Lal Masjid theatrics: mob rule or 'topi drama'?

Lal Masjid theatrics: mob rule or 'topi drama'?
By Prof Adil Najam: The News, June 26, 2007

The standoff created by the attack on a 'massage' centre in Islamabad by the Lal Masjid militia and the abduction of a number of Chinese nationals lasted less than a day. The criminality of this shameful act notwithstanding, the matter was thankfully resolved and the 'pious posse' from Jamia Faridia and Jamia Hafsa released the kidnapped individuals. However, far from resolving the larger crisis of puritanical vigilantism, this episode has only deepened it. The government has succumbed, yet again, to the militant tactics of the Lal Masjid leadership who have, in turn, declared victory. This episode will further embolden the already violence-prone brigands at the two madressahs and we are likely to see an escalation in their demands as well as their tactics. Meanwhile, with the government has once again demonstrated an inability and/or unwillingness to act decisively. The much-cherished 'writ of the state' continues to rot in tatters.

This loss of control by the state apparatus -- not only in the far reaches of the tribal belt but in the very heart of the federal capital -- is much more than a spiralling 'law and order' situation; it is an erosion of state sovereignty. The militants from Lal Masjid have been acting not just with impunity, but in equality to state functionaries. With all the pretensions of a state within a state, Lal Masjid 'authorities' are now negotiating as equals with government 'authorities.' And they have been doing so with increasing frequency and with amazing success.

What is even more surprising than the abdication of control by the state is the lack of outright outrage amongst the public. Somehow our national passions are far more likely to be flared by the award of meaningless honours to unimpressive novelists by foreign governments thousands of miles away than by the spectacle of crumbling state sovereignty in the very heart of our national capital. This lack of public outcry is partly -- but only partly -- explained by the political savvy of the Lal Masjid leadership. Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi and his comrades have shown great ingenuity in their choice of issues and in operational execution. By focusing on issues of public morality and highlighting the government's failures in enforcing its own laws, they have been able to present themselves as reformers rather than as bullies and as guardians of social virtue rather than as promoters of intolerance.

Much more than that -- and even amongst those who fully recognise the gravity of situation -- one finds a pervasive feeling that there is more to the Lal Masjid theatrics than meets the eye. Even members of parliament have been suggesting that the government and its intelligence agencies are manipulating the Lal Masjid militancy. There is a widely held view that even if the intelligence agencies are not actively 'managing' the Lal Masjid, the government is choosing to tolerate and possibly encourage its antics for its own short-term goals. The common refrain is that everything happening at the Lal Masjid is part of an elaborate 'topi drama' -- an intricate, carefully calibrated, stage-managed confrontation which is not a confrontation at all.

But why would the government (either directly or through its intelligence agencies) collude with the leadership of the Lal Masjid to produce or tolerate situations -- the continuing capture of a children's library, abduction of alleged brothel workers, hostage taking of policemen, and now the kidnapping of Chinese nationals -- that are clearly embarrassments for the government? That the government, despite all the instruments of force at its command, has been repeatedly caving in to the demands of the stick-totting madrassah students has fuelled rumours of secret deals and devious deceptions. But it also makes the Lal Masjid crowd look like heroes even as the government comes out looking ineffectual.

What possible benefits does the government derive that would outweigh this embarrassment? Two reasons are commonly given. First, there is the theory of domestic payoff. It is argued that strategically timed eruptions from Lal Masjid can provide valuable respite and distraction from other irksome political crises, especially the continuing saga of the chief justice debacle. The second theory posits the possibility of international payoffs. In this case, the argument is that since each eruption from the Lal Masjid is quickly contained, but never fully resolved, the military regime is sending a message to its US patrons that (a) Pakistan remains a country at the brink of fundamentalist fervour and (b) military control is needed to keep such militant groups in check.

Even if there were some in the realm of power who once actually believed in such ideas, neither of these theories is empirically defensible today. In relation to the first, it is now abundantly evident that Lal Masjid woes add to, instead of distracting from, the domestic political mess. Quite clearly, nothing that has happened by or in the Lal Masjid has made even the slightest dent in the public or media enthusiasm for following the minutia of the chief justice story. The second theory stands equally discredited. Instead of viewing the Lal Masjid skirmishes as evidence of just how bad things are in Pakistan, most analysts in Washington now see this unending drama as proof that the military government is increasingly unable to contain the rebirth of Talibanism in Pakistan. In short, the continuation of the Lal Masjid crisis is not merely an embarrassment for the government, it is actually dangerous for the regime; both domestically and internationally.

I am, of course, not privy to the inner thinking of the intelligence apparatchiks in Pakistan. However, it is at least likely that this is less of a 'topi drama' than people seem to believe. That whatever the relationship between intelligence agencies and the Lal Masjid might have been in the past, today the 'movement' (as Maulana Ghazi likes to call it) has assumed a life all its own as a very potent -- and ugly -- manifestation of self-sustaining vigilantism and mob rule. If so, the government's inaction against this 'movement' can be explained either as a gross miscalculation of the lurking dangers, or it could be based on a real fear that touching the hornets nest at Lal Masjid would unleash demons so horrific that our already divided society will be further torn apart. The government's own statements suggest that it is the latter.

Just like standing still in the middle of the road at the sight of the blinding lights of a truck speeding towards it does not save the life of the stunned deer, doing nothing about this escalating crisis out of fear that doing anything will only make things worse is not going to help the government, or Pakistan. Something needs to be done, and done fast.

Contrary to popular logic, there may be important payoffs for the government if it does act to judiciously dismantle militancy at Lal Masjid. Internationally, it will be seen as an important victory and a real step against rising Talibanisation. Domestically, it will mean one less crisis to worry about and could rally support from the moderate majority in Pakistan who once supported General Musharraf but have now become disenchanted. Ultimately, however, the most important reason to dismantle the militancy is that it is the right thing to do.

The writer is a professor of International Negotiation and Diplomacy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, US, and the founding editor of Email: adil.najam@


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