Lessons from Lal Masjid
By Babar Sattar: the News, July 7, 2007
It is inexplicable why the general let the tomfoolery of Maulvi Aziz and Rashid fester for months and evolve into a full-blown crisis: a public library was occupied six months back and the ruling regime did not respond; citizens were threatened and private property destroyed but the regime looked the other way; weapons and militants were reportedly smuggled into the mosque and the regime looked on; three females and an infant were taken hostage along with police personnel and the regime only made loud noises; suicide bombing was threatened and the regime responded with emissaries and peace messages; finally some Chinese were taken hostage and the regime shook out of its slumber.
A curfew had to be imposed in Islamabad and images of tanks, helicopter gun-ships and paramilitary forces engaged in pitched battles with religious extremists holed in a mosque in the heart of Pakistan's capital flashed as headlines around the globe. Now try explaining to the world that Pakistan really is a peace-loving country with a majority of moderate Muslims who abhor the Lal Masjid-types. It is true, but unbelievable for anyone other than a moderate Pakistani. Even trusting friends from abroad now suspect lack of candour when one confidently proclaims the future of Pakistan as a progressive Muslim state. The Lal Masjid hooligans unnerved the moderate majority of Pakistanis not because they threatened an imminent take-over of the state and the society, but because of the nuisance they created for ordinary law abiding citizens in trying to enforce a retrogressive culture in Pakistan and slap the society back to the Stone Age.
True, there is popular support for the operation (and for good reason). True, the Musharraf regime had run out of tricks and had no other option but to act decisively. Equally true, the Lal Masjid crisis need not have become one. This event, like so many others, defines the failings of our power elite and explains why we are struggling as a nation-state: while personal and parochial interests of our elites always trump national interest. The Lal Masjid imbroglio was allowed to simmer because it was helping the Musharraf regime. (And this is not the standard wag-the-dog conspiracy theory that the general initiated the operation to divert attention from the judicial crisis or the All Parties moot in London). The timing of the operation is less consequential than the six-month history of the Lal Masjid movement and the message it has sent out to obscurantists at home and critics all around.
The crisis helped the general for it made the threat of extremism more real than it is. The Musharraf regime understood all along that prolonging the crisis would on the one hand make the international community more hysterical and on the other garner more popular support for use of force against Lal Masjid patrons within Pakistan. It accomplished both ends. And now in resorting to the use of force, it has established that when push comes to shove, the general doesn't shy away from acting. The Musharraf regime can gloat temporarily. After all even critics must admit that this is a moment of respite for the beleaguered general. He comes across as a saviour to the moderates in Pakistan and as a dependable ally to the west with a liberal heart and the required conviction to use force against his own people when needed.
So then is this just criticism for the sake of criticism? In governing, it is vital to keep an eye out for unintended consequences of actions or lack thereof. Rule of law was the biggest casualty of the Lal Masjid sage. In a functional society members must abide by the rules of the game and the state must preserve such rules. The system has to provide for disagreement, dissent and change, but a bunch of people just cannot decide to throw their hands up and begin to function outside the system. That is what Lal Masjid folks attempted and largely got away with. They tyrannised citizens into abstaining from activities that are legal (such as women driving or shopkeepers selling CDs etc.), and themselves indulged in criminal acts (burning public and private property, abducting citizens and state representatives, brandishing prohibited weapons, inciting and threatening suicide missions, and setting up a Sharia court etc.).
What the Musharraf regime doesn't seem to understand is that it has no discretion to tolerate crime. Crime is different from a private dispute for in the former the state acts on behalf of the society and cannot exonerate anyone from criminal liability through extralegal means. Chaudhary Shujaat cannot be allowed to drop charges of abduction against the Lal Masjid patrons in his zeal to appease the mullahs. Likewise the Musharraf regime had no business entertaining Lal Masjid demands that fell outside the pale of law. Lal Masjid has a right to propagate its views on decency, vulgarity or a vision for the society, and others have an equal right to challenge such views and vision. But no one has a right to enforce their particular view or vision on others against their will. There is a system to enforce views and visions: you convince people, contest elections, form a government and then act.
What the state must not allow is for people to rubbish the covenant between the citizen and the state with impunity. Tolerance for violence whets the appetite of other disgruntled elements in the state. Handling of the Lal Masjid crisis has had that effect. It has also caused loss of life that was avoidable. Under the Musharraf regime, the Pakistani state has developed an unfortunate habit of using violence to thwart violence. But what is done is done. The end of the Lal Masjid operation will be a pyrrhic victory for the state and the cause of moderation if no lessons are gleaned from this sorry episode.
In the immediate term, the government must build on the momentum acquired and commence a campaign to rid all madressahs of weapons. There is little reason to believe that Lal Masjid was unique in propagating obscurantism, inciting violence and being armed. The Musharraf regime must admit that its madressah policy has been an outright failure and take measures to check incitement and use of violence by madressahs as legitimate tools of religious activism. But this is simply not a law and order issue. The cause of moderation could use a rethink and overhaul of our educational, political and justice systems, apart from developing a societal consensus on standards of decency and liberalisms that mesh with our culture.
At the end of the day, enlightenment does not come through posh mannerism or language skills of unelectable leaders, snazzy billboards and a few scandalous TV shows, but through effective education that cultivates thinking individuals. There are no quick fixes here. We have to make a long-term commitment and investment in education. Secondly, people begin to function outside the system, when the system refuses to empower people or make adequate provision for change. Violence is empowering, but then so is democracy. To the extent that democracy is functional and people feel they control their lives and future, the pull toward violence is greatly diminished. Equally importantly, people seek justice through private means when they believe that the state system of justice is either dysfunctional or tipped against them.
The diagnosis and the prescription is the easy part. What we need is leaders who have a vision larger than themselves and are willing to act at the right time for the right reasons.
The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad. He is a Rhodes Scholar and has an LL.M from Harvard Law School. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org