Many well-known Pakistani political commentators seem bent upon trivializing Lal Masjid. Although the mosque’s bloody siege has now entered into its fifth day, for them the comic sight of the bearded Maulana Abdul Aziz fleeing in a burqa is proof that this episode was mere puppet theatre. They say it was enacted by hidden hands within the government, expressly created to distract attention away from General Musharraf’s mounting problems, as well as to prove to his supporters in
That the crisis could have been averted is beyond doubt. The Lal Masjid militants were given a free hand by the government to kidnap and intimidate. For months, under the nose of
Even after Jamia Hafsa students went on their violent rampages in February 2007, no attempt was made to cut off the electricity, gas, phone, or website – or even to shut down their illegal FM radio station. Operating as a parallel government, the mullah duo, Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi and Maulana Abdul Aziz, ran their own Islamic court. They received the Saudi Arabian ambassador on the mosque premises, and negotiated with the Chinese ambassador for the release of his country’s kidnapped nationals. But for the outrage expressed by
For a state that has not shied from using even artillery and airpower on its citizens, the softness on the mullahs was astonishing. Even as the writ of the state was being openly defied, the chief negotiator appointed by Musharraf, Chaudhry Shujaat Husain, described the burqa brigade militants as “our daughters” with whom negotiations would continue and against whom “no operation could be contemplated”.
But this still does not prove that the fanatics were deliberately set up, or that radicalism and extremism is a fringe phenomenon. The Lal Masjid mullahs, even as they directed kidnappings and vigilante squads, continued to lead thousands during Friday prayers. Uncounted thousands of other radically charged mullahs daily berate captive audiences about immoralities in society and dangle promises of heaven for the pious.
What explains the explosive growth of this phenomenon? Imperial
Extremism is often claimed to be the consequence of poverty. But deprivation and suffering do not, by themselves, lead to radicalism. People in
Lack of educational opportunity is also not a sufficient cause. It is a shame that less than 65% of Pakistani children have schools to go to, and only 3% of the eligible population goes to universities. But these are improvements over 30 years ago when terrorism was not an issue. More importantly, violent extremism has jumped the educational divide. The 911 hijackers and the
The above, as I have argued, are insufficient causes although they are significant as contributory reasons. There are more compelling explanations: the official sponsorship of jihad by the Pakistani establishment in earlier times; the poison injected into students through their textbooks; and the fantastic growth of madrassas across
But most of all, it has been the cowardly deference of Pakistani leaders to blackmail by mullahs. Their instinctive response has been to seek appeasement. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had suddenly turned Islamic in his final days as he made a desperate, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to save his government and life. A fearful Benazir Bhutto made no attempt to challenge the horrific Hudood and blasphemy laws during her premierships. And Nawaz Sharif went a step further by attempting to bring the Shariah to
Such slavish kow-towing had powerful consequences. The crimes of mullahs, because they are committed in the name of Islam, go unpunished today. The situation in
On April 12, to terrify the last few hold-outs, the Lal Masjid mullahs declared in their FM radio broadcast that
The Lal Masjid crisis is a direct consequence of the ambivalence of General Musharraf’s regime towards Islamic militancy. In part it comes from fear and follows the tradition of appeasement. Another part comes from the confusion of whether to cultivate the Taliban – who can help keep Indian influence out of
What should the government do after the guns stop firing and the hostages are out, whether dead or alive? At least two immediate actions are needed.
First, those who publicly preach hatred in mosques and call for violence against the citizens of
Second, one must not minimize the danger posed by madrassas. It is not just their gun-toting militants, but the climate of intolerance they create in society. Where and when necessary, and after sufficient warning, they must be shut down. Establishment of new madrassas must be strictly limited. Apologists say that only 5-10 percent of madrassas breed militancy, and thus dismiss this as a fringe phenomenon. But if the number of Pakistani madrassas is 20,000 (give or take a few thousand; nobody knows for sure) this amounts to 1000-2000. Although all are not equally lethal, this is surely a lot of dangerous fringe.
The government’s madrassa reform program has fallen flat on its face, and future efforts will do no better. It was absurd to have assumed that introducing computers or teaching English could have transformed the character of madrassa education away from brain-washing and rote memorization towards logical behaviour and critical thinking. Did the adeptness with which Lal Masjid managed its website really bring it into the 21′st century? Madrassas are religious institutions; they cannot be changed into normal schools. It is time to give up wasting money and effort in attempting to reform them and, instead, to radically improve the public education system and make it a viable alternative.
The Lal Masjid battle is part of the wider civil war within the Islamic world waged by totalitarian forces that seek redemption through violence.
Their cancerous radicalism pits Muslims against Muslims, and the world at large. It is only peripherally directed against the excesses of the corrupt ruling establishment, or inspired by issues of justice and equity.
Note that the Lal Masjid ideologues – and others of their ilk – do not rouse their followers to action on matters of poverty, unemployment, poor access to justice, lack of educational opportunities, corruption within the army and bureaucracy, or the sufferings of peasants and workers.
Instead their actions are concentrated entirely on improving morality, where morality is interpreted almost exclusively in relation to women and perceived Western cultural invasion. They do not consider as immoral such things as exploiting workers, cheating customers, bribing officials, beating their wives, not paying taxes, or breaking traffic rules. Their interpretation of religion leads to bizarre failures in logic, moral reasoning, and appreciation of human life.
The author is chairman and professor at the Department of Physics,