Pakistanis see a conspiracy in siege
BY JAMES RUPERT | July 8, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- It seems a simple drama: the moderate President Pervez Musharraf sending troops to shut down the radical mosque that has brought violence to Pakistan's capital.
But Islamabad's Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, has championed Islamic jihadism for years with support and tolerance from the army now besieging it, say Pakistani scholars and analysts. At the least, they say, the crisis is "blowback" from years of discreet support by military intelligence agencies for Lal Masjid's militants.
Many Pakistanis go farther, saying the drama is largely staged by "the agencies," as they are called here. Suggesting just that, Najam Sethi, one of the country's most distinguished journalists, wrote in the weekly Friday Times that "it is curious that the Lal Masjid affair has hogged the media precisely when [a] more substantive national issue" -- Musharraf's attempt to oust the country's chief justice and manipulate the Supreme Court -- has been hurting him politically.
Such conspiracy theories get serious consideration here because the military has made a habit of political manipulation. In the 50 years since Pakistan's military first seized power, it has discreetly shaped civilian politics and religious institutions to maintain its influence and prosecute its wars -- a history documented in recent years by Pakistani authors such as Harvard University scholar Hassan Abbas and Boston University's Hussain Haqqani.
Military found jihad useful
The military has used jihad, or Islamic holy war, as a foreign policy weapon -- to battle India for control of Kashmir and to keep influence over Afghanistan. Through its vast intelligence agencies, the military has quietly backed mosques, madrassas (religious schools), religious charities and guerrilla groups that promoted such "jihads."
For years, Pakistanis have widely understood and applauded the military's support for jihadists in Kashmir and Afghanistan. More controversial is agencies such as Military Intelligence and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) using their militant networks to manipulate domestic politics.
ISI and the other agencies got into the jihad business in a big way in the 1980s under the authoritarian Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. They managed the massive, CIA-funded program to train and arm the Afghan mujahideen fighting Soviet occupation. And they spawned violent groups among Pakistan's majority Sunni sect to attack the newly assertive Shia minority.
Lal Masjid, founded by a mullah named Muhammad Abdullah, was a strong supporter of those government-favored "jihads," preaching on their behalf and helping them recruit fighters. "He was amply rewarded" by authorities who, for example, let him expand his mosque by encroaching on state lands, Sethi wrote.
These days, Abdullah's two sons run the mosque and their allies in the government have, until this month, kept authorities from taking action against them, even when arrest warrants had been issued.
The intelligence agencies have been confident they would always be able to control the radical institutions they have built, say Haqqani, Abbas and others. But when the army's policies demanded restraint, the agencies have had trouble reining in the radicals.
This has bedeviled President Musharraf since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Pushed by the United States to clamp down on al-Qaida and other militant Islamic groups, Musharraf has had his army slash its longtime support for jihadist guerrillas and religious leaders. He declared yesterday that the militants dug in and holding young students at the mosque must surrender or "they will be killed." Speaking for the first time about the crisis, he said, "We've shown great patience [in not overrunning the mosque] because we don't want people to be killed."
But militants fired by a holy, eternal cause don't surrender it willingly to the momentary political needs of a government. In an interview last year, Abdullah's son Abdul Aziz noted bitterly that the military for years backed their vision of jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir, but had reversed course after Sept. 11.
Shift blamed on U.S.
"This change is because of America," he said. "Musharraf is doing what Bush wants" and so is pushing Lal Masjid and its militants to halt the campaign they have fought for decades.
"They want us to stop, but the faith of Muslims is strong and we won't stop," he said.
Last week, the mosque overreached when its militants kidnapped police, burned government buildings and fought a gunbattle with troops. In the ensuing siege, Abdul Aziz tried to flee dressed as a female student. But an unknown number of armed militants remain, nominally led by his brother, Abdul Rashid. He told Agence France-Presse Saturday that the militants have ammunition and food for a month, and they plan to fight it out.