Pakistan: behind the assault on the Red Mosque
Pakistan: behind the assault on the Red Mosque – and what it tells us about today’s world
A World to Win News Service.
On 10 July, after an armed standoff, the Pakistani army assaulted the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) in the capital city of Islamabad. The room-to-room fighting lasted 36 hours. Although most of the people inside chose to leave (1-2,000, according to varying news accounts), about a hundred were reported killed. Their identity and the circumstances of their death have not yet been disclosed.
The government of Pervez Musharraf began putting pressure on the Red Mosque in January when it declared that the mosque’s religious school (madrassa) for women had been constructed illegally. In response, students at the men’s and women’s schools challenged the regime’s Islamic credentials. They tried to forcibly impose what they considered an Islamic way of life in this relatively secular city, and especially the area around the mosque, the heart of the capital and site of many government and military buildings. Squadrons of burqa-clad young women armed with lathis (long sticks) rampaged through stores and stalls selling music and films and made bonfires of “un-Islamic” books. They kidnapped and allegedly tortured Chinese women working in a massage parlour. They also denounced women running in marathons as equivalent to prostitution.
This went on for six months, with no action on Musharraf’s part. Then, suddenly, on 3 July, he sent troops to the mosque. Firing from inside the complex killed 16 soldiers, including a senior officer. The mosque leaders announced that if soldiers entered the building suicide bombers would blow up everyone. The assault came a week later.
In its wake, the army moved a division into an area in the country’s northwest run by local Islamic fundamentalists linked to the Red Mosque. The Pakistani army has half a million men, and a single division is not enough soldiers to conquer the area by force, but it is enough to make a dramatic show of authority and set up serious roadblocks. As soon as military convoys moved in, they came under attack. A suicide bomber drove into an army column in North Waziristan 14 July. The next day a convoy in the Swat Valley of North West Frontier Province to the north was ambushed. Armed and unarmed protestors seized the region’s roads, including the Silk Road leading to China…………..
These events may signal a significant shift in that country’s political landscape. Musharraf, whose close ties with Islamic fundamentalist organizations have been a source of strength second only to his subservience to the US, has had to violently confront some of them, after several years of avoiding it. The assault was approved and perhaps ordered by the US, but another factor forcing Musharraf’s hand came from Islamists themselves, who seem to have opted for holy war to bring more thoroughly Islamic rule to all of Pakistan and abroad, even at the cost of breaking the alliance with Musharraf that has been a basic part of their ability to grow so powerful.
The Red Mosque, located near the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) headquarters, was long an icon of the intertwining of the Pakistani state and Islamic fundamentalism. The two brothers who ran it made no secret of their close relations with ISI officers. Their father, its founder in the late 1960s, Maulana Abdullah, was very close to the inner circles of power, especially Zia-ul-Haq, the US-backed Pakistani army general who took over the country in 1979. At a time of sharpening rivalry between the US and USSR, the US used Pakistan’s armed forces to organize, fund, train and arm Islamic fundamentalists to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Later the ISI gave the Taleban the support they needed to seize power. The US initially approved, believing that Pakistani influence over Afghanistan would bring stability and guarantee American interests. The ISI also used fundamentalists to wage a proxy war with India over Indian-occupied Kashmir.
Zia also sought to Islamicize Pakistan itself. Among other things, this meant a radical change in the country’s legal system. The infamous Hodood Ordinances enshrined Islamic law (Sharia), with horrendous consequences for women. The succeeding civilian government of Benazir Bhutto did not overturn these laws.
Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 army coup, was no less tied to Islamic fundamentalists. Some people consider him less hard-line than Zia, in the sense of tolerating secularism and some room for political and social dissent among the cosmopolitan urban middle and upper classes. But he made his personal role abundantly clear when he publicly condemned a woman who had demanded justice against her rapists. An Islamic court had ruled that it was she who should be punished instead – for committing “adultery” with the gang that raped her. “This has become a money-making concern,” Musharraf told the Washington Post to discredit her. “A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped.” He sent his police to hold her under house arrest to prevent her from communicating with the world.
While the connections between the Pakistani ruling classes and fundamentalism did not basically change, however, something else did: Islamic fundamentalists directly attacked the US. Musharraf followed orders from Bush and made a big show of breaking off the alliance with Kabul after the 11 September 2001 attack on the New York World Trade Center. But his government maintained close relations with what are often called Pakistani Taleban, various groups and political parties in the Pashtun tribal areas along the Afghan border in Waziristan and the North West who are eager to tell anyone who will listen about their sympathy and often fealty to the similarly Pashtun Taleban in Afghanistan, and who proudly seek to impose the same kind of society.
It has been difficult for Musharraf to balance his relations with the Red Mosque movement and the Islamists with his dependence on US support, but he managed it for a long time and the US backed him in this. Prominent commentators have written that Musharraf has been playing a “double game” by taking a billion dollars a year from the US, mostly in military aid, while tolerating the presence of the Afghan Taleban leaders and perhaps Al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan. (Historian and security analyst Garth Porter speaking before the US Congress, Inter Press Service, 10 July) The truth is more complicated.
His strategy has been to hold domestic fundamentalists as closely as possible in a powerful embrace, while cooperating as closely as possible with the US military in public and even more in private. For instance, the CIA has been permitted to set up secret bases in Pakistan, kidnap people and even use cruise missiles against suspected Al-Qaeda leaders there, but American troops haven’t been allowed to storm through the country in uniform. That would provoke too much uproar, and the regime might fall apart.
As for the fundamentalists, the military dictatorship needs the legitimacy of Islamic credentials and the social and material support of the Islamic forces to maintain its rule. Further, it is often said that since the British created Pakistan on the arbitrary (and reactionary) basis of religion when they divided India into two at the moment of its independence, the Islamic clergy and the military are the only things holding it together as a country. The political power of each has depended to a large extent on the other. Both are deeply rooted in the country’s more or less feudal rural economy. The military also owns much of the country’s more modern side, its industry and other businesses.
Shortly after supposedly breaking the Afghan Taleban, the Musharraf regime helped the pro-Afghan Taleban Jammat-e-Islami party and other allied Islamic groups win state elections in October 2002 in areas bordering Afghanistan. With the help of Jammat-e-Islami local officials, the Afghan Taleban were said to be regrouping in Pakistan and using bases there to carry out attacks in their home country. This cross-border activity has been concentrated in North and South Waziristan but extends all along the frontier. Musharraf sent troops in to stop this. The Red Mosque leaped to prominence in 2004 when it issued a religious ruling (fatwa) that army soldiers who died in this campaign could not receive Moslem prayers or burial. Some 500 religious scholars signed the fatwa. The army pulled out. In 2006, the regime came to a formal agreement with Waziristan tribal leaders, promising to leave them alone if the foreign fighters among them – meaning Al-Qaeda troops – were forced to either give up their weapons or leave Pakistan. The truce held until 15 July of this year, when an Islamic council meeting (Shura) in North Waziristan called it off, saying that by sending in troops again the government had broken the bargain.
But the larger picture is that Musharraf’s embrace was not achieving its aims in terms of restraining the appetite of the fundamentalists. During these last few years, while the Taleban spread their authority through Waziristan, a Pakistani organization called the TNSM (Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law) began exercising political power in the Swat Valley and other areas in North West Frontier Province. According to the journalist Sayeed Saleem Shahzad in the Asia Times Online (www.atimes.com), the Red Mosque’s now deceased deputy prayer leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi, whose followers compare him to the Taleban’s Mullah Omar and Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, delivered lectures to TNSM members every evening by telephone. The mosque both received students from the North West and sent graduates there from other parts of the country to join the many armed men in the area ready for Islamic holy war in Afghanistan or elsewhere – several hundred thousand jihadis, Shahzad wrote. The Red Mosque movement became a symbol of an Islamic ambition to move beyond the limits of the Musharraf regime.
Some journalists made much of the conflict between the Al-Qaeda and Taleban forces in this situation. This bears more investigation. Islamic fundamentalism, even of the armed variety, encompasses many different currents with sometimes sharply clashing views and aims. In an article intriguing titled “Al-Qaeda versus the Taleban” in the July 2007 Le Monde diplomatique, the above-quoted Shahzad emphasizes that the peace deal between the government and the local Taleban led to fighting between Taleban and Al-Qaed. He brings out the tensions between those fundamentalists who want to focus on driving the US-led occupiers from Afghanistan and avoid fighting the Pakistani army, and those who want to confront the “hypocritical” – not thoroughly enough Islamic – Musharraf and even directly take on the US and its allies. (The London underground bombers, for instance, allegedly visited the Red Mosque.) Based on interviews with the two brothers at the Red Mosque, he argues that they wanted to compromise with Musharraf, but that some of their students – and unnamed other forces as well – wouldn’t let them.
At the same time, however, what we’ve seen in Pakistan is the porous quality of these categories and the emergence of a phenomenon whose varied and complex details, as significant as they are, should not blind us to what is going on overall. The events of the past weeks have shown something perhaps not as clear before: no matter the intentions of either side, the deals between Musharraf and some of the Islamic forces collapsed because they became untenable on both sides. Without arguing that any particular outcome was inevitable, there was a certain logic at work.
The US, in backing this compromise, was seeking to neutralize pro-Afghan Taleban elements in Pakistan in order to defeat the Taleban in Afghanistan. (Washington’s approval for the deal was made explicit, even if only in retrospect, by American National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, who said, “It has not worked the way [Musharraf] wanted. It has not worked the way we wanted.” – CNN, 15 July) A major reason why it didn’t “work” is the unexpected resurgence of the Taleban in Afghanistan. A leading ISI officer once flatly stated, “The Taleban are not a problem for Pakistan” – in other words, the Taleban were no threat to Musharraf. But when the US and its allies found themselves fighting a real and very unwelcome war in Afghanistan, the Taleban’s ability to use bases in Pakistan became more than an annoyance for them.
Another reason is that more has been involved than simply making instrumental use of Islamic fundamentalism. Islamist cadres were encouraged to join the army and ISI as officers. The overlap between the state and religious fundamentalism extends to the ideological as well as political and organizational levels. This means that while the Pakistani army organized the Sunni Islamic fundamentalist movements in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir and India, with US approval, those movements are not necessarily under anyone’s control. Further, there are other factors at work, including the upsurge of Hindu fundamentalism and genocidal attacks on Moslems in India. The establishment of the Khomeini regime in Iran gave a big impetus to Islamic fundamentalism and its bid for political power throughout the broader region, despite the major ideological differences between the Shias in power in Iran and the majority Sunnis in Pakistan and Afghanistan and their antagonistic political relations.
Many of the fundamentalists, for their part, are motivated not just by economic interests and political ambitions but above all a coherent world outlook, an ideology that encompasses all facets of life and death. They are fighting for their vision to be fully realized, and they are not bothered by imperialist-drawn borders.
As the Iranian author Siamac Sotudeh writes in Why Are the Dead Walking? Islamic Movement: Motives & Perspectives, Islamic fundamentalists and US imperialism have their own versions of the strategy of defeating their enemies one by one. Starting out with an analysis of how the US helped bring the Khomeini regime to power as “the least bad alternative” and ending with a description of the regime’s die-hard intentions to impose its brand of Islam on as much of the world as possible, he concludes that such alliances do not mean that either side gives up its strategic objectives.
Musharraf has at least one thing in common with Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, the head of another US-dependent regime that could not exist without its base among fundamentalist forces: whatever his religious ideas may be, he subordinates them to his commitment to a Pakistan that is a province in an American global empire. Whatever his differences with the US, both he and they recognize this. That is something that some Islamists cannot tolerate, and not only or even mainly because of the suffering of the people and national humiliation under American domination. Imperialist capital cannot just leave them alone, but must continually transform economic and social relations and culture in the countries it dominates, undermining their power and their very existence and fuelling their anger at “the West” and their determination to revive and defend a medieval outlook. More immediately, their ideology demands unrestricted and expansive Islamic rule. They are not nationalists in religious clothing or even “objective” representatives of the people’s desire for national liberation, but representatives of the same feudal and other backward relations that have made it possible for imperialism to subjugate the country economically and politically.
Of course religious fundamentalism is not specific to Islam nor confined to oppressed countries. Its rise is a new and global phenomenon encompassing Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Hindus as well. An equally backward-looking ideology drives Bush and the Christian fundamentalist movement he seeks to represent. At the same time, today all this is taking part in the context of the US’s also unprecedented drive to establish a single world empire. After all, it is the US that invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq and brutally dictates to most of the world’s majority-Moslem countries, and not the other way around. What has brought Islamic fundamentalism and the US into today’s level of conflict is, basically, the US.
While the US must and is more than willing to rely on local backward forces and reactionaries to impose its domination, it considers Islamic fundamentalism a long-term obstacle, and, especially, now a serious immediate threat. It is determined to crush these forces and dig up their breeding grounds – even if this means temporary alliances with some of them.
This is where the question of US threats against Iran fit into this picture. American Middle East expert Barnett Rubin argues, “The main centre of global terrorism is in Pakistan.” (Council on Foreign Relations, cfr.com). Yet to hear US government spokesmen and women, you’d think it was in Iran and not Pakistan where the Taleban and perhaps Al-Qaeda leadership are sheltering.
If the Bush regime has deliberately overlooked Musharraf’s “double game”, it’s because they know that Musharraf has had to play this game to stay in power, and they want him in power. They want Pakistan as a subservient ally in their war against Al-Qaeda and the Taleban, even if they have to put up with some strange things to achieve that. And especially right now, they need the Musharraf regime and the Pakistani military to use against Iran, whose Islamic Republic they intend to remove by armed threats or armed action. Covert operations into Iran from Pakistan are said to be already taking place. The rulers of the US are not married to Musharraf for life – he wouldn’t be the first US tool to get an American bullet for his troubles. But right now the higher priorities of their war for empire – and the war with Islamic fundamentalism it frames – make regime change in Iran far more important than leaning more heavily on Musharraf. They may even calculate that Iran offers far more favourable conditions than Pakistan for setting up a non-Islamic regime and rolling back anti-US fundamentalism.