Pakistan: sliding into anarchy

Irfan Husain
25 April 2007

For those who believe General Pervez Musharraf to be master of all he surveys, the provocative rebellion of clerics and female seminary students barely a mile from the presidency in Islamabad must come as an eye-opener. Very close to the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) headquarters in Pakistan's capital is the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) compound which also contains the Jamia Hafsa, a residential women's seminary.

But despite its proximity to Pakistan's powerful security establishment, the two brothers who run the religious complex continue to defy the state. In January 2007, burqa-clad, staff-wielding Hafsa students occupied a neighbouring children's library. They were protesting the demolition of seven mosques in and around the capital that had been constructed illegally on state land. And while the Lal Masjid itself was authorised by the late dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, it has itself encroached on surrounding land to house the women's seminary.

Ms Waziristan goes to Islamabad

Ghazi Abdul Rashid and Maulana Abdul Aziz have shot into the limelight as a result of this standoff. Sons of the late Maulana Abdullah, a firebrand cleric, they now preach to mosques around the country over the telephone. And they make no secret of their anti-western, pro-Taliban views. Some reports suggest that one reason why Musharraf was forced on the defensive in Waziristan was that the two brothers issued a fatwa to the effect that any Pakistani soldier killed in action against the Taliban and their sympathisers in the tribal areas could not be given Muslim funeral-rites. This immediately forced field-commanders to advise caution, out of fear that their soldiers might refuse to fight.

Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan.

Also by Irfan Husain in openDemocracy:

"Kabul vs Islamabad: a war of words"
(16 March 2006)

"Musharraf's own goals" (27 March 2006)

"The state of Pakistan" (22 May 2006)

"Hell in Helmand"
(18 July 2006)

"Lebanon: the view from Pakistan"
(7 August 2006)

"The Baluchi insurrection"
(4 September 2006)

"How democracy works in Pakistan"
(29 September 2006)

"Pervez Musharraf: in a vice"
(6 November 2006)

"Pakistan: zero-sum games people play"
(6 December 2006)

"Sri Lanka: giving war a chance"
(8 February 2007)

"Pervez Musharraf's bed of nails"
(19 March 2007)

Musharraf, left to himself, would probably have flattened the mosque and the madrasa by now. Apart from being allergic to religious extremism, he is hugely embarrassed over the loss of his international image as a tough soldier in control of the situation. Apparently, he had issued orders for the police and paramilitary units to storm the complex. But given the very real possibility of an enormous backlash if any of the women were killed or injured, intelligence agencies have again counselled a softly-softly approach.

The Abdul brothers say that most of the girls at the seminary are from Waziristan, and that any attack would galvanise thousands of tribesmen to descend on Islamabad. Thus, the government has been forced to negotiate with the clerics, and has agreed to rebuild the demolished mosques. The sticking-point thus far has been the demand for the imposition of sharia law in the country, and the removal of all "dens of vice". But their definition of such places is very wide, including shops selling videos, CDs and DVDs. According to the latest reports, Shujaat Hussain, president of the ruling Muslim League and official negotiator with the clerics, has announced that the government has agreed to accept all the students' demands.

While the standoff has continued, seminary students have indulged in all kinds of lawless acts. In March, they kidnapped a woman, her daughter and her niece from their house on the grounds that she had been running a brothel. After three days, the woman was forced to confess, but as soon as the family was released, she recanted. Policemen have been dragged into the complex and roughed up, and the occupation of the children's library continues. Two security officials who were detained in the seminary report the presence of a large cache of firearms.

Winners and losers

While this crisis has built up over the last three months, liberal Pakistanis have been watching the spectacle of a powerless state with horror and disgust. The MQM, Pakistan's most secular political party, recently organised a huge rally in Karachi to demand swift action against the students and the clerics. Ironically, the MQM remains a coalition partner in the current dispensation. Other civil-society organisations and NGOs have protested in other cities with smaller demonstrations. Most people are appalled by the ability of this small band of extremists to blackmail the entire country.

One theory is that the government is allowing this drama to play out in order to divert attention from the ongoing judicial crisis triggered by the suspension of the chief justice of the supreme court, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry (see "Pervez Musharraf's bed of nails", 19 March 2007). In the imposing court barely a mile from the Lal Masjid, a series of hearings are being conducted that might decide Musharraf's political future, as well as the judiciary's independence.

Oddly, one of the biggest losers from the Jamia Hafsa standoff is the collection of Islamic parties that are currently operating under the banner of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). This coalition is presently ruling the turbulent North Western Frontier Province, and is a major partner in the Balochistan (Baluchistan) government. Suddenly, these religious parties find they have been outflanked on the religious right by the clerics of the Lal Masjid and their radical supporters across the country. Accustomed to being the official spokesmen of conservative Pakistanis, some of the leaders of these parties initially distanced themselves from what they called the unreasonable demands of these fringe elements. However, they did not anticipate the groundswell of support the radicals have received from their own constituency.

The slogan the Abdul brothers have raised ("Sharia Ya Shahadat" or "Islamic Law or Martyrdom") resonates deeply among the extreme jihadi youth that has been drawn to the violent, austere philosophy of the Taliban and al-Qaida. These young people feel the present Islamic parties have sold out to the establishment, and have not done enough to Islamise Pakistan.

The army divided, liberals besieged

Another constant in Pakistani politics has also been dented: for decades, the army and the mullahs had a mutually beneficial relationship, and that is now under enormous strain. Conventional wisdom had it that as the religious parties could never win a majority in parliament, they used the army to further their Islamic agenda; while the army, lacking popular support, used these fundamentalists to win a degree of legitimacy. But after Musharraf was forced to crack down on the Taliban and their supporters in the wake of 9/11, the mullahs turned against him. Currently, supporting Musharraf in his fight against the jihadis in the tribal areas is a certain vote-loser. Now, with general elections due in October, the Pakistani ruler finds himself increasingly isolated. Hence, the persistent rumours of a deal with Benazir Bhutto's PPP.

Thus, the Jamia Hafsa confrontation has exposed a major faultline in Pakistani politics. As a younger generation is radicalised, it finds conventional parliamentary politics too tame, and seeks violent short-cuts to achieve its ill-defined, fuzzy ends. The army, the only institution organised and powerful enough to take on the jihadis, is divided in its approach. Many soldiers and officers agree with the aims of those they are supposed to fight. Liberal Pakistanis find themselves under siege.

If Musharraf had made common cause with secular parties and politicians instead of driving them into the wilderness, he might not have found himself in his present quandary. But he didn't, and he has.

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