Edition 29 Volume 5 - July 26, 2024

Reverberations from Pakistan's Red Mosque

White lies in the Red Mosque -   Faisal Devji

What were high heels doing at the mosque, and how had the divine learned to wear them?

Life after Musharraf -   Irfan Husain

Musharraf's successor could be more sympathetic to fundamentalists, with a hugely destabilizing impact on the region.

Musharraf and his discontents -   Arshin Adib-Moghaddam

The very fact that Musharraf has to react to US policies in the region is an indicator of his weakness.

The Saudi connection -   Gareth Price

In effect, Pakistan witnessed a proxy war between external proponents of Shi'ite and Sunni Islam.

White lies in the Red Mosque
 Faisal Devji

Instead of posing a challenge to the Pakistani state, the assorted kidnappings, armed incursions and terrorist threats by the students and teachers of Islamabad's Red Mosque earlier this month presented it with a symbolic confrontation in the media. For the Red Mosque compromised Pakistan's security far less than the "secular" struggle for autonomy in its province of Balochistan. But if it was the mosque's symbolic impunity in the glare of media attention that challenged Pakistan's government, the violent resolution of this confrontation by its army was equally symbolic in character. It was no accident that this military resolution had the codename Operation Silence. So the army's siege of the Red Mosque and the negotiated settlement that Pakistani mediators had nearly reached with the teachers and students of its seminary were both for symbolic reasons. Possibly encouraged by his American friends, General Musharraf seems to have decided that these men and women needed to be taught a lesson, though not for the sake of a principle so much as to secure his own reputation as someone who did not cut deals with terrorists.

Searching for a regional precedent to Operation Silence, the Indian press has drawn comparisons between the Red Mosque and the Golden Temple, which was attacked on Indira Gandhi's orders during Operation Bluestar in 1984. Occupied by armed divines and their students demanding Sikh autonomy, this shrine was besieged by Indian troops and eventually stormed with the loss of over 400 lives. Shortly thereafter Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, some 4,000 Sikhs were massacred in Delhi and the Sikh-dominated province of Punjab given over to an insurgency that lasted a decade, sending many thousands to their deaths. While Operation Silence certainly follows the precedent of Operation Bluestar it also suffers in the comparison. The storming of the Red Mosque similarly suffers in comparison with that of Mecca's Great Mosque by French-backed Saudi troops in 1979, to evict the armed supporters of a self-proclaimed messiah and kill hundreds. Unlike its more illustrious predecessors, the Red Mosque is not a sacred site, and rather than demanding a separate state or proclaiming a messiah, its defenders wanted only to "clean up" society in the manner of NGOs, citizens' groups and other do-gooders.

Comparing those holed up in the Red Mosque to the Taliban or al-Qaeda is also misplaced. For one thing, their kidnappings and forcible closing of "immoral" businesses were attempts to court publicity that resulted not in the meting out of any "Islamic" punishments so much as in the almost Maoist "re-education" and subsequent release of alleged prostitutes. And for another, the presence of large numbers of armed and veiled women at the Red Mosque harked back to the images and participation of women in the revolutionary Shi'ism of Iran or Lebanon rather than to the masculine character of Sunni militancy, especially of the anti-Shi'ite kind that we are told dominated the Red Mosque. This mixing of genders and genealogies, together with the uncontrolled use during the crisis of mobile phones by students and teachers, suggests that their militancy was individual rather than collective and amateur rather than professional in nature. Instead of constituting an ideological movement or militant group, these aggressive but disparate men and women would more correctly be described as forming a civil society organization.

The "co-ed" character of the mosque's seminary, which not only included large numbers of women but also put them in the closest proximity to men, was unusual and even scandalous for a supposedly "conservative" Sunni institution. This scandal was made evident with the arrest of the Red Mosque's leader, Maulana Abdul Aziz, while trying to escape the premises disguised in a burqa and high-heeled shoes. What were high heels doing at the mosque, and how had the divine learned to wear them? Although disguise and cross-dressing are forbidden in Muslim scripture, the burqa has become a secular garment widely adopted as a male and female disguise all over South Asia. Celebrities wear burqas to remain anonymous, as an Indian pop star recently did when visiting an Islamic shrine. Suspected criminals also wear them to avoid media exposure when being presented in court. Rather than marking women with the sign of Muslim patriarchy, in other words, the burqa actually does the opposite and "un-marks" both men and women in such cases, thus proving that no sartorial practice is univocal in character.

All of this suggests that the Red Mosque was linked more to the everyday and even secular practices of modern life in the region than to any traditional or cult behavior. This is made clear by the fact that it was the "traditional" Maulana Abdul Aziz who tried to escape the besieged institution of which he was the head and not his "modern" brother Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who had studied history and international relations at Pakistan's most prestigious university, having worked in addition both for UNESCO and his country's ministry of education in the past. It was this "westernized" man who announced his impending martyrdom to the world by sending a text message from his mobile phone. What we see here is an example of the mutation and flattening out of Islamic militancy, which has in many parts of the world been weaned off its dependence on exotic and cult behavior to become yet another form of voluntary association that individuals join for their own reasons, often as part-time members rather than full-time radicals.

Analysis of the Red Mosque crisis has been dominated by the institution's apparently close relationship to the Pakistani state. Attention has also focused on the government's supposed encouragement of the crisis in its initial phase, so as to divert attention from the popular movement building up around the refusal of the country's chief justice to accept his dismissal at General Musharraf's hands. There is no doubt some truth to both these allegations, with the breakdown of relations between government and militants only illustrating the impending breakdown of the regime as a whole. Like all military dictatorships, this regime compensates for its lack of popular support by relying upon institutions and organizations in civil society. But if the movement of lawyers and other professional groups coalescing around the dismissed chief justice signals the detachment of these former clients from Musharraf's regime, that of the Red Mosque's students and teachers signals the corresponding detachment of the general's religious clients from his government.- Published 26/7/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Faisal Devji is associate professor of history at The New School in New York.

Life after Musharraf
 Irfan Husain

Suddenly, after eight years of virtually absolute power, President Pervez Musharraf looks weak and vulnerable. Just over a year ago he was master of all he surveyed: barely challenged by a divided opposition, he was the toast of Washington. But a year can be a lifetime in politics.

Assailed by Islamic extremists and Pushtun tribesmen who support the Taliban, he now confronts a new front in the shape of a resurgent and independent judiciary. The opposition parties, meeting recently in London, have found a new sense of direction and purpose.

Against this background, the elections due this fall must cause Musharraf more than a few sleepless nights. Before his attempt to sack the chief justice of the Supreme Court ended in ignominious failure after a protracted and debilitating legal battle, he had hoped to get himself re-elected for five years by the present assemblies before they were dissolved ahead of the elections. Fearing legal challenges to this unconstitutional step, he had suspended the independent chief justice to clear the deck. But this ploy has come unstuck, leaving Musharraf dangling in the wind.

So after nearly a decade, we can look forward to a Pakistan without Musharraf. What will his absence mean for the country, the region and the world? In truth, Pakistan's importance to the West lies chiefly in its geopolitical location and the fact that it is a nuclear power. Often, Musharraf has claimed western support on the basis of the fallout resulting from his exit and a possible extremist takeover. As a western diplomat once said, "Pakistan is the only country I know that negotiates with a gun to its own head."

But after 9/11, Pakistan's large Muslim population, divided among various sects and political persuasions, has also become a matter of concern; the ongoing battle for the country's soul is important for the rest of the world. The recent government assault on the Red Mosque illustrated the polarization that has gripped Pakistan over the last few years.

In the Muslim world, Pakistan's nuclear capability has given it a considerable presence. A year ago, Musharraf used his standing to urge an opening to Israel in order to resolve the complex Palestinian question. Domestically, he asked his country to debate the recognition of Israel as a necessary first step to enter the peacemaking process as a player. To demonstrate his resolve, he sent his foreign minister to meet his Israeli counterpart in Istanbul.

All these bold steps would have been unthinkable for a civilian leader. But Musharraf, unfettered by the political need to forge a national consensus on such a sensitive issue and supported by Washington, was keen to be seen as an international peacemaker. Whether this aborted initiative would have made any difference to the stalled peace process is doubtful, especially in Tel Aviv. But it is a fact that the Palestinians have no stauncher supporter than Pakistan: every week at Friday sermons across the country, prayers are offered for the liberation of the occupied territories. Indeed, this issue resonates more deeply than any other concerning the Muslim ummah.

So it is just possible, had Musharraf not been stymied by domestic challenges, that he might have prevailed on Hamas hardliners to modify their stance. Although he has often been reviled as being too pro-Washington, Musharraf has consistently cited the Palestinian issue as a key factor in the radicalization of young Muslims from Birmingham to Bombay.

The best-case scenario would see Musharraf supervise a relatively free and fair election and bow out gracefully. But generals are not well known for their graceful exits. Should he declare an emergency and postpone elections, the whole system could be further destabilized. His extremist and secular opponents could join hands in a street movement to remove him. To save his own skin, he might hand over power to another general, and his successor might well prove to be more sympathetic to fundamentalists. This could have a hugely destabilizing impact on the region and beyond.

As it is, the government is barely in control of Pakistan's porous borders. Musharraf's violent fall could send a wave of jihadi forces into Kashmir, Iran and Afghanistan. These holy warriors recognize no international boundaries and openly declare their intention to fight for "oppressed Muslim brothers" everywhere. This is a recurring nightmare in New Delhi, Kabul, Tehran and Washington. Political scientists and military planners recognize the potential for chaos that has been building up within Pakistan's borders.

Clearly, it is in the West's interest to promote a free and peaceful election in Pakistan to avert this kind of doomsday scenario. To be sure, past experience with democracy in the country does not inspire much confidence. But in the past, elected governments were constantly destabilized by ambitious generals. Given Washington's current relationship and clout with Pakistan's GHQ, one can hope that a sensible and mature relationship between the ruling party and the army would evolve.

It is in everybody's interest to ensure a relatively pain-free transition from dictatorship to democracy.- Published 26/7/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Irfan Husain writes two columns a week for Dawn, Pakistan's widest circulating and most influential daily. After a career in the civil service spanning 30 years, he was president of a university in Pakistan for five years. He now divides his time between England and Pakistan.

Musharraf and his discontents
 Arshin Adib-Moghaddam

There is little doubt that those allies of the Bush administration who have signed up to the "war on terror" were quite relieved when they heard that General Pervez Musharraf had managed to suppress the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) revolt in Islamabad, even if that meant that dozens of students had to be killed in what appeared to be a rather unbalanced shootout. For most politicians and mainstream commentators in Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, the event was yet another footnote in the global war on terror, a successful campaign against al-Qaeda "jihadists" by a steadfast ally. Ironically, however, it is exactly the perception of General Musharraf as a subservient enforcer of American interests in the region that is eroding his legitimacy, not only among the neo-fundamentalist Right, but also among leading figures of Pakistani civil society.

In Pakistan--as in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and elsewhere in the Muslim world--religiously legitimated political activism is not primarily about "global jihad" but about domestic politics. The rich imagery and potent symbols of Islam are repackaged (sometimes beyond recognition) and employed by a range of political associations, religious sects, liberal grassroots organizations and fundamentalist terrorist movements in order to protest the abominations of the state on the one side and real and perceived dependency on the politics of the White House on the other. The ongoing crisis in Pakistan has a lot to do with the misguided policies of the Musharraf government; with the suspension of the chief justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who was only recently reinstated after vehement protests by the country's intelligentsia; with the mishandling of the transnational tribal unrest in Balochistan and North Waziristan; and with the corruption in Pakistan's intelligence services.

One of the reasons why Musharraf was not able to defuse the Red Mosque crisis even after employing a policy of appeasement for a few months, is that he does not have an "organic" domestic constituency that could coat his policies with an ideology that appeals to the masses. The secular Left despises him because of the dictatorial powers he has arrogated to himself and his cronies, and the neo-fundamentalist, religious Right battles the secular tenets of his policy of "enlightened moderation". Moreover, both strata of Pakistani society are highly critical of his pro-American stance and the impact of the "war on terror" on the country's domestic and international politics. I would go one step further. Even before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but more exponentially after them, any state in the Muslim world that associates itself too closely with the foreign policies of the US threatens to open itself up to systematic domestic dissent; Pakistan is no exception to this increasingly salient dialectic, which posits pro-American states against oppositional societies.

Here it does not help Musharraf that the US has embarked on the construction of its third military base in Afghanistan, in close vicinity to the Afghani-Pakistani border and well-situated to conduct and supervise military operations within Pakistani territory. After all, the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) has set out that al-Qaeda has successfully regrouped in that increasingly anarchic border area, and that the transnational network constructed by the organization is functional enough to conduct terrorist operations in the US itself. The record of the Bush administration shows that it has needed much less incentive to transgress international norms and violate the sovereignty of independent nation-states. Indeed, Musharraf himself deemed it necessary repeatedly to stress that the Pakistani national army is able to pacify the borders with Afghanistan and that a mixture of deal-making and military pressures could be conducive to that end. Yet, the Bush administration has still not ruled out military operations within Pakistani territory.

But to his opponents the very fact that Musharraf has to react to US policies in the region is an indicator of his weakness. The nation-state of Pakistan emerged out of massive upheaval that caused immense human suffering. Its foundational ideology was inspired by the political expediency of Muhammad-Ali Jinna, the poetic exigencies of Muhammad Iqbal and the Islamist activism of Abu-l-Ala Mawdudi. It was in many ways the original "Islamic Republic", at the heart of which its founders placed the struggle for independence. That the neo-fundamentalist activism propounded by Taliban-type sects confronting the Musharraf government from the Right are now at the forefront of the struggle against the state, is largely due to the systematic suppression of the legitimate, oppositional activities of Pakistan's civil society. It is one of the many ironies of contemporary US foreign policies in the Muslim world that the Bush administration has implicitly contributed to this radicalization of Pakistani society.- Published 26/7/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam has taught comparative politics and international relations at SOAS since 2024. He is the author of "Iran in World Politics". His newest book entitled "A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilizations" will be published in November 2024.

The Saudi connection
 Gareth Price

General Pervez Musharraf faces his greatest test since he took power in 1999. On the one side, the mainstream political parties have found an issue to galvanize their opposition to the president. His decision to dismiss the chief justice led to massive protests and many deaths on the streets of Karachi. He has since been forced to reinstate the judge, amid fears that the judge may well rule many of his actions in the run-up to the general election unlawful.

On the other side, Islamic militants continue to target troops, notably in the North West Frontier Province. But their reach was demonstrated this month by events at the Lal Masjid, a mosque in the center of Islamabad. Members of the mosque had targeted video shops and what they claimed were brothels in Islamabad, in essence bringing the Taliban-style of government that characterizes the NWFP to the center of Pakistan. Eventually troops stormed the mosque, killing many people inside.

Events in Pakistan are usually examined through the prism of their impact on relations with its nuclear rival, India. Countries to the west have played a key role in developments in Pakistan, but have rarely suffered any comeback from their interference. Thus Pakistan continues to act, literally, as a playground for elites from the Gulf. Late last year, Pakistan issued more than 20 permits to various members of Gulf royal families to hunt bustards in Pakistan. The permits allow 10 days of falconry, with a limit of 200 birds killed. Among others, the president of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and General Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum received permission to hunt in Pakistan.

But Pakistan has also acted as a playground for more pernicious battles. Religion has long been used as a means of constructing Pakistani identity. Under General Zia ul-Haq in the 1970s, the state began explicitly promoting Sunni Islam to the chagrin of Pakistan's large Shi'ite minority. To protect their community, Shi'ite militants emerged; this in turn spurred the creation of Sunni militancy. The Iranian revolution politicized and inspired Shi'ite groups while Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait started to patronize Wahabi groups. In effect, Pakistan witnessed a proxy war between external proponents of Shi'ite and Sunni Islam.

Saudi moves to promote Wahabism have been particularly grave. Since the oil price boom of the 1970s, Pakistan has been a key focus of Saudi funding. Even by official figures, the number of madrassas in Pakistan has increased exponentially in recent years and it is thought that the bulk of the new madrassas have some connection to Saudi financing. This has directly contributed to the hijacking of ancient Sufi traditions by more hard-line, intolerant strains of Islam. At first this served a purpose for Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the US as these madrassas churned out recruits to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Now, Musharraf is at virtual war with Islamist radicals, and modernizing the education sector has become a central theme of US assistance to Pakistan.

Saudi assistance has not just been to schools. After Pakistan's 1998 nuclear tests triggered western sanctions, the Pakistani government turned to the Middle East for help. Saudi Arabia initially provided oil and later provided a cash grant to prop up Pakistan's economy. For many, this was seen as retrospective payment for the one thing that differentiates Pakistan from other Muslim countries--its nuclear capability. Some analysts believe that Saudi Arabia actually co-financed the nuclear program, and occasional reports suggest that Saudi Arabia is secretly building up its own nuclear weapons program, helped by Pakistani scientists.

Pakistan is clearly much poorer than countries in the Middle East, and for decades Pakistan has balanced receipt of monies from the Gulf, from the US and in the past few years from China. This tightrope seems likely to continue in the years to come. But western concern about the impact of madrassas in Pakistan is rising. From the UK perspective, the fact that the bombers in the 7/7 attacks on London's underground system all had connections with Pakistan brought home these linkages. Yet despite occasional calls for policy to be recalibrated, Saudi Arabia remains a key western ally.

But trends in Saudi Arabia are not dissimilar from those in Pakistan. In both, the state has sponsored militant groups in other countries for foreign policy purposes. But as Pakistan is now discovering, sometimes these militants return home and demand that their radical ideas be put into practice. In Pakistan, the Islamic parties have never received a large share of the vote. But their access to foreign funds has made them vocal and the militant groups around them well-armed. For now, the West appears to overlook this Saudi connection in conducting relations with Saudi Arabia. Whether this position is tenable in the long-term seems less certain.- Published 26/7/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Gareth Price is Head of the Asia Program at Chatham House, London.

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