At the Red Mosque in Islamabad

4 June 2007

Depending on whom you talk to in Pakistan, the occupation by Islamist militants of a site in the heart of the capital, Islamabad, is either a potential tragedy or a manipulated farce. Some Pakistani observers regard this as an extremely dangerous sign of the spread of Islamist extremism in Pakistan, and the inability of the Pervez Musharraf administration to do anything about this. Officials and military officers say that they fear a bloodbath if the army and police storm the buildings.

On 22 May 2007, Musharraf himself ruled out an attack in an interview with the BBC. Yet increasingly provocative actions by the militants, including the kidnap of policemen, may leave the government no choice if it is to avoid disastrous damage to its prestige, and the encouragement of even more radical actions elsewhere. The Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) has already emerged as an important link between Islamists in Pakistan proper, and the Pashtun tribesmen of the frontier areas who provide much of the backbone of the Taliban.

Anatol Lieven is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington DC. In September 2007, he joins the department of war studies at King’s College, London as chair of international relations and terrorism studies. Among his books are America Right or Wrong: an anatomy of American nationalism (Oxford University Press, 2004) and (with John Hulsman) is Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World (Pantheon, 2006)

Anatol Lieven's articles in openDemocracy:

"Missionaries and marines: Bush, Blair and democratisation" (September 2002)

"America right or wrong?"
(September 2004)

"Israel and the American antithesis" (October 2004)

"Israel, the United States, and truth" (October 2004)

"Bush's choice: messianism or pragmatism?"
(February 2005)

"Israel and the Arabs: peace, not diktats"
(24 July 2006)

"The Iran we have"
(5 December 2006)

Others, from the Pakistani opposition, say that the government's failure to act is not inability but unwillingness on the part of the administration. They argue that in fact the whole business has been created by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to allow President Musharraf to portray himself to the US as an indispensable ally in the war on terror, and so to continue to enjoy US backing. And some analysts, confusingly, say both things at once. What does seem certain is that if Pakistani intelligence did play any role in creating this issue in the first place, then they have landed themselves with a Frankenstein's monster; not a big one as yet, but one they no longer know what to do with.

Musharraf's nemesis

I can't say that my own views were clarified enormously by a visit to the Red Mosque in early May 2007 (together with Peter Bergen of CNN) , and an interview with the 43-year-old cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who together with his brother is co-leader of this group. He is an immensely good talker, with an acute sense of what arguments will appeal most to western critics of Bush administration policies and just enough of a visible glint of steel behind his friendliness to keep his interlocutors off-balance. But whether much of what he says bears more than a tangential relationship to his real aims is another matter; any more than his amiable, rather scholarly appearance reflects the real man within. And despite his courtesy, he was extremely firm in refusing to allow us to interview any of his supporters.

The crisis over the Lal Masjid began when activists from the Jamia Hafsa (Women's College) attached to the mosque, backed by armed militants, occupied an adjacent children's library in response to government moves to demolish illegally constructed mosques in Islamabad. Since then, the problem has undergone various degrees of escalation: in April, when militants launched a campaign to "cleanse Islamabad of vice", arresting an alleged brothel madam and forcing her to atone publicly for her sins, and raiding video and music shops to destroy "immoral" materials; and in mid-May, when they began to kidnap policemen from the streets of Islamabad in response to the police's arrest of some of their number.

However, it would be a mistake to assume, as some of the western media reporting seems to imply, that Ghazi's group came in from outside to seize control of the Red Mosque. It was in fact founded by his father, Maulana Abdullah Ghazi, and is the oldest mosque in the capital (which is not saying that much since Islamabad itself was founded only in the 1960s). His father, like many radical clerics, was favoured by President Zia ul-Haq as part of his Islamisation programme, and the mosque has been the place of worship for much of the more conservative elements of the capital's elite. In 1998, his father was shot down in his own courtyard - according to Ghazi, by the ISI. As so often in Pakistan, what the real truth is God alone knows. However, if he genuinely believes this, it would argue quite strongly against him being a willing tool of the ISI.

By far the most complicated aspect of this whole affair from the point of view of the Pakistani government is that so many of the militants involved are women. The Red Mosque complex does not seem very heavily defended, and could be stormed with relative ease; but there seemed to me to be a genuine dread among officials with whom I talked of the mass Islamist backlash that may result if women students are killed by male police or troops, with some scenes doubtless being successfully filmed for propaganda purposes. There is also a fear that Ghazi's followers may have packed the buildings with explosives, and intend to kill themselves and as many of the security forces as possible if the army attacks.

Also in openDemocracy on Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf:

Irfan Husain, "Musharraf's own goals" (27 March 2006)

Iftikhar H Malik, "Musharraf’s predicament, Pakistan's agony"
(5 September 2006)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan on edge"
(25 September 2006)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan: zero-sum games people play"(6 December 2006)
Irfan Husain, "Pervez Musharraf's bed of nails" (19 March 2007)

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state"
(12 April 2007)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan: sliding into anarchy" (26 April 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "Rising, uprising Pakistan"
(14 May 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan's permanent crisis (16 May 2007)

Credence to this belief has been given by the increasing number of suicide-bombings by Islamist militants in Pakistan, including one during my stay which narrowly missed killing the interior minister, Aftab Khan Sherpao, at a political rally and did kill twenty-two others. Musharraf himself is detested by the militants both for his support for the US "war on terror" and for his generally secular agenda, and he has narrowly escaped two assassination attempts. In July 2005, police attempted to raid the mosque and madrasa in response to the bombings in London, one of the perpetrators of which, Shehzad Tanweer, allegedly studied there.

At the same time, one of Musharraf's chief political supporters, Chaudhury Shujaat Hussein, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (Q), has been negotiating with Ghazi and his followers to find a peaceful solution to the Red Mosque standoff; and this in turn forms part of what seems to be Chaudhury Shujaat's strategy of laying the basis for a possible coalition between his party and the Islamist political alliance, the MMA, to prevent Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) returning to government after the parliamentary elections (originally scheduled for October 2007 but now likely to be held later in the year or in early 2008).

The real problem about assessing the level of radicalism and danger presented by Islamists in Pakistan is not merely that they are spread across a spectrum, from thoroughly pragmatic and even cynical elements all the way to suicide-bombers; but also that the same people may occupy two apparently very different points on the spectrum at one and the same time.

Thus the Jamaat-i-Islami party, which has expressed qualified understanding for Ghazi and his followers, has long played the role of a mainstream political force in Pakistan, entering into political alliances with a wide range of secular political forces. When I asked one of their leaders if the Jamaat would consider entering into an alliance with Benazir Bhutto's PPP after the next elections, he grinned at me: "Why not? We've done it in the past."

Jamaat leaders, like Khurshid Ahmed whom I also interviewed during this visit, like Abdul Rashid Ghazi stress their progressive Islamist credentials. They have a strong women's movement, and emphasise their dedication to women's education and a strong role for women in the state. They claim that their model is Iran, not the Taliban.

Yet a majority of al-Qaida leaders captured in Pakistan have been arrested while sheltering with members of the Jamaat; and precisely because it is a highly organised movement, with dedicated and disciplined cadres, the Jamaat causes more anxiety to secularists in Pakistan than some ostensibly much more extreme groups.

The Islamist storm

The Jamaat may in fact seem more moderate than other Pakistani Islamist groups not because so much because of its ideology (except in its praiseworthy opposition to the savage hatred of Shi'a felt by some other Sunni Islamists) but because it is more urbane in the strict sense of the word - it comes from the ancient urban tradition of the Indian Muslim religious classes, and not from the considerably rougher traditions of the Pashtuns, represented among other groups by the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI).

At the centre of the current storm, Abdul Rashid Ghazi sits in his small, shabby office on the edge of the bleak, dusty Red Mosque compound, emailing to his sympathisers among Pakistanis round the world, and twinkling frostily at visitors from behind his gold-rimmed spectacles. He declares that the role of women in his movement is not an anomaly but a core part of the tradition established by his father, who founded the first Islamic women's college in Pakistan: "A majority of people here want their daughters to be educated...and if you educate a man you have educated only one person; if you educate a woman you have educated a whole family. We differ from the Taliban in this."

Ghazi claims not to be in revolt against the Pakistani government: "We are only a student protest" - a rather heavily armed one, as he does not trouble to deny. He added however that "We do not want to overthrow Musharraf as such. We want to overthrow the entire Pakistani system, which serves only 1% of the population." Like Islamist forces elsewhere, he makes much of his movement's opposition to the corrupt "feudal" and bureaucratic forces who have dominated both civilian and military governments in Pakistan.

Most of his interview was naturally given over to attacks on US imperialism: "We couldn't afford even one thirty-second advertisement on international television. But we don't need to, because America is advertising for us!" His words seemed carefully calibrated to appeal to the largest number of Muslims, including Shi'a, and even to anti-Bush westerners: "How much have you spent on the war on terror - trillions of dollars. If you had spent this on helping to develop Pakistan and Afghanistan, we would have loved you and never attacked you."

Concerning suicide-bombings, he was careful to tread a line between support for such attacks on US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as legitimate, and condemnation of them in Pakistan, and in general when they kill Muslims.

A naïve westerner might have come away from this interview feeling reassured about Ghazi and aspects of Pakistani Islamism in general. But Pakistani officials are many things but rarely naïve; and I found among several of those I interviewed deep worries about the spread of Islamist violence and unrest, and the government's seeming inability to check it: a tendency of which Ghazi's group is only the most notorious example. Mass support for the Islamist parties remains at only around 15% of the population. But then, that does mean about 25 million people; and their capacity to cause trouble is out of all proportion to their numbers.

As to the capacity of Abdul Rashid Ghazi and his followers to cause trouble, that may be tested to the ultimate degree in the next few weeks. He told us that "We have a contingency plan. If we are attacked, we will fight...We are very determined people." Given the tradition from which he comes, with its very complex, often highly pragmatic and opportunist political behaviour and relations with Pakistani governments, he may well be bluffing. On the whole, however, I tend to sympathise with the desire of the present Pakistani government not to put this proposition to the test.

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