More Lal Masjids
By Pervez Hoodbhoy
11 July, 2007
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 Washington that he
remains the last bulwark against Islamic extremism. The writers conclude
that this is a contrived problem, not a real one. They are dead wrong.
Lal Masjid underscores the danger of runaway religious radicalism in
Pakistan. It calls for urgent and wide-ranging action.
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 Pakistan's super-vigilant intelligence agencies, large quantities
of arms and fuel were smuggled inside to create a fearsome fortress
in the heart of the nation's capital.
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 China, Pakistan's all-weather ally, the status quo would
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 America's policies in the Muslim
world are usually held to blame. But its brutalities elsewhere have
been far greater. In tiny Vietnam, the Americans had killed more than
one million people. Nevertheless, the Vietnamese did not invest in explosive
vests and belts. Today if one could wipe America off the map of the
world with a wet cloth, mullah-led fanaticism will not disappear. I
have often asked those of our students at Quaid-e-Azam University who
toe the Lal Masjid line why, if they are so concerned about the fate
of Muslims, they did not join the many demonstrations organized by their
professors in 2003/4 against the immoral US invasion of Iraq. The question
leaves them unfazed. For them the greater sin is for women to walk around
bare faced, or the very notion that they could be considered the equal
Extremism is often claimed
to be the consequence of poverty. But deprivation and suffering do not,
by themselves, lead to radicalism. People in Pakistan's tribal areas,
now under the grip of the Taliban, have never led more than a subsistence
existence. Building more roads, supplying electricity and making schools
- if the Taliban allow - is a great idea. But it will have little impact
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
Glasgow airport doctors were highly educated men and were supported
in spirit by thousands of similarly educated Muslims in Pakistan and
the world at large. It is not clear to me whether persons with degrees
are relatively more or less susceptible to extremist versions of Islam.
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 Pakistan.
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 Pakistan.
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 Pakistan's
tribal areas is dire and deteriorating. Inspired by the fiery rhetoric
from mosques, fanatics murder doctors and health workers administering
polio shots. They blow up video shops and girls schools, kill barbers
who shave beards, stone alleged adulterers to death, and destroy billboards
with women's faces. No one is caught or punished.
Pakistan's civil society
has chosen to remain largely silent, unmoved by this barbarism.This
silence has allowed tribal extremism to migrate effortlessly into the
cities. Except for the posh areas of the largest metropolises, it is
now increasingly difficult for a woman to walk bare-faced through most
city bazaars. Reflections of Jamia Hafsa can be found in every public
university of Pakistan. Here, as elsewhere, a sustained campaign of
proselytizing and intimidation is showing results. In fact, it would
do little harm to rename my university, now a city of walking tents,
as Jamia Quaid-e-Azam.
On April 12, to terrify the
last few hold-outs, the Lal Masjid mullahs declared in their FM radio
broadcast that Quaid-e-Azam University had turned into a brothel. They
warned that Jamia Hafsa girls could throw acid on the faces of those
female university students who refuse to cover their faces. There should
have been instant outrage. Instead, fear and caution prevailed. The
university administration was silent, as was the university's chancellor,
General Musharraf. A university-wide meeting of about 200 students and
teachers, held in the physics department, eventually concluded with
a condemnation of the mullahs threat and a demand for their removal
as head clerics of a government-funded mosque. But student opinion on
burqas was split: many felt that although the mullahs had gone a tad
too far, covering of the face was indeed properly Islamic and needed
enforcement. Twenty years ago this would have been a minority opinion.
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
Afghanistan - or whether to fight them. One grieves for the officers
and jawans killed in the on-going battle with fanatics. It must feel
especially terrible to be killed by one's former friends and allies.
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 Pakistan should be denied the opportunity to do so. The government
should announce that any citizen who hears such sermons should record
them, and lodge a charge in the nearest designated complaint office.
The guilty should be dealt with severely under the law. In the tribal
areas, using force if necessary, the dozens of currently operating illegal
FM radio stations should be closed down. Run by mullahs bitterly hostile
to each other on doctrinal or personal grounds, they incite bitter tribal
and sectarian wars.
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, Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad
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