by Zafar Bangash (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 6, Rajab, 1428)
After years of precariously trying to balance the conflicting political demands of his American masters and Pakistan’s Muslim people, events in the last month appear to have pushed Pakistani dictator General Perwez Musharraf (pic) to the verge of being toppled. On July 26, news emerged that fellow generals had advised Musharraf to make a “graceful exit” from power. The next day, he made an unscheduled dash to Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, unaccompanied even by his foreign minister. Reports that he met exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, presumably in the hope of negotiating a political agreement that might ease the pressure on him, were initially denied, before being acknowledged. As Crescent goes to press, no details of their discussions were available.
Whether or not Musharraf is able to survive the next few weeks, one thing is certain: Pakistan will remain deeply scarred by the results of his policies long after he has gone. Musharraf’s brutal policies are threatening to turn Pakistan into another Iraq or Afghanistan: a country descending into a cycle of violence as a result of US invasion and occupation. The assault on the Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa in Islamabad by Musharraf’s commandos on July 10-11, leaving hundreds dead, most of them women and children, has led to a sharp increase in attacks against the army, especially in the volatile North West Frontier Province (NWFP), where most of the madrassah students were from. In the two weeks following the Lal Masjid assault, hundreds of soldiers and paramilitary personnel have been killed in such places as Swat, Dera Ismail Khan, Miran Shah, Kohat, Hangu and Hub (in the far south of the country). There was also a bomb explosion at a lawyers’ rally in Islamabad on July 17, killing 19 people and injuring 50 others. The “suspended” Chief Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who was supposed to speak at the rally, was apparently the intended target, but had not arrived at the rally when the bomb went off. On July 20, the Supreme Court delivered its own rebuke to Musharraf by dismissing all the charges against the Chief Justice and declaring his suspension by Musharraf on March 9 illegal. This followed weeks of agitation led by the legal community, whose campaign uncorked the pent-up anger of ordinary Pakistanis against Musharraf’s brutal policies.
Like US president George W. Bush, Musharraf is committing heinous crimes in the name of fighting terrorism. While the Americans are busy advancing their imperial agenda, Musharraf’s policy is predicated on the hope that the Americans will maintain him in power if he does their dirty work for them. Like the US, he has tried to frame the struggle in Pakistan as being between the “moderates”—meaning people like himself—and the “extremists”, by which he means anybody who opposes him. His “enlightened moderation” includes the disappearance of hundreds of people suspected of political activities against him and the cold-blooded murder of thousands of civilians in military actions against so-called terrorists in remote areas of the NWFP, Baluchistan and the tribal areas of Waziristan, long before the very public assault on the Hafsa Madrassah in Islamabad.
The Washington cowboys, of course, welcomed Musharraf’s murderous assault on the Jamia Hafsa, having long accused him of “not doing enough” to fight “terrorism” in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. As reward, the US released two—yes, only two—F-16 fighter planes to him. Nonetheless, US pressure on him is unlikely to ease. A report released by America’s intelligence chiefs on July 17 said that the fight against “terrorism” in Pakistan was going badly and that both al-Qa’ida and the Taliban had regrouped and are now more effective in carrying out attacks. The US threatened to invade Pakistani territory to fight such elements if Musharraf failed to do so; US forces have already been responsible for numerous attacks on Pakistani villages in which scores of civilians have been killed. Because the US is not officially operating in Pakistan, these attacks have usually been blamed (or credited) to the Pakistani military, despite the risks of a political backlash, as seen after the attack on the Lal Masjid.
For three days after the assault, the military refused to allow journalists or television cameras inside the masjid-madrassah compound, or to let them visit any hospitals where the dead and wounded had been taken. In a move clearly indicative of the government’s guilt, 73 bodies were buried in the middle of the night of July 13-14. Gravediggers were hustled into a cemetery inIslamabad at 6pm and forced at gunpoint to dig mass graves until 3am the next morning. The unidentified bodies were buried without notifying next of kin. Hundreds of desperate people have searched for their relatives without success, as the government has provided little or no information. Many fear that missing girls that may have survived the assault may be kidnapped and forced into prostitution, as happened in the aftermath of the earthquake in October 2005.
The Lal Masjid saga must be viewed in its proper context. The group was led by two ‘ulama, Maulanas Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who had close links with the Pakistan government and intelligence services. The former was captured trying to escape the siege, and is now in government custody, while the latter was killed, along with his 81-year-old mother, his son and several sisters during the assault. Until his murder in October 1998, their father, Maulana Abdullah, had been a close ally of General Zia ul-Haq’s military regime when the jihad in Afghanistan was still in vogue and Afghans were supported by both Pakistan and the US. After Abdullah’s murder, his sons took over the masjid-madrassah complex and continued to enjoy the support of successive regimes. In recent months, madrassah students, encouraged by intelligence operatives, had attacked video stores and raided massage parlours, claiming to be “enjoining good and prohibiting evil” as Muslims are instructed to do in the Qur’an. Their behaviour was used by the regime to raise fears that anti-American “extremists” would take over a nuclear-armed Pakistan if Musharraf, who has projected himself as a “moderate” in a sea of extremism, were toppled by the increasing political opposition to him.
There is ample evidence to suggest that the stand-off at the Lal Masjid could have been resolved amicably and hundreds of lives saved if Musharraf had chosen, but he was trapped by his own rhetoric as well as America’s pressure. The Lal Masjid saga also exposes two other factors in Pakistani politics: the irrelevance of the political parties whose leaders, including Maulana Fazlur Rahman, a close ally of the Lal Masjid brothers, flew to London to participate in a conference when the regime was on the verge of attacking the madrassah; and the military’s real function not as defenders of Pakistan and its people, but as servants of the US agenda. It is revealing that while various political leaders have called for a judicial inquiry into the mosque attack, not one leader has had the courage to demand Musharraf’s trial for crimes against humanity for ordering the killing of civilians, most of them children. While visiting flood-affected areas in Turbat on July 4, Musharraf had made it clear that the clerics must either surrender unconditionally or be killed.
However much one may admire the courage of Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi for refusing to surrender, and for his willingness to sacrifice his own life and the lives of his family, the brothers’ outlook and methods contributed to the tragedy. Firstly, their closerelations with successive Pakistani regimes, including the current one, and the Pakistani intelligence agencies, reflects a deplorable lack of political understanding. The result was that while many in Pakistan may have regarded them as committed and courageous Islamic leaders, many more suspected the motives for their actions, and regarded them as political players more than men of Islamic principle. Second, whatever their motives, their methods, like those of the Taliban in Afghanistan, were extremely counter-productive and shortsighted.
Their evident belief that Islamic standards can be imposed by force or threats of violence, and that all that Islam requires is to burn down video shops, raid body parlours or force women to wear the burqa, alienated many more people than it attracted, which was one reason that Musharraf’s attack on them has not provoked an even greater public response. Islam has a much broader vision and higher purpose.
While it is true that the destruction of the madrassah will leave the field open for the spread of vulgar materials and immoral behaviour, the fact is that without a fundamental change in people’s thinking, public morality cannot be imposed by force. Similarly, the enforcement of laws regulating conduct in society is the responsibility of governments, not organisations or madrassahs, however well-meaning they may be. Would the destruction of every video store, and the closure of every massage parlour, turnPakistan into an Islamic State? Such limited understandings of the nature of Islamic societies and institutions are one reason that Islamic movements in Pakistan have only limited credibility, despite general sympathy with their aims.
To understand this point properly, one must turn to the Seerah of the noble Messenger of Allah, upon whom be peace. For thirteen years, there were no injunctions prohibiting gambling, drinking or even anti-social behaviour in Makkah. The Qur’an’s emphatic message was to reorient people’s thinking toward committing themselves to the one God, Allah. This was a direct challenge to the prevalent system in Makkah based on a multiplicity of gods, but Allah did not instruct His beloved Prophet to emphasize changing people’s immoral behaviour at that time. First their belief in Allah, the Almighty, and conviction in the righteousness of their cause had to be strengthened. Once they were clear about the nature of the struggle, the next phase would become simpler.
Islam’s injunctions are not merely concerned with tahara and najasa; they are just as concerned with regulating the marketplace as they are with the weighty issues of power and authority. How a person acquires power and what the limits are on its use are all part of Islam’s value-system, but one would be hard pressed to realise this by listening to the sermons delivered in the tens of thousands of masajid in the Muslim world today.
In most Muslim societies today, there is little clear understanding of Islam, the functions of the Islamic State and how to go about establishing one. Unfortunately, most Muslims understand Islam primarily in terms of restrictive laws concerning personal behaviour. The much larger questions of political legitimacy and social and economic justice are seldom discussed. This is why Islamic parties continue to enter into alliances with the very forces whose understanding and policies in these areas are directly opposed to those of Islam. Islam’s injunctions are not merely concerned with tahara and najasa; they are just as concerned with regulating the marketplace as they are with the weighty issues of power and authority. How a person acquires power and what the limits are on its use are all part of Islam’s value-system, but one would be hard pressed to realise this by listening to the sermons delivered in the tens of thousands of masajid in the Muslim world today. True, this is partly because of severe restrictions imposed by oppressive regimes to ensure that imams cannot speak about the real issues, but also because so many Islamic institutions and trends of thought have accepted these limited versions of Islam and promote them through their students when they become khateebs and imams.
Islamic political parties continue to play the secular game within an un-Islamic system, apparently not realizing that the dominant system will not allow them to come to power through the ballot box. The experiences of movements in Algeria, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, and most recently in Palestine should convince Muslims of the real purpose of supposedly democratic institutions and processes. Even if an Islamic party is allowed to attain power, as has happened in Turkey, the secular establishment forces it into painful compromises, diluting its message and imposing un-Islamic policies on it.
Pakistan’s example is instructive. There is not a single group or individual that has shown the level of understanding about Islam that would give hope to the people. Islamic political parties continue to play the secular game within an un-Islamic system, apparently not realizing that the dominant system will not allow them to come to power through the ballot box. The experiences of movements in Algeria, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, and most recently in Palestine should convince Muslims of the real purpose of supposedly democratic institutions and processes. Even if an Islamic party is allowed to attain power, as has happened in Turkey, the secular establishment forces it into painful compromises, diluting its message and imposing un-Islamic policies on it.
Most Islamic parties advocate the establishment of Islamic systems in their societies, but they show a stunning lack of understanding of how this can be achieved. Most have opted for the electoral process. Some, like the Ikhwan in Egypt, are not even allowed to participate in elections directly; they have to operate under other banners, or as independents. Even then, their activities are severely curtailed. The same is true in Algeria. While Islamic political parties are not banned in Pakistan, probably because the establishment does not feel particularly threatened by them, their approach gives little hope to ordinary people; hence their dismal performances at the ballot-box.
Islamic movements must be clear on three issues: first, they must understand and be clear about their ultimate objective, the establishment of the Islamic State; second, they must understand the process by which this can be achieved; third, they must generate a muttaqi leadership that operates above parochial or narrow class or economic interests.
Islamic movements must be clear on three issues: first, they must understand and be clear about their ultimate objective, the establishment of the Islamic State; second, they must understand the process by which this can be achieved; third, they must generate a muttaqi leadership that operates above parochial or narrow class or economic interests. Most Islamic parties fail on all or most of these points, thus creating frustration among the Muslim masses. Before any of this is possible, taqwa must be understood in broader terms than simply personal piety represented by such routine activities as salat, fasting, keeping a beard or wearing hijab, and performing the Hajj if possible. These are essential, of course, but hardly sufficient in themselves. In Pakistan, as elsewhere, unless Islamic parties and their leaders offer much better quality leadership in the fight against the injustices inflicted on individuals and communities, and show genuine determination to alleviate suffering and end corruption in their societies, Muslims will continue to shun them.