LESSONS FROM THE LAL MASJID ASSAULT

On the night of 10th July, the Pakistan army began its operations against the Jihadis entrenched in the Lala Masjid complex, Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. By the afternoon of 11th July, all resistence had ceased and the leader of the resistence, Ghazi Rashid lay dead. A military solution to the Lal Masjid crisis was both tragic and unimaginative.  It showed the working of a system, which was both tired and under stress. It also indicated Pakistan’s unpreparedness to deal with hostage situations; the standard operating procedures were found lacking.

            According to confused government spokesmen, the assault was necessary to free score of female hostages and younger seminarians; two days after the attack, there is yet no word about the whereabouts of the female hostages? TV news show despondent parents seeking to find their loved ones.

            Equally mystifying was an official statement about the presence of many wanted terrorists holed up in Lal Masjid. Who were they and what happened to them? We again don’t know.  It is also said that at the last moment before fighting broke out, an understanding was reached between the Lal Masjid rebels and government but was dismissed by hardliners to appease others. Who were they?  These and many other questions need to be answered. Denial and official vacillation will boomerang against Gen.Musharraf in the days to come. He will doubtlessly once more say self servedly to the West, that it is he who is standing between them and the terrorist; just as likely he will be believed for the umpteenth time and the cycle of violence will be repeated.

            The Lal Masjid upheaval encapsulates many other issues.  For instance, it highlights the danger of mixing politics with religion and the policy of using Jihadi organizations for furtherance of security and internal objectives including the extension of the regime’s longevity.  It is therefore not surprising that Lal Masjid radicalized itself within breathing distance of the ISI headquarters in Islamabad. The nexus was always there.

            Lal Masjid administration became radicalized during the Afghan Jihad against the USSR. Maulvi Abdullah, the father of Maulvi Abdul Aziz and deceased Ghazi Abdul Rashid, befriended Afghan Jihadis including Rauf Sayyaf, Jalaluddin Haqani and Ahmad Shah Masud.  Later, Abdullah developed friendly links with the Talibans when they emerged victors of Kabul in 1996. (1)

            President Zia, was pivotal in radicalizing Pakistan with the help of U.S. funds and weapons. He encouraged Abdullah’s fraternizing with Afghan warriors.  As a result of state encouragement, Maulvi Abdullah and the Lal Masjid enterprise grew; Abdullah usurped state  land in the prime E-7 sector of Islamabad, to establish yet another seminary called the Jamiah Fareedia, and because of his links to officialdom the authorities did not prevent him from using state land.

            Intelligence agencies thought that by funding and creating radical groups they will be able to switch them off when a situation demanded. It was a wrong assumption.  Once a radical organization is allowed to sprout and attains a certain level, it becomes autonomous in its management and policies. It is then only a matter of time before such an organization graduates first to a regional and then into an international terrorist network.

            Lal Masjid was no exception. By 2001 it began to criticize U.S. policies openly.  In 2003 the Lal Masjid organized violent protest against the murder of another leader of a Jihadist outfit Azam Tariq of the Sepah-i-Sahaba. Seminary students ransacked petrol stations, cinemas, restaurants and other property. One person was killed. In 2004, Bin Laden’s driver was arrested from the Lal Masjid compound. Despite all this, security authorities were unperturbed at the waywardness of its protege.

            The only explanation that comes to mind for this indifference is that government used the periodic Lal Masjid eruptions as justification for retaining the role of the military in Pakistani politics; tragically the sins of the father visited some unfortunate sons of the military, when officers and soldiers lost their valuable lives in the Lal Masjid operation along with more than ninty other civilians who died. Had a policy of zero tolerance been followed towards the Jihadis, so many lives would not have been lost!

            NWFP, tribal areas and Islamabad are in the throes of retaliatory strikes by the Jihadis, targeting the military and police. Attacks on military and police have already occurred in Swat, Dir, Kohat and Waziristan.  Most of the students, especially female students of the Lal Masjid seminary came from the NWFP and tribal areas. The fire of revenge will not die easily.  It is a matter of time before renewed fighting takes place in tribal areas and NWFP. 

It is unfortunate that the Lal Masjid tragedy has generated fear of Madressahs; they are religious schools engaged in providing education to a vast majority of Pakistani poor because the state is unable to provide the funds needed to send them to school.  Ordinary Madressahs not only provide rudimentary education, but place emphasis on religious observance and have thus been able to protect the spirit of Islam amongst the people and also provide a moral code for social conduct. The later is extremely important in a region where other mechanism for behavior control is almost absent.

            In our race for modernity we tend to forget this important contribution of religion in stabilizing society.  One of the good bye products of this system was the instillation of individual morality in the Muslims of India. This caught the attention of Dr. Leitner, the first principal of Government College, Lahore in 1864. He compared in glowing terms the benign impact of indigenous Madressah education upon Muslim student character, which he ranked higher than those achieved in secular schools of Europe.(2)

            However, this is not meant to say that all Madressahs are benign. There are plenty that are rotten and exploitative; these mostly appeared in the 1980’s. It was President Zia-ul-Haq, who spawned his version of a fighting Madressah epitomized by the radical variety.  Simultaneously, this period saw the mushrooming of sectarian parties through official patronage.  In 1979, there were only thirty sectarian parties in the country; it included seven Deobandi, five Brelvi, four Ahle Hadis, three Shias, while the Jamaet-e-Islami was a non-sectarian party. Today, there are more than 237 of them. They proliferated because of financial support provided to Madressahs from Zakat funds, international charity, and Saudi, Iranian, Iraqi and Libyan funding. (3) 

This proliferation coincided with Pakistan’s military doctrine, which believed in projecting its coercive power into Indian Kashmir and Afghanistan; in its exuberance it even sent Jihadis into Central Asia.  It forced the Soviet Union to deliver an invasion warning to Pakistan through the United States.  Bill Casey, the CIA head immediately flew to Pakistan to warn President Zia to stop such incursions. Zia was convinced that the Jihadist seminaries were the custodian of Pakistan’s ideological frontiers; he even made provision for imparting military training to selected Madressahs. Lal Masjid students were a creation of the Ziaist legacy. (4)

It is evident that armed Madressahs are a part of Pakistan’s internal and external policies. On the one hand their existence is meant to underscore the presence of an internal security threat, which can only be handled by the military and on the other the seminarians are used in Kashmir to force India to negotiate. Both are zero sum games in the long term; in the process however, Pakistan is becoming ungovernable. Such a strategic thinking is seriously flawed.

            It is a moot point whether Lal Masjid would have been attacked, if its students had not kidnapped the four Chinese ladies in Islamabad a couple of weeks ago.  I feel it was the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back. Perhaps a discreet warning forced the President to act against the Lal Masjid Jihadis.  It may be noted that there is a Pakistani Jihadi link with the Islamists of Sinkiang in China. It is suspected that the murder of three Chinese nationals in Peshawar on the 8th of July may have been in retaliation against the handing over by Pakistan to China, some persons it had arrested and who represented the Islamic liberation movement of Sinkiang. They were later executed there.

            It is evident that there will be more retaliatory killings to avenge deaths of civilians in Lal Masjid.  It is clear that a solution to the problem of Jihadism will lie in a twin track approach, which is based on full political empowerment by the return of undiluted democracy and a clear military commitment not to use Jihadi proxies for political or foreign policy objectives; their nexus with the intelligence services can only turn Pakistan into a crippled state. It is too high a price to pay.

            At the same time, more stringent monitoring and support of genuine Madressahs is essential. They have a role to perform. To win this war Pakistan must increase exponentially investment in publically funded education rather than spending money on the purchase of sophisticated defense equipment. We face a greater internal threat than an external danger.

            The Lal Masjid tragedy is a clarion call to re-adjust public policy and for the state to desist from dealing with radical armed groups at any level; they have the nasty ability to become autonomous.  Let the lessons of Lal Masjid not be lost.

 

 

Endnotes;

(1) Syed, B. Sajjad. Changing colors of Lal Masjid,Dawn, 6th July 07, p. 7

(2) Chaghtai, Ikram (ed). Writings of Dr. Leitner, Sang-e-Meel, Lahore, p. 32

(3) Rana, Amir (trans), A to Z of Jehadi Organizations in Pakistan, Mashal,      Lahore, p. 121.

(4) Ashraf, Mumtaz. Beg foresees a big political change, Dawn 11th July 07, p. 12

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