DAWN - Opinion; July 16, 2007

Published July 16, 2007

Dark shadow of Lal Masjid

By Tanvir Ahmad Khan


INTERVIEWED by the TV channel, Dawn News, I said that the appalling tragedy enacted at the Lal Masjid demanded an investigation into the specific events that led to it, and no less importantly, the establishment of a high powered national commission to inquire into the madressah system of Pakistan.

The specific focus on Lal Masjid was warranted by two obvious factors. One, it was either a unique case or at the most belonged to a small category of madressahs where education had become subordinate to militancy and Sharia activism. Two, its end was shrouded in the fog of war and posed several highly important but unanswered questions. The nation is entitled to know the truth.

The larger investigation needs to be headed by some eminent jurist who is also well versed in Islam. Such a commission would require adequate representation of the madressahs, the government and civil society. It should draw upon the considerable work already done on the issue since 1980s, carry out a comprehensive survey of its own and make exhaustive recommendations for self-regulation by the madressahs, for national legislation and for future government policy.

Much of the work done in the past has been dominated by the executive which has often worked under the constraints of inadequate knowledge of the exponential growth of madressahs and the lack of freedom of opinion. The present situation is fraught with perils. There is a tendency, at least in some of the seminaries, to spiral out of control.

At the same time, the westernised elite of Pakistan follows the lead from abroad to demonise madressahs per se. Not infrequently its criticism deliberately ignores the socio-political realities created by its own ruthless self-aggrandisement; it continues to enlarge the vacant space of marginalisation and neglect that the madressahs fill.

A rough estimate is that one-third of literacy in a vital age group of young people comes from the madressahs. Denunciation of religious institutions and organisations in a semi-colonial style that is fashionable but shallow is widening the gap in an already divided society.

I do not know of a single government in Pakistan since 1950s that did not trade off political support from religious forces for deliberate “appeasement” only to turn its back on compacts of expediency. This opportunism by itself has radicalised the religious elements.

An authoritative commission that commands respect may plan more convincingly the restructuring of madressah education without incurring the suspicion that the executive authority asking them to undertake it is acting on behalf of intrinsically hostile domestic or international forces.

The entire debate at present is vitiated by the perception that the Musharraf regime is a surrogate for an international coalition determined to reshape the world of Islam. The madressahs are being transformed into fortresses of resistance in a manner reminiscent of how the ulema fought off the proselytising and evangelical zeal of the Christian missionaries who for a time tried to ride on the coattails of imperial Britain in India of the mid-1850s through at least two succeeding decades.

That the Lal Masjid became a fortress not only in that 19th century sense — the content of the curriculum — but also in terms of present day terrorism constitutes the core of government’s rationale for putting it down with overwhelming force.

Stockpiles of weapons shown on TV screens during the closely supervised return of the media to the complex on July 12 might have been partly stage-managed but the fact remains that the militants sustained the battle for a whole week and inflicted unacceptable losses on the finest units of the Pakistan army.

The transformation of a mosque and the seminaries attached to it into an armed encampment of ferocious fighters and their destruction with shocking loss of life will haunt Pakistan for a long time. More and more people may hold the government responsible for both acts of the blood-soaked drama.

The identity of the hard-core militants is still not clear beyond President Musharraf’s broad hint linking them to the tribal area and some parts of the NWFP. It is also not clear why they had gathered around the khateeb and his younger brother. If the Lal Masjid was a sanctuary for wanted men or erstwhile holy warriors aggrieved by Musharraf’s dramatic changes of policy towards Afghanistan and India, the state should have tackled them one way or the other a long time ago.

The final battle turned out to be a carnage that the government may not ever wish to acknowledge in full. Pakistan’s formidable Special Services Group (SSG) lost a highly regarded colonel, a young captain and eight soldiers with another 33 being wounded.

The circumstances in which the last effort made by several ulema and pro-Musharraf politicians to avoid a showdown failed are highly obscure with conflicting explanations coming from the government and the ulema About seven hours into the battle, the defiant cleric, Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi, was killed with nearly all of his supporters but only after he had succeeded in forcing the national army, which traditionally has been the pride of average Pakistanis , to kill scores of people who were probably more of hostages than terrorists.

This was one of the saddest days in the history of Pakistan and it will not be easily forgotten.

Pakistan’s armed forces have faced an unenviable task since the US invasion of Afghanistan. They have suffered heavy casualties and faced allegations by tribal clerics of being an accomplice of the ‘infidels’ occupying Afghanistan. The growing confrontation between the Pakistan army and the Islamic radicals will undermine the foundations of the Pakistani state more than anything else. It has to be resolved and not exacerbated.

Worse still is the fact that most of the students who got killed came from the districts of the North West Frontier Province where the jihadi tradition stretches back to British rule. This tradition was revived by the Pakistan government in the epic struggle of the Mujahideen against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The rupture with the government came when it failed to convince the tribes of the region that the struggle against the Russians was jihad while the one against the American invasion of Afghanistan was a crime. The failure of the government to carry conviction with the people in this regard is much more costly in terms of national solidarity than is usually conceded.

President Musharraf tried to apply a kind of closure on the grisly episode by addressing the nation on radio and television on July 12. He is a man of action, not of contemplation; of confrontation, not reconciliation. And yet, in this address, he couched his resolve to root out extremism in measured tones. He asked the people to be introspective about their faith and the ulema to disengage the madressahs from extremism. At the same time, the army would be available to provincial authorities if the militant threat persists.

This carefully crafted policy statement will be buffeted by contrary winds. Led by President Bush, the West would demand a sustained application of force. A just published Carnegie report makes the case that “that the Pakistani state bears responsibility for the worsening security situation in Afghanistan, the resurgence of the Taliban, terrorism in Kashmir, and the growth of jihadi ideology and capabilities internationally.”

This view will be echoed and amplified by a segment of Pakistani ‘liberals’ anxious to enlist the army in fighting “creeping Talibanisation”.

In the siege of the Red Mosque, the army was probably left with little choice but to strike hard but whether it would like to be sucked into a hundred religion-driven mini-insurgencies, especially in the sensitive trans-Indus provinces, is yet to be seen. Musharraf has not declared an emergency; nor has he indicated an indefinite postponement of elections.

Admittedly, Benazir Bhutto has been offering support to him on this issue which would be invaluable in Sindh and parts of the Punjab. But when it comes to the NWFP and Balochistan with their religious and sub-national dynamics, Musharraf may still secretly rely on a part of the religious alliance that his advisers helped form in 2002.

The most likely outcome would be a combination of high rhetoric and selective punishment of those who cross the red line. The West would continue to ask him to “do more”; the Pakistani elite linked to the West would still grumble that Musharraf’s resolve is wilting once again.

Musharraf’s address disappointed those who expected a clearer statement on his political plans to create a democratic order which in the final analysis would be a far more potent weapon against extremism than periodic blood-letting by the state. His speech writers once again forgot to add a dimension of introspection on his own part while urging the nation to indulge in it.

Conspicuous by its absence was any thought on how the state intends to help the madressahs climb out of their mediaeval mould into the 21st century. The praise for Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Ijazul Haq was cosmetic as their Sisyphean labour once again counted for nothing. There is no sign that Musharraf is willing to broaden the base of his political power or for that matter expand consultative processes beyond the cliques that have characterised his eight-year rule.

The Lal Masjid episode may have caused a major setback to Pakistan’s prospects of developing into a full-fledged Muslim democracy. Detractors of the world of Islam will cite this tragedy to argue that its faith is not compatible with either democracy or human rights because both need tolerance and accommodation of diverse opinions.

Pakistan needs to do much more than what President Musharraf indicated in his address. Regrettably, he has not given the nation a roadmap to security and prosperity as yet.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Lessons of the mosque tragedy

By Murtaza Razvi


TAKING suo motu notice of the military operation against the Lal Masjid clerics, if the Supreme Court had not directed the government to facilitate the burial of the slain Mualana Abdul Rashid, the government would have most likely let it remain a private affair – one to be tackled by the religious leader’s family and his followers.

The very fact that the apex court felt it fit to involve itself in the aftermath of the military operation speaks for the sensitivities involved in tackling religious fanaticism in the country.

No such need for judicial intervention was felt when armed religious students went around the capital for weeks before the operation began, terrorising citizens, abducting and torturing people, including law enforcement personnel and foreign nationals. This, in a nutshell, is a sad commentary on the hold of religiosity on society, and its exaggerated display by all those having any public voice, at critical junctures such as the belated action against the errant clerics. The nearly state funeral Abdul Rashid was given mocks at the rule of law; the victims of his obstinacy who were killed in the same operation were not half as lucky.

Following the beginning of the operation against the Lal Masjid brigade on July 4, the religious right allied itself with the rebellious brothers Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi. No bones were made about extending sympathy to the aggressors in this case, even though many clerics went on record saying that the two brothers were acting against religious teachings by resorting to the use of force in their zeal to enforce Shari’a.

Yet, there was no dearth of sympathisers willing to stand by the rebellions brothers just because the latter had made a profession out of using religion for preaching and practicing obscurantist nations and ideas.

Mainstream political parties, too, largely remained out of the fray, lest the voicing of their opinions on the issue benefit the government. The government’s isolation was almost total, which should be read as a comment on the failure of its overall policies and, more so, its politics practised over the last five years.

Benazir Bhutto and Altaf Hussain were the only two leaders who came out clean in favour of the military operation. The former termed the clerics’ behaviour as an assault on the state which must be put down with full force, while the latter confined himself to praising the armed forces as they countered the offensive launched by the Lal Masjid brigade.

The media’s role, too, must be viewed with some reservations. At times, TV channel anchors overstepped their limit by resorting to mediation between the defiant errant clerics and the government.

Their proactive role would have made sense if the focus had remained on saving the lives of the women and children whom Abdul Rashid Ghazi practically used as a human shield to stop the military operation against his seminary.

But as time parsed it became clear that many in the media were also aiming at allowing Ghazi and his militant followers a safe passage, out of the besieged mosque. Some commentators used loaded religious lexicon, describing those killed inside the seminary compound as martyrs.

The reportage following the killing of Abdul Rashid Ghazi and his militant followers, including hardened and wanted foreign extremists who had no business being there, continues to brand the whole incident as a great tragedy.

Tragedy it indeed was will so many children, young men and women held captive by the militants, and eventually many of them killed when they could have saved their lives if they had their way; but that’s not where the media’s focus was.

It termed the operation a tragedy because the key men behind the whole tragic drama were clerics. They were media savvy and they could disguise their ambition of exercising power over the minds of the people in the name of Islam. Such gross abuse of religion would have met with little sympathy elsewhere in the Muslim world, but because of our people’s gullibility religion comes handy as a licence to bully, misguide and confront state authority. Ziaul Haq ruled this country for 11 long years under the guise of patent obscurantism.

There are a few lessons to be learnt from the sordid episode. The first is the revelation that the entire legion of intelligence agencies is woefully inefficient. The government had no clue as to the gravity of the threat posed by the Lal Masjid militants long before they started flexing their muscles openly.

Even as seminary students went out in the streets of Islamabad terrorising citizens, occupying the adjacent children’s library, setting music CDs and even government offices ablaze. Officials had no estimate of the ammunition they had been stockpiling inside the seminary compound for launching a jihad against the state.

The intelligence agencies, as lately observed by the Supreme Court, were apparently busy bugging the offices and houses of the judges, or collecting incriminating material against opposition leaders.

The other lesson the Lal Masjid incident teaches is about the slippery ground the government must now tread carefully but firmly in the aftermath of the Lal Masjid operation. This has to do with the tolerance shown to the doublespeak the entire religious right which has a habit of indulging in. From the top MMA leadership down to the prayer leader at a rural mosque, all will be thundering from their pulpits, including those who privately condoned the military action against the Lal Masjid brigade under the circumstances in which it was taken.

The worst the government can do is to buckle under pressure and allow a free hand to the mullas. It should stand firm on not allowing the reconstruction of razed mosques on unauthorised land in Islamabad, regardless of the foaming and frothing of the religious right.

With the benefit of hindsight, enough in known by now who among the religious leaders were connected to the Lal Masjid squad and how close those links were.

The confidants of the errant clerics who were in the forefront of mediating a truce between those whose actions resulted in the unnecessary bloodbath in Islamabad and a government that for weeks was too reluctant to put down the rebellion, must now come under scrutiny. Any action on the part of the religious right, based on whatever motivation, and one that causes any law and order situation must be curtailed without being apologetic about it.

All madressahs operating in the country must submit themselves to the registration required under the law. Those resisting the move should be put on notice and shut down before they become simmering hotbeds of fanaticism. This country was “not created to be ruled by mullas with a divine mission,” as the Quaid had made clear, much less to be held hostage to their whims.

The term ulema must be redefined and its use restricted to those few scholars who have made contribution to furthering the universal teachings of the faith that include tolerance, peace and harmony, and not instill hate and violence among their followers in the name of religion.

The vast majority of Pakistanis are a tolerant and moderate lot. They should not be held hostage by a few misguided zealots who mount the pulpit, Friday after Friday, calling for opposition to the majority’s will, inciting their followers into lawlessness and carry out anti-state activities. The farce has gone for too long.

The indoctrinated madressah children and the young followers of Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid who lost their lives in the Lal Masjid compound for no fault of their own are crying out for saving others like them from the zealotry being practised by many more maulanas of the same kind.

Not an orderly exit

By Gwynne Dyer


THE New York Times has been wrong on Iraq for so long that it has become a tradition, and they respect tradition at the Times.

Its Monday editorial calling for an immediate US withdrawal from Iraq caused a great stir in the United States: "It is time for the United States to leave Iraq, without any more delay than the Pentagon needs to organise an orderly exit." But an "orderly exit" is not a real option any more, and in any case that is not where the logic of American politics leads in the short run.

It would still be possible to get the 160,000 American troops out of Iraq without scenes reminiscent of the US retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in Korea (1950), let alone the British retreat from Kabul (1842). There would be embarrassing TV clips as jubilant Iraqi mobs looted the Green Zone, but the token British force in Basra and the US troops holding the supply lines up to Baghdad can still get out southwards via Kuwait, while the bulk of the American force could withdraw north to the friendly territory of Kurdistan and evacuate by air from there.

The problem is the collaborators. Tens of thousands of people will probably be killed if they don't leave Iraq when the Americans do, from humble drivers and translators all the way up to senior political and military figures who are too closely identified with the US occupation forces. But given the current state of American opinion about Arabs and terrorism, the United States will not welcome Iraqi refugees today in the same way that it took in Vietnamese refugees thirty years ago.

The US is already being strikingly less generous than European countries in accepting Iraqi refugees, while by far the greater part of the refugee burden falls on Jordan and Syria. But if the United States isn't going to save the collaborators (and it isn't, apart from a few high-profile names who know the US ambassador personally), their deaths will be the roadside counter-point to the eventual American withdrawal.

However, for all the drama in Washington as one high-profile Republican senator after another loses faith in the war, and all the theatrics in the US Congress about deadlines for "troop drawdowns," there will be no withdrawal of American troops from Iraq this year, and almost certainly not next year either. For the New York Times did get one thing right: President Bush's strategy now is to pass the problem (and the blame) to his successor.

"It is frighteningly clear," wrote the Times editorialist, "that Mr. Bush's plan is to stay the course as long as he is president and dump the mess on his successor." What he or she did not say is that most other political forces in Washington are content to go along with that strategy, even if they must publicly insist otherwise.

All political attention in Washington is now fixed on the November, 2008 election. That is already too close for a high-speed American withdrawal from Iraq to be forgotten before the voters go to the polls, so mainstream Republican opinion will back Bush's strategy down to 2009 even in the knowledge that it will ultimately fail. The alternative, an early withdrawal, is probably worse in terms of the election outcome in Congress. (I suspect that senior Republican strategists assume that the presidency is already lost.)

The same logic would dictate that the Democrats should push hard for an early withdrawal, in the belief that the distressing scenes that would accompany it would hurt the Republicans badly. But the Democrats lack the confidence to act on that belief. Indeed, they suspect that they will end up with a lot of the blame for the US defeat in Iraq no matter what they do.

If the Democrats forced a troop withdrawal now, the Republicans would accuse them of "stabbing America in the back." If the pull-out comes after they win the 2008 election, then the disaster will happen on their watch, and the fickle public will already have forgotten who really caused it. So -- goes the prevailing logic in the Democratic camp -- let's at least win the election before we get blamed for the mess.

If the Bush administration comes under really heavy pressure after the mid-September report to Congress by General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, it may withdraw US troops to the various "enduring bases" it has built in Iraq and leave the locals to fight it out in the streets, but that is the most that is going to happen before early 2009.

God knows whether that means more or fewer Iraqi deaths in the long run, for the fighting in Iraq will certainly not stop when the Americans leave, and it's not clear whether the American presence is currently making the civilian death toll lower or higher. We can calculate that close to 2,000 more Americans troops will die by early 2009 in the service of these political strategies -- or maybe as few as a thousand, if they are pulled back into the "enduring bases." And then, after the US election is over, we will find out what happens to Iraq after the Americans finally leave. ––Copyright

A president in denial

RARELY can George Bush have had so little ammunition with which to defend his policy of deploying 30,000 additional troops to stabilise the government in Iraq. Rarely can he have appeared less convincing when pressed by the White House press corps.

On Thursday, it asked him to produce evidence that his troop surge was working. There were scraps of good news in the interim report Mr Bush presented to Congress on 18 benchmarks of progress, but not enough to provide the president with the cover he needs to control a growing domestic revolt.

Even his own commander on the ground, General David Petraeus, cautioned against crowing too loudly about the good news - the drop in the number of sectarian killings and high-profile bombings from January to June this year. Rightly so, because the first two weeks of July saw fresh onslaughts, such as the recent attack on a village near Kirkuk which killed more than 130 people.

General Petraeus, an expert in counter-insurgency, has said consistently that military force alone will not stop the disintegration of the Iraqi state. The government's ability to hold areas cleared of militias depends on the political moves it makes to share power and oil revenues with rival religious groups. Military operations have to go hand in hand with political ones.

Mr Bush has presented the fluctuating statistics of the insurgency as a mixed bag. But he cannot hide the absence of political progress, which Congress insists the Iraqi government must make. Yesterday's report said that there was still no law to share oil revenue, no law to make it easier for former members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party to get government jobs, and no law on disarming Shia militias - all measures vital for reconciliation with the minority Sunnis.

If the White House is reluctant to express anything less than full support for the multi-party government of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the US intelligence community has felt less constrained to express its scepticism. Appearing before the armed services committee on Wednesday, Thomas Fingar, deputy director of the National Intelligence Council, gave a downbeat assessment of the ability of the Iraqi government to make progress.

Dr Fingar said that even if violence diminished, Iraqi leaders would be hard pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation, given the winner-takes-all attitude and sectarian animosities that infect the political scene. On Thursday the Washington Post reported that the CIA director, Michael Hayden, said in November last year that the inability of the Iraqi government to govern seemed irreversible. In a catalogue that Mr Hayden gave of the main sources of violence - the insurgency, sectarian strife, criminality, general anarchy - al-Qaida came well down the list.

Support for the surge is draining in Washington by the week. Republican members of Congress who once stood by Mr Bush are defecting. The Senate is in the middle of debating a series of motions aimed at constraining the president's hand as commander in chief. They may come to nothing, as not even the Democrat majority want to go for the jugular by voting to cut funding for Mr Bush's extra troops.

The defections and the motions all serve to isolate a president already in retreat. Mr Bush will do well to make it through on his current course to September, when General Petraeus is due to report back to Congress. Few in Iraq believe the situation can be turned around by then.

The president's denial about the reality of Iraq stops any progress being made. It also stops policy makers developing a cogent plan for withdrawal. The president will sit out the unfolding disaster until his term of office expires. Insurgents and militias will sit out the unfolding disaster until the Americans leave. The one benchmark certain to be kept is that Iraqi civilians too poor to flee the country will keep on dying.

— The Guardian, London



© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007

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