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Home > News > Columnists > T V R Shenoy

The Lal Masjid standoff: Endgame for Musharraf?

July 05, 2007

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Only a fool sets fire to his neighbour's house. Dare one hope that, even at this late date, wisdom is dawning on the elite of Pakistan?

Our beloved neighbour has become addicted over the years to fuelling terrorism in India, whether in Punjab, or Jammu and Kashmir [Images], or, more recently, in the North-East. Even the once peaceful southern states have been tainted by the particular brand of terrorism backed by Pakistan.

But, having covered the sub-continent in a giant arc, the boomerang has now returned home! Even as I write, there is a pitched battle taking place in the streets of Islamabad itself, where Muslim fundamentalists are taking on the very Pakistani state that nurtured them for decades.

It is no secret at all that the Lal Masjid in the Pakistani capital was both a hotbed of militancy and a darling of Pakistan's rulers.

That has been the case ever since the former head of the institution, Maulana Abdullah, was patronised by General Zia-ul Haq. Why? Because the Maulana was particularly good at making fiery speeches about jihad. (Those, please remember, were the days when it was fashionable to fund such men, all in the name of giving the Soviet Union a bloody nose in Afghanistan.) The Lal Masjid was, both geographically and ideologically, close to the heart of the infamous Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's notorious spy agency.

There was no watering down of Maulana Abdullah's ideology even after the man himself died. The Lal Masjid continued to flourish under the guidance of Maulana Abdullah's sons, Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi. Had you quizzed them before September 11, 2001, they would have openly admitted their close links with Al Qaeda [Images]. (Osama bin Laden was, like General Zia, something of an admirer of Maulana Abdullah.)

The ISI may have been forced to disown Al Qaeda and its ideology after September 11. (In public anyway!) But the Lal Masjid was less hypocritical.

The connection between the Lal Masjid and global terrorism came into the open after the London [Images] blasts of July 7, 2005. Shehzad Tanweer, one of the bombers, turned out to have links with various madarssas in Pakistan. When Pakistani security forces tried to enter the Jamia Hafsa, a madarssa for women that is attached to the Lal Masjid, the brave soldiers were repulsed by baton-wielding women.

The ladies have evidently upgraded their equipment in the two years since this successful defence of their fortress. When the Musharraf administration tried to demolish illegal structures attached to the mosque, the women came out in force once again -- but carrying Kalashnikovs this time. This time too they were successful in repelling the armed might of the Pakistani State in the historic 'Battle of the Children's Library'! (Don't laugh, someday it might stand right up there with the siege of Stalingrad.)

Nobody can say that the Lal Masjid authorities hid their feelings.

The forum attached to their Web site makes fascinating reading, with topics such as 'Nationalism' (classified under 'Dangerous Concepts which are Damaging Muslims') and 'Obeying a Ruler who Rules by Other than Islam' (where the advice given starts with the helpful headline 'The Obligation of Rebelling against the Ruler if he Disbelieves').

For the benefit of those not sophisticated enough to read Internet sites, the Lal Masjid would provide clerics who would preach down-to-earth tactics on the true Muslim's duty to assassinate General Musharraf.

At some point, all this seems to have got on the nerves of the Pakistani ruler. Six months ago, he put the Lal Masjid under siege.

Nothing daunted, the clerics defiantly announced that any assault on their headquarters would be met with a wave of suicide attacks. In July the war of words finally turned into a war of bullets when armed students broke the siege by trying to occupy a nearby government building. The death toll is now well into double figures even by official statistics.

Pakistan's rulers may blandly deny that their country is 'Al Qaeda Central' as some American reports put it. But it would be utterly futile to try to refute the fact that they have reared Muslim fundamentalism in their bosom. How else can you explain the fact that there is a mosque-cum-seminary in the very heart of the Pakistani capital that preaches sedition, whose students, both men and women, carry modern weapons, and whose zeal and armoury alike have kept the Pakistan Rangers at bay?

Does anyone believe that all this happened without the knowledge, possibly even the open encouragement, of Pakistani governments going back over a period of several decades?

There are some in Pakistan who still dream of raising their banners over Delhi. Dare I suggest that before seeking the conquest of the Lal Qila in the Indian capital they try to douse the flames rising outside the Lal Masjid in Islamabad?

T V R Shenoy