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Home > News > Report

Lal Masjid + judicial crisis = emergency?

Sushant Sareen | July 06, 2007 22:13 IST
Last Updated: July 09, 2007 12:51 IST

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Islamabad has always been the capital of intrigue and conspiracy theories. The latest theory doing the rounds in Pakistan's capital directly links the armed clashes between the security forces and the ultra-radical mullahs operating out of the Lal Masjid with the severe setback received by the government from the full bench of the Pakistan supreme court during a hearing of the constitutional petition filed by the suspended chief justice.

Cynics believe that General Musharraf has initiated armed action against the Lal Masjid to kill three birds with one stone: One, he is afraid that the chief justice case will go against the regime and the chief justice could be reinstated, and he wants to pre-empt this from happening; Two, he wants to upstage the All Parties Conference of the Opposition in London [Images] which has been called by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to start a movement against the regime; Three, to raise the spectre of an Islamist takeover in Pakistan and scare the Americans who are believed to be putting pressure on Musharraf to take off his uniform, hold free and fair elections and enter into a political deal with the so-called liberal political forces in Pakistan.

The operation against the Lal Masjid is therefore being seen as part of a sinister plot to create disturbed conditions across the country and then use these disturbances to justify the imposition of a state of emergency, or worse, martial law. At the very least, they say, the crisis created by the action against the religious zealots of the Lal Masjid will lead to a postponement of the general election and maybe even the president's election.

To the extent that the growing intransigence and brazenness of the Lal Masjid mullahs in enforcing their demands for imposing the Shariat in the country has kept pace with the rising spiral of the judicial and political crisis created by the suspension of the chief justice, a case can certainly be made out in favour of the conspiracy theorists.

For instance, the latest showdown between the Lal Masjid clerics and the security forces comes a day after the Supreme Court blasted the government for filing an application that scandalises and maligns not only the suspended chief justice but also other judges of the court.

The judges were so incensed that they threatened to throw out the reference filed against the chief justice. At the political level, the Lal Masjid clashes have pushed both the chief justice's case and the All Parties Conference in London in the background -� at least for the time being.

The reality, however, is that if at all there is any link between the actions of the extremists in Lal Masjid and Musharraf's escalating domestic and international problems, it is at best a very tenuous one.

Apart from the one instance given above, it is difficult to draw any direct linkage between setbacks being suffered by the regime on the chief justice front with the actions of the Lal Masjid vigilante force -� taking police officers hostage, raiding music and video shops, raiding alleged brothels, or kidnapping Chinese working in a 'massage parlour'.

In fact, the Lal Masjid problem cropped up first in January, nearly two months before the chief justice was suspended.

The main reason behind the bizarre conspiracy theories doing the rounds in Islamabad is that Musharraf has soft-pedalled the Lal Masjid issue for over six months. Rather than cracking down on the Lal Masjid clerics when they first stepped out of line and occupied a children's library, the Musharraf regime has treated them with kid-gloves and adopted a policy of appeasement.

Shujaat Hussain, the president of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, gave in to all of the demands of the Lal Masjid Taliban and even justified the actions of forcibly occupying a government building by saying that there was nothing worthwhile in that building.

The inability or unwillingness of the State to establish its writ in its proverbial front-yard not only gave an impression that the State was in cahoots with the clerics but also emboldened the Lal Masjid Taliban to take their vigilantism to new highs and provoke the State to the very limits of its tolerance.

Many people in Islamabad also believe that someone in the ruling establishment was instructing the mullahs to stay the extremist course they had taken. After all, the Lal Masjid is not only almost next door to the ISI headquarters but also that Islamabad is one of the most 'watched' capitals in the world (rivaling only Pyongyang in the kind of surveillance that is kept over everyone in the city), and yet the entire issue was allowed to assume Frankenstein's monster proportions!

Couple this with the fact that the Lal Masjid has traditionally enjoyed extremely close links with the ISI and has served as an outpost of the Taliban in Islamabad. What is more, the Lal Masjid brothers -� Maulana Abdul Aziz (also known as Aziz Aunty after being caught trying to escape in a burqa) and Abdul Rashid Ghazi -� have in the past been found involved in major acts of terror, but no action was ever taken against them.

But opinion is divided as to who was prompting the actions of the mullahs from behind the scenes. Some say it was Musharraf's people, who for reasons outlined above wanted to use the Lal Masjid for their political ends. Others believe that the entire crisis was created by recalcitrant elements within the ISI and army who were opposed to Musharraf's pro-West policies. The idea was to put Musharraf in a Catch-22 position where he would be damned if he acted against the mullahs and damned if he didn't.

The problem with most conspiracy theories, however, is that while they sound quite convincing, they tend to gloss over some very inconvenient and troubling realities. Indeed, conspiracy theorists often enough tend to live in a state of denial on the actual problem that confronts them. This is exactly what is happening in the case of the Lal Masjid crisis.

The ugly reality of Pakistan is that the society is increasingly gravitating towards extremism and radicalism and the Lal Masjid crisis is a mere manifestation of this reality.

At one level, the Lal Masjid crisis is a direct fallout of the situation that is developing in Pakistan's Pashtun belt, especially the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, where the Taliban are on a rampage. Even the settled districts of NWFP are coming under the sway of the Taliban. Even though a lot has been written about the Lal Masjid's links with the Pakistani intelligence establishment, its deep links with the Taliban in North and South Waziristan and places like Dir, Swat and Bajaur has been completely glossed over.

If anything, the Lal Masjid was the Taliban's way of throwing down the gauntlet before the Pakistani State and that too in its front-yard. The message was clear: If the Pakistan army can strike in the heart of Taliban territory, then the Taliban have the ability of striking in the heart of the Pakistani State!

The reaction of hard-line clerics in the Pashtun belt and the support they have given to the Lal Masjid bears this fact out. It is also important to remember that a majority of the 'students' attached with the madrassa being run by the Lal Masjid are Pashtuns from the tribal belt of Pakistan and any bloodbath in the mosque will almost certainly strengthen the Taliban in the tribal areas and rest of the Pashtun belt.

But it is not only the Pashtuns who support the Lal Masjid clerics. If anything, support for these radicals cuts across ethnic and class divides. For instance, the raid on the Chinese massage parlour was carried out by the Lal Masjid Taliban with the support of upper middle class students of the Beaconhouse school in that area. There are innumerable reports of children of extremely well-off families taking to jihad.

For instance, the son of one of Musharraf's closest advisors has been linked to the Lashkar-e-Tayiba. The son of a chief minister is also reported to be attached to the Tablighi Jamaat and attracted to Jaish-e-Mohammad.

The attraction of jihad is also sweeping among the dispossessed and disempowered lower classes in the country. At a time when the State had become totally dysfunctional in providing education and welfare, the madrassas offer free education and free boarding and lodging.

If anything, jihad is today an instrument of empowerment in a society that continues to be ruled by a small clique of landlords, businessmen and civil and military officials. Sick of the corruption and venality of the elite, a huge number of people see Islam as the panacea for all the ills of state and society. And for them jihad is the way to usher in a pristine Islamic society.

Interestingly, though not surprisingly, the Lal Masjid has found little support from the mainstream Islamic parties. While the hard-line Jamaat Islami has adopted a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards the Lal Masjid Taliban, the largest and most influential Deobandi party, the Jamiat Ulema Islam, which shares fraternal relations with the Lal Masjid clergy, has maintained a studied distance from their movement for ushering in Shariah in Pakistan.

JUI chief and Leader of the Opposition Maulana Fazlur Rehman has gone to the extent of denouncing the Lal Masjid of being Musharraf's agents. At the same time, the JUI and MMA leadership have clarified that while they support the Lal Masjid's demands for imposing Shariat law and taking action against obscenity and vulgarity in society, they oppose the methods adopted by the Taliban.

Clearly, the mainstream religio-political leaders realise that while they cannot afford to be seen as opposing demands which are also part of their declared political agenda, at the same time they cannot allow someone else to steal their political thunder from under their noses. They also realise that even though the army action will remove a thorn in their side, they must make all the right noises opposing the army action and counseling restraint to both sides in the standoff so that their core constituency (which is anti-Musharraf, anti-America and Pro-Shariah) does not accuse them of a sell-out.

Luckily for the MMA, the judicial crisis gave them an alibi for not backing the Lal Masjid jihad, and instead of the Lal Masjid coming to General Musharraf's rescue in the judicial crisis, it is the judicial crisis that has come as manna from heaven for the mainstream religious parties.

It is precisely the sympathy and support being given to Lal Masjid by a cross-section of Pakistani society that forced the Musharraf regime to show extreme (some would say unseemly) restraint in taking on the Lal Masjid jihadis.

There were also fears (some genuine and some manufactured) that the Lal Masjid Taliban were equipped with huge amounts of weaponry and explosives and had a number of suicide bombers in their ranks and so any armed action against the Lal Masjid would cause hundreds of casualties.

The last thing that the Musharraf regime needed was live televised pictures of dead bodies of hundreds of young men and women whose only crime (at least in the perception of their supporters) was that they were demanding Islamic law in an avowedly Islamic country. Musharraf was also well aware that the so-called liberals who were egging him on to storm the Lal Masjid would be the first ones to ditch him if the operation went bad.

Expectedly enough, now that the government has been forced to flush out the militants in the Lal Masjid, it is the liberals who are in the forefront of criticising the armed action. To make matters worse, rather than supporting the operation against the Taliban, the Opposition has used the Lal Masjid crisis to pillory the government and accuse it of staging a drama.

While one doesn't hold a brief for General Musharraf, the fact is that since 9/11 he has taken an unambiguous stand against extremism and has time and again warned his countrymen of the danger that radical Islamists pose to society and the country. True, there has been a huge gap between what he has been saying and action on the ground. But this is not only a function of lack of intention to act against the Islamists or persisting with the policy of using them as an instrument to achieve foreign policy objectives; there is a genuine fear that any large scale purge of the Islamists could very well lead to a civil war-like situation in the country.

Already there are reports of rising discontent within the middle and junior ranks of officers, many of whom have got reverse indoctrinated during the decades when the army was actively promoting jihad within the country and in the neighbourhood. The intelligence agencies in any case have very close links with the jihadis and there are fears that rogue elements within these agencies could be actively engaged in feeding misinformation to the government and protecting their jihadi clients.

Under the circumstances, even though remote, the possibility of a rebellion within the army in support of the Islamists cannot be ruled out.

As things stand, no one can predict with any certainty the fallout of the armed action against the Lal Masjid. It is entirely possible that many of the fears that prevented strong action by the security forces were misplaced and that the ripples created by the operation against the Lal Masjid will not transform into a wave of Islamist action against the State.

While on the one hand this will lend credence to the conspiracy theory that the entire episode was only a drama staged by the ruling establishment, on the other hand, it will also strengthen the notion that the radical Islamists are no threat to Pakistan and are mere tools in the hands of the army. The danger is that Pakistani society will continue to stay in a state of denial over the clear and present threat that rising extremism poses to the country.

The other possibility is that the military operation will result in a widespread and violent backlash by Islamic militias against the State. This could manifest itself either in the type of insurgency that is currently taking place in the Pashtun areas or else in targeted terror strikes around the country. In the face of any violent reaction by the Islamists, the State will either kowtow to the radicals or else will react viciously against the jihadis. Whatever course of action the State takes, the end result will be a severely destabilised Pakistan.

>Indeed, if things spiral out of control, there is a very real possibility of an emergency, martial law, or postponement of elections. But if this happens it will not be because Musharraf hatched some sinister plot but because of the sheer dialectics of the situation where the government will be left with no choice but to take draconian measures to bring the situation under control. What is more, Musharraf is not going to gain anything from this situation.

Given that Musharraf faces a growing people's movement against his regime, any extreme move like clamping an emergency or imposing martial law could easily precipitate the political crisis and result in chaos and anarchy spilling over on the streets of Pakistan. Since the public mood is against Musharraf and the people are most readily subscribing to the conspiracy theories doing the rounds, it will be very difficult to sell any suspension of political activity in the country.

Any outbreak of civic disturbances and that too at a time when the Pakistani State is tackling the onslaught of the Islamists will almost certainly make a regime change inevitable. The big question at that time will be what will be the nature of the new regime. Will it follow Musharraf's policies sans the general, or will it adopt the path of jihad? On the answer to this question will rest the future of Pakistan and the region.