suicide-bombers struck military convoys at different places in the country and in various cities, killing and injuring hundreds of security and army personnel. They even attacked a mosque inside a military cantonment ofKohat. This created terror among government officials and security and army personnel, to such an extent that the government of the North-Western Frontier Province allowed police to wear plain clothes to disguise themselves. A number of police personnel applied for leave or transfer from dangerous areas.
The pro-Western and military elite in Pakistan today are descendants of the ruling class cultivated by the British to form and operate an oppressive and exploitative state structure to rule on their behalf after they left. The Muslim part of this ruling class was shaped by the ideas of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.
To fully understand why the government and the country’s religious leaders are behaving so ferociously towards each other, we need to understand their historical roots. Both can trace their roots back to developments in the Indo-Pak subcontinent during the colonial period, and particularly the total destruction of every element of Muslim power after the war of independence in 1857. The pro-Western and military elite in Pakistan today are descendants of the ruling class cultivated by the British to form and operate an oppressive and exploitative state structure to rule on their behalf after they left. The Muslim part of this ruling class was shaped by the ideas of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. When the demoralised Muslims faced an apparently bleak future, Khan argued that they needed to adapt to the realities of the new situation and acquire Western-style education so they could serve under the British as they had served the previous ruler. To achieve this, he established the Aligarh Muslim University with help from the British, promoting a “modernist” Islam that could exist within the colonial worldview. The result was increased westernisation of Indian Muslims. They produced in huge numbers civil servants, bureaucrats and army officers who were passive, secular, divorced from Islam, Qur’an, Sunnah and other sources, and cut off from Muslim history; they felt inferior to their white colonial masters, and were largely unaware of modern scientific advances. Allama Mohammad Iqbal expressed reservations about the dysfunctional and disjointed people being produced by Aligarh Muslim University, which provided the leaders of the Muslim League, who later became the ruling elite of Pakistan. Alongside this, the British also created an Indian military officer class, equally committed to the established colonial system. Later on the Pakistan army also joined the party in expropriating resources and oppressing people. Thus, continuing both the centuries-old tradition of Muslim malukiyyah, and under the British colonial influence, the secular post-colonial state actually developed as a brutal force for the suppression of people.
On the other hand, the puritanical conservatism represented by the Lal Masjid, meanwhile, can be traced back to the Dar al-Ulum at Deoband, UP, which was established in the 1860s by young ulama who had fled Delhi, previously the intellectual centre of Islam in India, when the city was destroyed in 1857.
On the other hand, the puritanical conservatism represented by the Lal Masjid, meanwhile, can be traced back to the Dar al-Ulum at Deoband, UP, which was established in the 1860s by young ulama who had fled Delhi, previously the intellectual centre of Islam in India, when the city was destroyed in 1857. Like Syed Ahmed Khan, the ulama of Deoband (and numerous similar institutions established at the same time, which did not develop the same standing) faced the challenge of responding to the utter destruction of their world. Their response was to set aside the social and political elements of Islam – having no possible influence in those areas under British rule – and focus instead on personal piety and the minutiae of Islamic rituals, with a particular emphasis on cleansing Indian Islam of populist and folk practices that were regarded as having no roots in genuine Islamic teachings. The Tablighi Jama‘at was established by a Deobandi alim, Maulana Ilyas, in the 1920s. Because of their intellectualism, Deobandi ulama established contacts with ulama in other parts of the world, finding similar reformist thinkers everywhere. In the 20th century, links developed with salafi and Wahhabi groups in the Arab world, and the emergence of jihadist thinking among Arab salafis was reflected in the thought of Deobandi and associated groups in the subcontinent, particularly in Pakistan with the massive interaction of Arab money and mujahideen to the country during the Afghan jihad in the 1980s. The leaders of the Lal Masjid emerged to prominence during precisely this time, along with numerous similar groups and leaders who are active in Pakistan today. The limitations of their understandings and methodologies were masked by the natural emphasis on jihad, the element most relevant at the time, and the only one that their Saudi and American sponsors were interested in.
From their origins in the late nineteenth century, these two trends of Muslim thought – the “modernists” represented by Aligarh and the “conservatives” represented by Deoband – have had diametrically opposed political outlooks and understandings. The modernists were the driving force of the Pakistan movement; the Deobandi religious establishment, represented by the Jami‘at Ulama-e Hind, opposed it. Since the establishment of Pakistan, the two have debated what it means that Pakistan is supposed to be an Islamic state, with the politicians arguing for a mildly Islamicised version of a secular nation-state (Muhammad Ali Jinnah having been a supporter of Mustafa Kemal’s secularism in Turkey), while the ulama (joined since 1941 by Maulana Maududi and the Jama‘at-e Islami) demanded a more explicitly and proactively Islamic polity, even though their understanding of what that would involve was vague at best.
Thus in reaction to the oppressive state, and in response to the Afghan jihad against the Soviets, the Deobandi religious establishment was radicalised and then became extremist to achieve exclusively jihadi goals divorced from other Islamic goals, especially the unity of Ummah. Like the state, they also became closely associated with US interests. Thus it is ironic and deeply painful that both the oppressive state and the religious extremists, fighting for power, are tools in the hands of the West, serving the same master.
Despite the connections established between the state and the Islamic movements, including the leaders of the Lal Masjid, during the Afghan jihad, it is basically the tension that is driving the confrontation between Musharraf and the Islamic groups today. However useful the Lal Masjid maulanas may have been to the establishment in the past, they were probably identified long ago as easy targets to be sacrificed at a convenient time to earn the goodwill of the West. So what appears to be a government appeasement policy for six months was actually giving the two brothers time and opportunity to make stupid mistakes. Gradually they took the law into their own hands and challenged the government to declare the Shari‘ah, then defied the government by establishing a parallel Shari‘ah court system. Their close contacts with the Taliban were exploited by the secular press and the government to create and exploit the gulf to the fullest extent. For six months, by reacting to the government’s intimidation as the government desired, the two brothers fell into the government’s trap. They were portrayed as obstinate, irrational, an extension of the influence of the Taliban and the militants in North and South Waziristan, and as challenging the writ and authority of the government.
While this crisis was brewing the government also used it for its own propaganda. The government tried to make itself seem more than reasonable; people criticised it for not taking action earlier. The government wanted to terrorise people into submission, and deter them from thinking of challenging the state. But most importantly for the government, it was earning the pleasure of the West by portraying this challenge as a threat to Musharraf’s rule. Musharraf is trying to portray himself as the only person standing between the West and a flood of religious militants who want to end the West’s influence and control of Muslim lands. He has ensured that the West will back his campaign to become president from the present assemblies in army chief’s uniform. So he is pursuing his personal interest at the expense of the ‘national interest’. Every military dictator of Pakistan has used the plea that the nation’s security can be secured only by his own presence at the helm of affairs.
The legal fraternity also rightly called the Lal Masjid crisis a diversion from the lawyers’ movement for the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who had been suspended and was on forced leave from March 9. Others criticised the government for its failure to help flood victims in Sindh and Baluchistan. Ultimately what seemed to be a sideshow or a diversion turned out to be a debacle and a tragedy which galvanised people once again. History does not forgive those dictators who bloody their hands on their own people. Yet despite all this, the episode may mark the beginning of Musharraf’s downfall. Interestingly, every dictator in Pakistan has lasted between eight and 11 years; Musharraf is about to complete his eighth year.
Any genuine Islamic movement, belonging to the pure and pristine Islam, is always grounded in a good understanding of the processes of history. Hizbullah and Hamas are the best examples at present of movements grounded in Islam and history: so they are proactive, patient and not reactionary, and do not fall into traps set by others.
Any genuine Islamic movement, belonging to the pure and pristine Islam, is always grounded in a good understanding of the processes of history. Hizbullah and Hamas are the best examples at present of movements grounded in Islam and history: so they are proactive, patient and not reactionary, and do not fall into traps set by others. Even fidayeen attacks on Zionists are only used occasionally as a military tactic, to achieve specific objectives. Likewise the Islamic movement in Iran not only succeeded in establishing an Islamic State by Islamic Revolution, but has been able to withstand all intrigues, boycotts and sanctions, coercion and infiltration, but has never reacted in a way that plays into the enemies’ hands. For all their commitment and sacrifices, the leaders of the Lal Masjid failed this simple test. As a result, their impact is likely to be restricted to damaging the existing order in Pakistan, without contributing anything to the emergence of an Islamic alternative.
The proof of a course of action is in the outcome. The Soviet Union collapsed not entirely due to the mujahideen’s struggle, though that contributed. The main reason was that, like Uthmaniyah Empire, it collapsed under its own weight; the US also spent billions to help the process along.
It is always easy to fight against and destroy an enemy, but much more difficult to build anything new. A new civilization requires its people to exercise reason and rationality, creativity and innovation, preference for substance over style, patience and tolerance of other views, free from fear and coercion, and many other virtues.
Today, the US’s international hegemonic order is threatened by the jihad of Islamic movements, including but not restricted to salafi groups that identify with al-Qa’ida. But should such groups succeed, would Muslims be able to liberate themselves completely? The answer at present is no; because they are not in a position to establish Islamic alternatives. It is always easy to fight against and destroy an enemy, but much more difficult to build anything new. A new civilization requires its people to exercise reason and rationality, creativity and innovation, preference for substance over style, patience and tolerance of other views, free from fear and coercion, and many other virtues. If these abilities and habits are not present in the mindset of any person or movement, building a new and just civilisation is next to impossible.
Hence one indication of whether or not a movement genuinely derives from Islam is the presence or absence of these qualities. This is indicated by revolutionary intellectual content, resistance to Western domination and control of Muslim lands, ethical Islamic leadership, genuine and deep taqwa, and commitment to preserving and promoting the unity of the Ummah. Unfortunately Pakistan’s people and their current leaders fall far short on all these and many other counts.