Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Lal Masjid Fiasco

Editorial: Government must enforce order
Daily Times, July 4, 2007

What has happened at Islamabad’s Lal Masjid on Tuesday should worry the government immensely, not least since this is a government already under siege. Consider.

The only thing worse than using force is not to use it when using it becomes inevitable. But the worst is for a government to be seen as employing force when it is not ready to do so. This explains Tuesday’s events at Lal Masjid.

First, the government allowed the sore to fester for this long, tucking tail in the face of excesses committed by the Lal Masjid cadres. Then it half-heartedly began deploying the Rangers around the complex after the mosque’s zealots kidnapped some Chinese women and accused them of running a brothel. Many of us thought at that point that the mosque cadres might have crossed the red line. This view was strengthened when, a few days ago, speaking to media representatives, General Pervez Musharraf said that he would deal with the problem if the media promised not to show footage and pictures of dead bodies. Shortly thereafter the Rangers were deployed, the first batch taking positions last Thursday. The mosque’s administrator, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, gave a sermon the next day, warning the state against taking any action against the mosque and reiterating that they would move against any brothels regardless of who might be running them. Then Mr Ghazi fulminated against a yet-to-be released film in Pakistan because he thinks it is blasphemous. The film, to be shown on a TV channel, depicts a post 9/11 confrontation between fundamentalists and liberal Muslims. By doing so he threw another gauntlet to the government. He is a man who has become used to throwing challenges and seeing the state shy away from confrontation. The retreat of the state in the face of extremism, as should now be obvious, will not solve anything.

Tracing the events of Tuesday to what sparked off the violence, it is clear that it began at the barricades with some students from the mosque’s seminary trying to wrest weapons from some Rangers’ personnel. Mr Ghazi says this might have happened because the Rangers were closing in on the mosque. But some accounts tell a different story: the students decided to take on the Rangers and do unto them what they have become quite adept at doing to the police — kidnapping security forces’ personnel and then using them as bargaining chips. Only this time the scuffle led to an exchange of fire in which one Rangers personnel was killed and two others injured. Thus began the exchange of fire on a larger scale which, until we went to press, had claimed about 20 lives according to incoming reports and injured about a hundred people. The dead and the injured included seminarians, security personnel and citizens and journalists caught in the crossfire.

This is not the stuff of any military operation. However, now that this has started, what should the government do? Backing off at this point would only complicate matters and add to the impression that this government is feeble and uncertain about its priorities. In plain English this means the government has to now go in and finish the job. But it has lost any element of surprise and direct use of force will play to the advantage of the mosque. Already, religious leaders have begun confusing the issue by calling it a grand conspiracy against Pakistan and Islam, with some accusing the government of resorting to the same extremism as the mosque. This view is wrong and the government would do well to ignore it. While it is important to keep the number of casualties down in such an operation, neither should the commanders shy from taking and inflicting casualties because the first priority is to ensure that the operation succeeds.

What has already happened should make it very clear that half-hearted measures are more dangerous than inaction. But the very fact that the first stone has now been cast, there is no going back to the earlier state of inaction.

Mr Ghazi will try to use the media in his support and he will use “Islam” to justify his actions but that should not deter the government from taking action which is now absolutely necessary. The media also has a role to play. It has been calling for action and insisting that the writ of the state should be enforced in this case. Now the die is cast and it must not shy away from its responsibility. There are times when governments have to take unsavoury decisions in the larger interest of the nation-state. In 1979, the Saudi government had to take just such a decision when some extremist elements took over the Ka’aba. In 1984, the Indian government decided to storm the Golden Temple because such an action, despite the dangers inherent in doing so, had become inevitable and absolutely necessary. The government in Islamabad too cannot avoid taking the difficult decision now.

For details about the July 3 Battle between Lal Masjid Militants and government forces, click here

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