The Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in Islamabad lies in a residential area between two main shopping centres, Aabpara and Melody Markets, only two kilometres from Pakistan’s National Assembly building. It could hardly be a more difficult location for a military operation, but the Pakistan army’s Special Services Group (SSG) fought through the complex on 10-11 July, killing some 100 extremists in a classic example of how to conduct a military operation in a built-up area. (Negotiation was attempted but failed, and a siege was impractical as the complex has its own water supply and there were large stocks of food.)
Rather than employing airstrikes that inevitably would have caused civilian casualties, President Musharraf, himself a former member of the SSG, ordered the assault in which nine of his soldiers died. The army learned tactical lessons in the course of the operation, but it is in the battlefields of religion and politics that its consequences might be felt more acutely, both immediately and in the longer term.
Some religious leaders, notably the erratic Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, a Senator and founder of the loose alliance of religious-political parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, condemned the military action and threatened mass protests and riots. In spite of his and others’ exhortations there were only sporadic and minor (although well-photographed and internationally publicised) demonstrations on 13th July when it might have been expected that preachers at Friday prayers, usually a propaganda venue for extremist views du jour, would have managed to bring substantial crowds onto the streets. It is a prime indicator of the stance of most Pakistanis that urban mobs were few and that the most extreme rhetoric came from clerics in the Frontier region. There have been repercussions there, some involving car bomb attacks on para-military convoys in the tribal areas, and the Pakistan army has been deployed accordingly.
The mosque was founded in 1966 by Maulana Mohammad Abdullah, a religious extremist who received Pakistan government and western endorsement in the 1980s when he supported the guerrilla war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. A Sunni, he was assassinated in 1998 in the course of tit-for-tat sectarian strife, and his responsibilities were dynastically assumed by his two sons, one of whom, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, was killed in the assault on the building. The other, Abdul Aziz, fled the mosque dressed in a burqa, an act that attracted considerable derision within Pakistan.
President Musharraf warned that “If we do not take sweeping steps now, tragedies like Lal Masjid will continue to take place” which fits with his espousal of “enlightened moderation” concerning the place of Islam in Pakistan.
Musharraf’s pronouncement that “Wherever there is fundamentalism and extremism we have to finish that, destroy that” is heartily approved by most educated Pakistanis, but the extremists cast dark shadows. If there are attempted repeats of the Red Mosque defiance there will be little negotiation and swifter action. Pakistan cannot afford to negotiate with fanatics whose aim is establishment through violence of a ferociously-applied version of Islamic law that bears little or no resemblance to the intent of the Koran and the Hadiths.
Brian Cloughley, South Asia commentator