A Drama Nearing its End?

A drama to beat all dramas
By Ayaz Amir: Dawn, July 6, 2007

TO the hidden hands of this dispensation must fall the glory of staging and directing from behind the scenes a brilliant piece of theatre which at least temporarily has drawn attention away from other problems.

Although, as this drama reached its climax it dissolved into outright ridicule -- when one of its central characters, Maulana Abdul Aziz, was caught while trying to flee from the scene in a burqa -- it has still managed to upstage other issues like the on-going saga in the Supreme Court and the All Parties Conference set to begin in London on Saturday.

Two relatively unknown maulvis -- Aziz and his smooth-talking younger brother, Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi -- catapulted to international stardom while this drama lasted goes to show the sure touch and directorial ability of our backstage players.

Hand it to them though for turning out to be superb comic actors. Vowing martyrdom and suicide bombings and God knows what, their rhetoric and threats were so effective that it was generally believed that short of a pitched battle they would not be evicted from their mosque and seminary (transformed over the last couple of years into a fortress, under the benign eye of the Musharraf administration).

When the end came it was a tragedy turning to farce as Maulana Aziz, the head cleric, surrounded by a crowd of girl students, disguised himself in a burqa in an attempt to get out. Even the best of Hollywood directors would have been hard put to round off this drama with such an ending.

Although Pakistan has never been short of jokers (both military and civilian), when it comes to the comic arts, secular politicians are no match for their religious brethren. Consider Maulana Fazlur Rahman. Can any secular politician come close to matching his antics? Now this bravura performance in burqa by Maulana Aziz of Lal Masjid.

What to make of Maulana Aziz’s questioning, or rather grilling, on Pakistan Television after his arrest? He looked tired and done in as if deprived of sleep. He accepted many things (such as the possession of illicit arms) and his humiliation was plain to see because he was still wearing the burqa in which he had attempted to flee. (At the time of writing these lines, his brother, Maulana Rashid, was still holed up in the Lal Masjid).

It can be safely assumed that the government will milk this ‘triumph’ for all it is worth, portraying it as another victory against ‘extremism’. Gen Musharraf receives a shot in the arm. The image he has cultivated in the West of being the last bulwark in Pakistan against the rising tide of Talibanisation will be further strengthened. On CNN on Wednesday evening this was the line being peddled -- that Musharraf was performing an important role against extremism.

If more blood had been spilt, if Lal Masjid had turned into a nightmare, something like Mrs Gandhi’s assault on the Golden Temple, it would have been a different matter. But the maulvis, their strings pulled by God alone knows whom, saw to it that their valour did not match their thunder. As such, they have played into the government’s hands. After six months of unadulterated disaster (in Islamabad disaster going by the name of ‘mishandling’), finally some good news for Pakistan’s embattled general. He badly needed a triumph, no matter what the cost. He has got one. Other problems -- the judicial crisis, plans for a phony election -- will not disappear. But for the time being they have been pushed on to the backburner. Unless I am seeing ghosts in the shadows and blowing things out of proportion, this episode, and its denouement, could even have an effect on the proceedings in the Supreme Court.

For, let us not forget that of all the buildings in Islamabad, the Supreme Court is the most sensitive to the weather outside. If the lawyers of Pakistan had not been up in arms, Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohamad Chaudhry would have been history long ago. Like Maulana Aziz now, and Dr A. Q. Khan some time ago, he might even have had to appear on television to confess to his ‘sins’. (To all appearances, in the Musharraf republic one of the conditions of mercy is an abject appearance on television.) But if this hasn’t happened, it’s only because of the weather outside.

But the basic question is somewhat different. It is not enough to ask why the Lal Masjid brothers were trying to run a state within a state, or why they were taking the law into their hands. They had no business to do either but that’s hardly the point. Why were they allowed to take the law into their hands? Who set them up as moral vigilantes? Who allowed them, or facilitated them, to carry on their charade for so long?

We have seen how when the government made its intent clear: Maulana Aziz was transformed almost immediately from a leader of jihad to a comic star. Why did the government get serious only now? Why was it biding its time since January when girl students from the Jamia Hafsa seized the Children’s Library?

Granted that the Red Mosque brigade went a step too far when they raided a purported massage parlour and took several Chinese nationals into custody. But how did these vigilantes arrive at that point of confidence where they could contemplate such a step? The Musharraf government has moved heaven and earth, and in the process made a fool of itself, to take care of a troublesome Chief Justice. But for six months it allowed a bunch of bearded vigilantes to run amok and make a mockery of the state. Why?

So what was really going on? Beset on all sides by different problems, did the government simply sleepwalk its way into this mess? Or were hidden hands playing the Red Mosque brothers and pushing them to a point where they could be dealt with in such a manner as to bring maximum advantage to the government?

Cynicism abounds and it is only reinforced by the impeccable timing of the Lal Masjid Brigade’s exploits. Whenever the Chief Justice’s case in the Supreme Court took a serious turn, the Ghazi brothers could almost be counted upon to come up with a diversionary exercise. On their own or at someone’s bidding?

Even now, this crisis came to a head only a day after the government’s lawyers made complete idiots of themselves in the Supreme Court by filing documents against the Chief Justice which the court found so scandalous that it threw them out and penalised the advocate-on-record held responsible for the filing. Bigger heads should have rolled because the idea of filing these documents was someone else’s. But that’s a different subject.

Cynicism can also be measured by another circumstance. While there is not an ounce of public sympathy for the vigilantism of the Red Mosque brigade, there is not an ounce of sympathy for the government either. Indeed, a poll would probably show that the Ghazi brothers and Gen Musharraf share about the same degree of public suspicion and disapproval.

Civilian governments in Pakistan are much maligned. Part of the military’s cleverly-spread credo is that civilian governments are incompetent and that in their hands the ‘national interest’ (whatever this means from time to time) is never safe. A civilian government -- Benazir Bhutto’s or Nawaz Sharif’s -- would never have allowed this mess to grow in the first place. The Ghazi brothers would never have been given so much rope.

The West seems not to understand that religious extremism in Pakistan is a product of military rule. Gen Zia promoted this phenomenon. Gen Musharraf has sought to profit from it by presenting himself as an ‘enlightened’ alternative.

The cause of ‘enlightenment’ would be served by a return to democracy. But who’s interested in democracy? Stuck in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, the United States wants an ever-compliant ally in Islamabad. Musharraf fits this bill. That is why the US has no interest in seeing him go.

Does this mean that we are stuck with an ageing dispensation? This should be for the people of Pakistan to decide, but are they capable enough of exercising this right? This question, above all others, remains to be decided in what promises to be a seminal year in the history of Pakistan.

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