Understanding Pakistan Project Team August 29th, 2007
Guest Column* By: Ibn-e-Khuldun
In this piece, witten in the immediate aftermath of the Lal Masjid Episode but being published for the first time, Khuldun talks about the challenges posed by the dual extremism of Taliban-style theocrats and the promoters of Enlightened Moderation who are tearing the Pakistani society apart….
The Lal Masjid episode that had–quite predictably–eaten up the media bandwidth for several months ended in a somewhat predicted–although still very deplorable–blood bath–on last Tuesday. The high drama that came to its (anti-) climax that day has left more questions unanswered than answers it may have provided. Whether or not this was really, as alleged by the Opposition and many in the media, a diversionary tactic on the part of the Musharraf Government to sideline the epic constitutional battle being faught just across the road on the Constitution Avenue, one can only speculate.
It did, however, once again put Musharraf and his brand of “saviors” firmly in charge of the “savage” millions in Pakistan and has established, in the eyes of the West and its media, the often-repeated (by his government) “indispensibility” of his dictatorial rule in Pakistan. Add on top of that the fact that there are serious allegations that the two brothers in Lal Masjid had been in the pay of the agencies, and that it is next to impossible for anybody–no matter how slick or smart he was–to operate with such imputiny in the heavily “watched and monitored” city of Islamabad for years, and the conincidences just get too many for most of us to digest.
Regardless, however, of whether the Lal Masjid espisode was a bold and audacious attempt on the part of a bunch of Mullahs and their naive followers to enforce their brand of Shariah on a country of 150 million or a creation of Masharraf and his agencies themselves, what is amply clear is that it represents a society on a collision course with itself.
I am not complaining that establishing the writ of law within the country–something that the Lal Masjid Mullahs and their followers had repeatedly flouted over the last few months by taking the law in their own hands or by attempting to establish a parallel judicial system–is not an important objective. I think it is absolutely important to do so and nobody must be allowed to flout our laws. What I am complaining, however, is the more-than-just-suspicious and brutal manner in which Operation Silence was carried out and, more importantly, how and why did we let the things reach this far in the first place?
What most people who seem to support Musharraf’s brutal Operation against Lal Masjid seem to not understand is that this was not an ordinary circumstance of a few criminals trying to violate the law. It was, in all its manifestations, a political problem that required a political solution. I say this with a strange sense Deja Vu of having heard this argument being made before.
Isn’t this an argument similar the one most of us, Pakistanis and Muslims around the world, including General Musharraf himself, have been making to the West in the so called Global War on Terrorism? Haven’t we been saying that it is more important to understand what forces people to become extremists and terrorists than to try to eliminate them? Trying to eliminate one terrorist ends up creating 10 as a result, anyway. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine being cases in point. There is no let up in how ill-minded policies of the West have created fertile grounds for increasing militarization and radicalization of these societies. Do we want Pakistan to be one of them?
History is full of examples where, failing to gain social acceptance and political space, a group of people are turned into radicals, rebels, and revolutionaries willing to spill blood and die for their causes. When space for discussion and resolution of political issues–whether it is rights of self-determination of Kashmiris or Palestinians, or the the nature of laws ( e.g. role of Shariah in Pakistan or elsewhere) in a country–is not available the discussion moves from civilized corridors to underground bunkers, and from words and resolutions to bullets and bombs. Thats not the way it should be but thats the way it nearly always is.
Whether they are religious zealots like Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Islamic Front in Algeria, or David Koresh in Texas or secular radicals like Timothy McVeigh and his colleagues in America, the pattern is consistent and predictable. In doing so, they create another breed radicals the intensity of whose rage is perhaps more ferocious and mindless than their predecessors themselves and the cycle continues all over again.
Society is a collage of different people with different ideologies, tendencies, aspirations, viewpoints, temperaments and tipping points. If enough political and social space is not going to be provided in a society for the expression and realization of these varying viewpoints and temperaments, they are going to find expression elsewhere, namely, in guns and bullets. There are extremists in every society. The question really is, whether the society is pushing enough of those extremists to the point where they feel threatened enough to express their extremism in an outward expression.
Lets do a thought experiment. Lets suppose that in America today, the government, using some ill-minded logic decides to invade a few arms and ammunitions dealers and stores on the pretext that their arms find the way in the schools that kill children every day in America. Lets say that negotiations have failed and that the National Rifle Association believes that the government wants to stamp on its “freedom” to bear arms–a freedom that they believe is guaranteed by their Constitution. Lets also suppose that all those in the favor of that freedom have closed themselves up in these arm stores and are willing to die to protect their freedom. The government launches an operation, nonetheless, and ends up killing hundreds of these civilians alongwith their ring leaders. What do we think is going to happen as a result?
The only likely outcome–one that has precedence in recent US history–is that it is going to create tens of hundreds of zealots ready to maime and kill to fight for their freedom. Isn’t that what Timothy McVeigh did 12 years ago when he bombed Oklahoma City in response to his sense of seige by the encrochment of the federal government? Our little thought experiment above is likely to create tens and hundreds of new Timothy McVeighs and there is no way, any government in the world even if it armed to teeth, can stop determined zealots and suicide bombers from doing what they want to do. Why does this not happen every day in America? Primarily because these “hidden extremists” are provided the political space to express their views and achieve their aspirations–atleast enough that they don’t encroach on the right of others.
I think there are strong parallels with what we’re facing today. There are two possible reasons why Lal Masjid might have happend. One, we have a bunch of people in Pakistan who, in their own worldview–wrongly or rightly–really believe that Pakistan should have a Shariah style government. Its an aspiration–a religious aspiration, very much like the secular aspiration of Americans’ right to bear arms, no matter what. Whether they are being misguided, taken advantage off, or brainwashed is a question for another time. But, regardless, we have denined them the space to express themselves and achieve their aspirations and hence pushed them to the point where they’re willing to rebel against order.
Second, and this is probably more problematic, although it is only likely to exacerbate the former, is that we have a government that depends on foreign powers, namely, America for its legitimacy and “right to rule” and that they’re willing to do America’s bidding in further isolating and denying political space to these people. The sense of seige that everyone of us feels from America’s foreign policy can be crushing. Does it really surprise us then that many of us find Musharraf’s symbiotic relationship with Bush as a matter of concern? Could this push some of us over the top? Musharraf’s double game with Pakistan’s socio-political fabric to perpetuate his illegitimate rule is perhaps more dangerous than any Mullah’s extremism or a politician’s corruption.
What we face today in post- Lal Masjid Pakistan is really a battle for Pakistan’s soul. There are two possible futures in front of us, both equally scary and harrowing. In five year’s time, Pakistan will either be the next Afghanistan–whereby this extremism created as the cause or the effect of the Lal Masjid saga would have taken over the rest of us–resulting in probably a foreign invasion of this country, or it would be the next Iraq–whereby the extremists would have their day in the mosques and streets of this country with Pakistan Army trying to preserve the country but really acting as agents of a foreign power in much the same way it happens every day in Iraq. If the attacks on Pakistan Army convoys and police stations in the immediate aftermath of the Lal Masjid are any sign of things to come, we’re heading towards the Iraq option with much faster pace than anyone would have imagined.
This can be the beginning of the end of Pakistan and any hope of ever turning it around as a viable state. Does anybody really believe that Iraq would ever be a viable prosperous state in a few years, decades, or even more?
What is the solution to all this? The only way to avoid the almost-inevitable fate is to take back the control of Pakistan from two bands of extremists and self-serving demagogues–religious extremists who probably want to create a taliban style government, on the one hand, and Musharraf and Co whose self-serving “enlightened moderation” is equally stiffling, on the other hand–neither of whom represent the true interests of the Pakistani people. We must create a society where there is political space for everyone to find expression for his or her ambitions and aspirations.
We must participate–with all our will and sincerity–in this battle for Pakistan’s soul. But first we must, as a society, know what precisely happend during the Lal Masjid saga and the Operation Silence and learn from it, never to make that mistake again. We must make an honest and dedicated attempt to learn what caused these people into extremists and zealots willing to die and maime. We must also learn what the role of the President, the agencies, and foreign powers in bringing this about and taking it to its unfortunate end.
We must learn who did what? and at what time? How were a few clerics able to take so much weaponary inside the Mosque under the watchful eye of security agencies in a city like Islamabad where every other taxi-driver is proabably an informant. What were the specifics of the negotiation that went on in the last ditch effort to diffuse the crisis? Were there any foreign militants inside the mosque? What the relationship of the two Mullahs with the security agencies in the past? At what point, if ever, was that relationship terminated? What was the role of the President in all of this crisis? What is the role of foreign countries in encouraging or forcing the President to take such a drastic action against his own people etc. etc.
There is no greater “national interest” today than knowing the truth about one of the gravest dangers that confront our society. I would strongly encourage all Pakitanis sign an online petition ( http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/Lal-Masjid-Pakistan/) put together to request the Supreme Court of Pakistan to take a suo moto notice of the Lal Masjid Operation and to appoint an Independent Judicial Commission to investigate and report back to the people of Pakistan–not the President–what happend at Lal Masjid. The most important service that such a Commission would do would be to start creating the necessary political space to have the conversation about the role of religion in our society. Only armed with truth about the Lal Masjid Operation, can we begin the process of rebuilding our society and hope to dodge the bullet that has been fired at us.
It is time for the so-called “silent majority” of Pakistan to take the initiative back from the extremists from all sides. It is time to fight the battle for the soul of Pakistan or lose it altogether. In five years time, we would either be living in Pakistan, as we’ve known it for years, or the next Iraq or Afghanistan, as we known them now. The choice is ours, but not for too long.
As for America, its people and policy-makers need to shed their myopic view of stability in Pakistan. They will be able to solve Pakistan’s “extremists problem” not by imposing an illegitimate rule of a dictator who needs a pat on his back every once in a while, but when they support the Pakistani people and a leader who is truly able to put Pakistan’s interests ahead of America’s, and not the other way round. Only a strong and prosperous Pakistan–one whose citizens are at peace with each other–and not one that is being held together through artificial submission to a military dictator can serve the interest of peace and security in the world.
Ibn-e-Khuldun is a co-author of an online petition calling for an Independent Judicial Commission to investigate the Lal Masjid episode at: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/Lal-Masjid-Pakistan/
[Editor’s Note: The views expressed in Guest Columns are entirely those of the authors and may or may not represent those of Understanding Pakistan Project. This piece was written immediately after the Lal Masjid episode but was not published anywhere. The Lal Masjid Truth Petition was, however, supported by UnderstandingPakistan.com]