• Wednesday, Feb 26, 2020
  • Last Update : 01:14 pm

Walking a tightrope

  • Published at 05:57 pm April 15th, 2017
  • Last updated at 06:56 pm April 15th, 2017
Walking a tightrope

I am forced to repeat some of my comments made a few years back on the dangers of coddling religious forces for political gain.

About a decade ago, the headlines hitting the news media in Pakistan and elsewhere put a little known mosque and seminary in Islamabad, and its leader, on the world map.

The Lal Masjid provided religious education based on Deobandi curriculum to about 7,000 students, male and female.

The horrific incidents surrounding the mosque and the ensuing mayhem were the result of Pakistan authorities storming the seminary with battle strength forces to oust the student militants and their leader who had lodged there for months, defying law enforcing authorities.

But the question remains: How did a mosque and madrasa located in the heart of the country’s capital turn into a bastion of radicalism and create a small army of young militants?

And how was this grievous situation that led to the deaths of many young militants allowed to grow right under the nose of a powerful government?

The Lal Masjid incident is an object lesson on how things can go awry with disastrous results when government coddles religious elements and religious institutions either for political reasons, or for fear of public backlash.

The mosque, which was constructed and funded by the Pakistan government, was originally the main mosque in Islamabad patronised by government officials including top army brass. Its central location placed it within close proximity of various government offices, the ISI among them.

With General Ziaul Huq leading the country in the heady days of the US assisted fight against the Russians in Afghanistan, the Lal Masjid turned into a madrasa, training students who would be cannon fodder for the holy war.

The imam of the mosque at the time was a favourite of President Ziaul Huq, not only because of his fiery “jihadi” speeches, but also for the help he provided in training the mujahideen who would fight in Afghanistan.   

Imam Abdul Aziz, who ruled over the seminary after the Afghan war, was the son of the first prayer leader at the mosque and had worked closely with the Afghan mujahideens that his father’s madrasa had trained.

Abdul Aziz and his brother became firebrand radicals who would later use the Lal Masjid to train young minds in their school of thought. However, the clash with government would not occur until much later.

The first brush with the government occurred in 2005 when Abdul Aziz issued a fatwa against the army officers who were fighting against Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas close to the Afghan border.

For this reason, he was dismissed from his position by the government, but he refused to vacate the mosque.

With his baton wielding acolytes (men and women) in the madrasa, he turned the mosque and the adjoining seminary into a fortress, daring any law enforcing agency to oust him. The government did not apply any force.

This encouraged Abdul Aziz and his students to take their radical activism a notch higher.

First, the madrasa students rallied against the government campaign to demolish illegally constructed mosques in Islamabad. They followed these protests along with their teachers, threatening the owners of video and music shops in Islamabad.

The Lal Masjid incident is an object lesson on how things can go awry with disastrous results when government coddles religious elements and religious institutions either for political reasons, or for fear of public backlash

The female students of the seminary, assisted by their male counterparts, raided an alleged brothel, kidnapping three women and holding them hostage for three days before releasing them after securing confessional statements saying that there were involved in “immoral activities.”

All this happened under the watchful eyes of Pakistani and international media.

The most egregious of the unlawful activities was, however, when the students and their teachers abducted three policemen as they went about their duties in search of students who were breaking the law.

This time also the government relented.

Instead of carrying out a major operation, the police negotiated the release of the three policemen.

It took several months for the Pakistani government to realise that it was time to take the bull by the horn.

The demon it was nurturing close to its core was giving birth to hundreds of radicals who were being shipped to fight its army and botch its war on terrorism from within.

Ironically, the government was fighting the very elements that were first born out of direct government subsidy and later of sheer neglect.

Finally, on July 3, 2007, the government, aided by the army, attacked the mosque.

It took the forces eight days to subdue the militants and retake the mosque. The death toll stood at 102 of which 91 were militants and 11 members of operation forces.

An enormous quantity of arms and ammunition was recovered from the mosque, including rockets, anti-tank and anti-personnel landmines, suicide bombing belts, assault rifles, and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

Is there a lesson to be learnt from all this? 

The use of religion for short term political gains is not unheard of -- at the very least, we are familiar with it from the history of Pakistan and Bangladesh.

In the 60s, Ayub Khan gathered the support of the ulema for his regime. General Ziaul Huq not only indulged religious elements, but considered himself as the new messiah. Pakistan is still reaping the harvest of the seeds that he had sown.

In Bangladesh in the early 70s, Ziaur Rahman was blessed in a national gathering of the mudarreseen (association of madrasa teachers). Later, we saw the repetition of the blessing of the dictatorship of General Ershad by the same elements.

The Bangladesh government is now walking a tightrope dangling between pressures of religious groups and demands of moderates for a more open and secular society.    

Appeasement of one group at the chagrin of another may work for a limited time, but in the end both groups see through the game and coalesce with each other to fight a common foe. We have seen this in Iran in the 70s, and later during the Arab spring.

Democracy dies in the dark when our leaders either do not or will not follow lessons from history.

Conspiracies against democracy do not come from outside, but from within. They come from our inability to recognise that forces that seek to usurp state power with violent means first work silently with connivance of allies that they set up in powerful quarters.

We need to be watchful that the Lal Masjid experience does not repeat in our country.

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.