The Lal Masjid Dilemma :: Operation is not an option ::

Over the past weeks Islamabad has witnessed unusual events involving the Lal Masjid and Madrassa Hafsa and Madrassa Fareedia. The Madrassa authorities and students have been directly involved in the illegal occupation of Children’s Library, illegal possession of weapons, playing the role of a law enforcing agency, becoming the moral monitors of society, setting up of a parallel legal system. Specifically, according to media reports, they have actively sought to close down video shops which they claim were renting pornographic material, the Hafsa women ‘arrested’ two women and child who they accused of running a brothel, two policemen were nabbed and a police van impounded when the police force came to get the Children’s library vacated. In last Friday’s sermon, a threat was issued to the government that if force was used against them suicide bombers and air attacks will be used to defend the Madrassas and the Masjid. Interestingly, the first applicant who approached the Shariat Court was a policewoman. She complained against sexual harassment by her colleagues. Her written complaint to her own officials was ignored. The Superintendent Police wrote, noted on her application, that her complaint stemmed from professional jealousy and from rumors. Apparently, no inquiry was conducted.

These events have created a sense of grave crisis within Pakistan’s ruling circles.

Government institutions have been contemplating – whether use of the force or dialogue is the best way to resolve this dilemma. Within the public, there are three views; one that use of force is a must to send a clear signal to all the Madrassas that such violation of law or impingement on other people’s’ rights is not acceptable. Many within the public argue that sections of the government have, either out of conviction or political expediency, covertly supported the actions of the Madrassa students. The other public view is that this Shariat approach, which involves a moral brigade, is the answer to the country’s problems of corruption, of absence of rule, of law etc. The third view is that only a dialogue-approach backed by the threat of force will help defuse the current standoff. Use of force could be very risky. It would involve bloodshed and bitter fragmentation within the public and even important sections of the forces. It could trigger a non-winnable battle. Already the State is engaged with fighting private militias in Tank, Parachinar and Waziristan.

However, the fear of a disastrous outcome of use of force cannot mean inaction by the State. The writ of the State has to be enforced to deter other groups from following such an approach, which undermines the writ of the State and citizens’ freedoms.

After days of in-house discussions, finally, on April 9 in a high level meeting, the President took the correct decision: not to launch an operation. Instead the PML-Q president Chaudary Shujaat has been tasked to carry on negotiations with the heads of the two seminaries. The PML president and the Secretary general, supported by uniformed men from key agencies, were able to convince the president to abandon the plan to launch an immediate operation. The Prime Minister and the cabinet would, as always, merely go along with the President’s decision.

The PML leadership argued that that all avenues for a compromise must be exhausted and that the objective is to defuse an explosive situation without further aggravation. He argued against use of force even if it meant only using the police force. Shujaat believes that within a week the Madrassa and mosque managers will retract from their current positions. They must disarm, be evicted them from the Children’s library and be prevented from playing the role of law enforcing agencies.

The situation in the heart of Islamabad still remains precarious but there is hope now that an explosive situation will be prevented. What follows will depend on how the State institutions and the government deal with the larger issue of rule of law and politics in the country.

Significantly, these developments signal a dual and overlapping crisis confronting the Pakistani State, politics and society. One, it reinforces the crisis of the Pakistani State. Nothing more starkly conveys the near paralysis of the State institutions than the Pakistan’s men in uniform, who have at regular intervals, intervened to control the State, have also arrested and in fact, distorted Pakistan’s natural political evolution. State patronized ethnicity and religion-based politics as its tools to battle internal and external enemies. Even democratically elected politicians have used religious groups to legitimize themselves in times of crisis. The inept and blundering State controlled primarily by the Establishment and to a lesser extent by politicians in power has, therefore, generated this crisis of State and of politics. And it so starkly manifests itself in the challenges that the seminaries have posed.

Two, the other dimension of this crisis is that the action taken by the seminaries in defiance of the State, have captured the imagination of many within the society. Those fated to be ‘lesser Pakistanis’ with lesser private privileges and with little scope for benefiting from the services that a State must ensure to its citizens –” justice, basic amenities, physical security and personal freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution – are experiencing times of extraordinary deprivation. All these failures of the State reinforce the internal apartheid between the haves and have-nots. In these times of extraordinary denials and exclusions – coupled with the post-eighties wave of mixing religion and militarism against the backdrop of a ‘softening’ State, people inevitably will look for extraordinary solutions. For hundreds of thousands in Pakistan, the Lal masjid and the Hafsa Madrassa phenomenon present one such ‘extraordinary’ solution.

The external dimension, Palestine, Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and Kashmir too confuse minds and agitate hearts. As the global media brings it all home to us, the far away injustices become our own reality, it homogenizes the pain and the solution too. The defining construct for many of us becomes religion; as does the nature of crisis and response.

In Pakistan, the core problem does not flow from religion. It is of the inept State. It is primarily the crisis of the State, and its inability to ensure that an average citizen has a stake in the existing system of law and governance, that creates a context for the citizen to look for extraordinary solutions. Now sections of the State seek to reform itself. That will require time and also return of democracy.

There is still a silver lining underlying today’s turbulent Pakistan; that Pakistan is not irreconcilably fragmented; that underlying most of the anguish and torment is the rejection of injustice. Hence the only the unifying call that can take us out of this mess is the call to rule of law. This will mobilize the public to a common platform; to a unified and prosperous but democratically competitive, Pakistan.