Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Benazir Bhutto: Before her death - 5

A new London plan in the offing? By M. Ziauddin


MAULANA Fazlur Rehman’s visit to London this week is not all that what it looks like on the face of it. On his way to Libya he has taken a long detour of London ostensibly to meet Nawaz Sharif to review the current political situation in the country, revive the proposal of APC and discuss with the PML-N chief the possibility of persuading Benazir to join a grand opposition alliance against President Pervez

But informed circles here do not rule out the possibility of the British government taking advantage of Maulana’s presence here to seek his assessment of the latest Taliban-related developments in Afghanistan and in the two border provinces of Pakistan. It is no secret any more that the Maulana was instrumental in getting the militants of North and South Waziristan to sign peace agreements with Pakistan and also that he had played a crucial role in the defunct peace agreement between the elders of Helmand and the then British-led Nato troops.

The Maulana, it is believed, also has his own agenda for a meeting with British government representatives, if at all such a meeting takes place. He is said to have come here prepared to submit a forceful plea to the West to let him use his own strategy to curb and control Talibanisation in the region as an alternative to what he calls the ‘ineffective’ military strategy that is being used for the purpose by the West, the US and Gen Musharraf.

To some it has appeared as no accident that the JUI leader has come to this important world capital at a time when a town in the MMA-ruled province of NWFP had just been daringly attacked by what looked like a regular Taliban army and the baton-wielding, burqa-clad girl students of one of the Islamabad’s Madressahs located in the heart of the capital kidnapped three women and two security personnel and were also still holding the children’s library they had taken over a couple of weeks ago.

In both these incidents the response of the state had appeared to be too weak to be true, creating an impression in the process that the state is retreating in the face of aggressive Talibanisation of Pakistan. The administration which did not hesitate to manhandle the Chief Justice in broad daylight on the streets of Islamabad was seen failing miserably to handle a woman brigade of Taliban in the capital, and in Tank it had seemingly let regular Taliban formations to come unchallenged into a settled town bordering the tribal belt, ravage it and then go back unscathed.

When asked for his comments on the recent attack by non-state actors in a town of NWFP at the press conference which he and Nawaz Sharif addressed here jointly on Wednesday, he called the event first as an ‘incident’ and then said one should look at it as an accident and finally dubbing it as a foolish act of some people. He surprised his listeners by promising ostensibly on behalf of the attackers that such incidents would not happen in future.

And more surprisingly, he appeared to own the incidents in a roundabout manner as he asked: “When we demand a peaceful settlement in Iraq and Afghanistan why would we take up arms in our own country to settle similar issues?”

Though he subsequently condemned both the Tank incident and that of Islamabad mosque and said such incidents damaged MMA’s cause, but the underlying threat was quite clear.

After recounting how military strategies of Gen Musharraf in Pakistan and that of the US and the West in Iraq and Afghanistan have failed to curb and control extremism in the last five years and how instead these strategies have only caused it to rise to violent new peaks, he implied that MMA alone had the answer to the rising extremism.

“We can defeat extremism through logic and politics,” he claimed sitting in London where he knew he would be closely monitored by interested ears and eyes.

And then he warned these eyes and ears that if the MMA was pushed to the wall through what he called manipulation (alluding perhaps to the behind-the-scene efforts of the UK to help Musharraf and Benazir come to some kind of an understanding before the next elections) then the situation could further deteriorate and finally fall completely into the hands of the extremists. One could clearly see that it is in the interest of both the MMA and Gen Musharraf that the US and the West do not put all their future political eggs in the basket of the mainstream secular political parties like the PPP and PML-N. Both know that in a fair and free election in which Benazir and Nawaz Sharif would be physically leading their respective parties in Pakistan, the elements patronised by the military and the religious alliance would be completely routed.

So, perhaps the reason why the Maulana chose to visit London at this important juncture in Pakistan’s politics when Gen Musharraf is finding it increasing difficult to ward off the groundswell of opposition to the continued military rule in the country which suits only the religious right and which had the best of the both worlds since 9/11 in Pakistan.

In the past five years both Musharraf and the MMA have ruled the country as a joint enterprise with the latter hunting with the hounds and running with the hare, while the former used all legal and illegal means to politically destroy the PPP and PML-N both of whom pose a serious threat to him in Punjab and Sindh and to MMA in the NWFP and Balochistan.

It is the MMA which rules the NWFP where Tank is located and which was conveniently attacked by regular troops of Taliban while the federal troops seemingly looked the other way and it is Gen Musharraf who rules Islamabad with an iron hand and where a few burqa-clad women Taliban have established a state within the state while the military regime gives the impression of being too gender sensitive to use force.

But those who have seen Gen Musharraf and the MMA operate in unison over the last five years refuse to rule out the possibility of one last desperate joint effort by the two to save their respective fiefdoms from falling into the hands of the people of Pakistan.

The creeping coup By Zaffar Abbas

ISLAMABAD, March 30: The primary theatre of battle may still be North and South Waziristan, as evidenced by the Pakistani Taliban’s recent bloody assault on the settled town of Tank that borders the tribal areas. But the events of the last few days in Islamabad are more disturbing in some ways, suggesting as they do that creeping Talibanisation is now a reality across the country.Indeed the Lal Masjid brigade, as it has come to be known, has every right to celebrate. Tuesday’s showdown with the police was its second major success of the year. First its women’s wing, comprising hundreds of burqa-clad and baton-wielding students, occupied a children’s library in the federal capital in January.

Now both the men’s and women’s wings of this emerging brand of the Pakistani Taliban have started to impose new rules of morality by forcibly shutting down video and music shops in Islamabad, and by abducting women whom they believe are engaged in ‘immoral’ activities.

Situated in an area where the prime minister’s secretariat and seat of power is on one side, and the headquarters of the country’s premier intelligence agency, the ISI, on the other, Lal Masjid and its adjacent Hafsa madressah have not only managed to enforce the Taliban-style system of ‘moral policing’ in matters of ‘vice and virtue’, to date they remain in control of the situation.

But who are these people, and why are the government and the security services finding it so hard to enforce the rule of law? Is it that the government really wants to avoid bloodshed because hundreds, if not thousands, of women are part of this violent brigade? Or is it a reflection of some kind of infighting in the establishment where one faction still has a soft corner for their former Islamist

Led by two cleric brothers, the Lal Masjid brigade is a relatively new phenomenon in Pakistan’s militant politics. But the ambitious manner in which its leaders have sought publicity in the last few months has clearly set alarm bells ringing among the general public as well as sections of the security establishment.

Sons of Maulana Abdullah, a firebrand pro-jihad cleric who was assassinated inside the mosque about a decade ago, Maulana Abdul Aziz and Maulana Abdul Rasheed Ghazi have been running two separate wings of this movement.

Maulana Aziz, the more religious and scholarly of the two, heads Islamabad’s biggest Jamia Fareedia madressah, which is located in the woods near the elite E-7 sector on land allotted by the late General Ziaul Haq. At any given time, the madressah boasts over 7,000 students seeking higher degrees in Islamic education. But as has been the case during the present conflict, it also provides the bulk of the Lal Masjid militant force.

The younger brother, Maulana Rasheed Ghazi, known to be a worldly man, manages Lal Masjid. Once known for his close links with the establishment, he is now spearheading the Islamic ‘brigade’ which includes several thousand madressah students, both men and women.

Popularly known as Lal Masjid — probably after the building’s façade of red bricks — it has long been regarded as the city’s main mosque for the followers of the Deoband faith. It caught the eye of its detractors during the protest campaign by pro-Taliban forces in the aftermath of the 9/11 incidents and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.

However, the critical point came when Lal Masjid hosted a major conference of ulema and clerics about four years ago to issue a fatwa which not only opposed the military operation in Waziristan but also called for a boycott of the namaz-i-janaza of soldiers killed in the fight with Islamic militants.

A number of people were arrested shortly after the fatwa was issued but Maulana Ghazi went into hiding. During this period the authorities made half-hearted efforts to arrest him, while Maulana Ghazi effectively used his contacts with the media for publicity and quickly transformed himself into the leader of the pro-Taliban movement in Islamabad.

The latest confrontation is also of his making, as was the case in January when he led the campaign against the demolition of mosques in Islamabad described by the government as illegal or unauthorised.

On that occasion, hundreds of burqa-clad women from the adjacent madressah Hafsa, all of them brandishing batons, occupied a small children’s library in protest. And though the controversy revolving round a demolished mosque was resolved with the religious affairs minister, Ejazul Haq, coming to their support, the library still remains in the control of the Hafsa women, and has in fact been made part of the madressah.

Encouraged by the manner in which the authorities capitulated, those managing Lal Masjid increased their demands, and called for regularising a large number of mosques constructed without prior permission. More recently they decided to push the campaign a step further by introducing the Taliban-style police system based on “amar bil maroof wah nahi anil munkir”, more commonly known as the ‘department of vice and virtue’.

Within no time groups of men and women from the brigade started visiting shops, threatening them with dire consequences if they didn’t stop selling DVDs, CDs or music cassettes. People were also issued directives about dress codes and other ‘moral and ethical’ issues.

The latest confrontation, which again ended in victory for the Hafsa women, was also the result of this campaign during which they raided a nearby house and abducted an elderly woman as well as her daughter and daughter-in-law, accusing them of immorality.

The authorities, meanwhile, focused on securing the release of two policemen who had been made hostage the same day by the Lal Masjid boys. The women were set free only a day later, and that too after being forced to seek ‘forgiveness’. All this happened not somewhere in remote and distant Miramshah or Wana, but a stone’s throw from the seat of power.

The situation today is that the leaders of Lal Masjid are declaring victory in this latest round. The children’s library is still in their control, and their baton-wielding force patrols the streets in the area. The authorities keep claiming that a number of wanted men are hiding inside the mosque but remain reluctant to take action. The excuse they offer is that the use of force may result in bloodshed. That brute force was used only a few days ago to crush opposition supporters a few hundred yards from Lal Masjid is easily forgotten.

Lal Masjid is supported by not only the Hafsa and Fareedia madressahs but also has the backing of a dozen or so other large and small seminaries in different parts of city. And their students — almost all of them from outside the city — can assemble at the shortest possible notice, as has been witnessed during recent protest gatherings.

To some it seems the government doesn’t realise the gravity of the situation. And that has prompted a few to ask if a government even exists in Islamabad. But of course there is a government, with Mr Shaukat Aziz sitting pretty in the palatial and well-secured Prime Minister’s House on the hill. President Pervez Musharraf, with much already on his plate, is meanwhile busy trying to solve issues more crucial to him, ranging from the judicial crisis to Waziristan, and even the Islamic ummah’s wider concerns like Palestine and Iraq.

To them the stand-off in Islamabad may not yet be a huge crisis as has been the case with crises in the past. It may take a while for the decision-makers to understand how dire the situation has become. In the meantime, the creeping coup by the Pakistani Taliban will continue unchecked to challenge the writ of the government and the state. And perhaps alter the country’s social fabric to an extent that it is rendered unrecognisable.

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