The Politics of Militarism and Islamist Extremism in Pakistan

by Beena Sarwar, Himal Southasian

The Pakistan Army emerged victorious from the Lal Masjid battle that took place in Islamabad on July 10, following a week’s standoff. But it is a victory achieved at a heavy price. The bloodshed in the Red Mosque upped the ante in the ongoing war between the “boots and the beards,” to use the terminology of young Pakistanis for the military and the religious extremists. It also involves the burqas—hundreds of young girls and women affiliated with the Jamia Hafsa girls’ madrassa adjacent to the mosque became an integral part of the story.

By the end of the army operation, the mosque’s name, derived from the red bricks with which it is built, took on a new, bloody connotation. Elite units of the Pakistan Army pounded the sprawling two-acre compound with automatic and chemical weapons for more than 12 hours, fiercely resisted by armed militants inside. By the end of the fighting, over 70 of the mosque’s affiliates, including their leader, Ghazi Abdul Rasheed, were dead. So were ten army men. The number of dead may have been much higher than the official number, however. Some were burnt beyond recognition, and may have included women and children. Smoke that still lingered over the site two days later was identified as residue from the Pakistan Army’s use of white phosphorus, a hot-burning substance prohibited by the Geneva Convention for use against civilians.

For months, Gen. Pervez Musharraf had allowed the militants of the Lal Masjid to run a parallel Taliban-style government in the heart of the capital. They had damaged billboards and other property that they deemed “vulgar,” and ransacked music and video shops. Female students from the madrassa occupied a children’s library in January; their spiriting away of six Chinese massage-parlor girls was apparently the last straw. It is believed that pressure from Beijing, Pakistan’s long-time ally, finally goaded Gen Musharraf into besieging the mosque, and ordering its inmates to surrender. A week later, he launched Operation Silence, originally expected to last only a couple of hours.

Ghazi and Abdul

The Lal Masjid saga exploded in July but it actually dates back to the late 1970s, when America enlisted Pakistan, led by the all-too-willing Gen. Zia ul-Haq, as a frontline state against the Russian communists who had invaded Afghanistan. Soon the Pakistani madrassas were flush with American and Saudi money. The influx coincided with the rise of Khomeini’s Shi’ite Iran, perceived as a threat by the Saudis who until then were the undisputed “leaders” of the Muslim world. More madrassas, mostly financed by the Saudis but some also by the Iranians, began appearing in Pakistan, along with training camps for the Mujahideen. Afghanistan’s fight for national independence was transformed into a jihad. (Ironically, Gen. Zia’s son, Ijaz ul-Haq, Pakistan’s Minister for Religious Affairs, was among the negotiators trying to work out a solution to the situation, until talks failed reportedly due to pressure from Washington, DC).

Hailing from a poor family of Baloch Mazaris in southern Punjab, Ghazi Abdul Rasheed’s father, Maulana Abdullah, was the first khateeb (chief orator) of the Lal Masjid, when the government’s Auqaf (department for religious affairs) built it in 1965. Abdullah retained this post for the following three decades. The Lal Masjid, like so many others during that time, eventually developed into the fortified, multi-storied mosque-madrassa complex that was the focus of international television networks for a week in July. When a gunman, believed to belong to a rival Islamist group, murdered Abdullah in the mosque courtyard in 1998, it was just part of a by-then familiar pattern.

Ghazi Abdul Rasheed began as a moderate youth who initially rejected his father’s religious training. Instead of going into the madrassa, he did a Masters in International Relations from the well-regarded, secular Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. He worked at the Ministry of Education and UNESCO, married into a moderate family, and attended mixed gatherings. Rasheed’s subsequent radicalization itself reflects the rise of “militant Islam” in Pakistan.

After the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1988-89, the world turned its attention away from the war-ravaged country. The purpose had been served: communism had been defeated. The Mujahideen, who for the previous decade had been steeped in the mindset of jihad and violence, began fighting each other. Many returned to a Pakistan bereft of their chief patron, Gen Zia, who had been killed in an as-yet unexplained mid-air explosion in August 1988.

It is no coincidence that the farce of Pakistan’s “return to democracy” was marked not only by governments being regularly dissolved by caretaker set-ups overseeing fresh elections, but by a rise in sectarian violence that claimed hundreds of lives. Maulana Abdullah appears to be but one of the casualties of a fire that he himself was involved in stoking.

The Maulana’s murder brought his younger son, Ghazi Abdul Rasheed, back into the fold, guided by his elder brother, Abdul Aziz, who inherited the title of mosque khateeb. Rasheed continued his job with the Ministry of Education but became increasingly drawn to the faith, growing a beard and taking more interest in the affairs of the mosque and its madrassa. The turning point for him was September 11, 2001 and the ensuing US invasion of Afghanistan. In 2004, he was at the centre of a controversial fatwa, according to which Pakistan Army soldiers killed during operations in South Waziristan were to be considered infidels not worthy of a Muslim burial. The Lal Masjid’s links with al-Qaeda were also revealed that year. Rasheed was accused of plotting to attack government installations, but was soon mysteriously cleared of those charges, supported by Ijaz ul-Haq. A group of Uzbeks were instead found guilty.

The Lal Masjid again came into the limelight following the London bombings of July 2005, when it was reported that some of the perpetrators had recently visited the mosque. But the Islamabad government again sat back, making no attempt to arrest the brothers, even after declaring them as wanted criminals.


The links between Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and the country’s militant Islamists have long been apparent. Those affiliated with the Lal Masjid are no exception. Abdul Aziz told journalists that he often visited intelligence-agency officers disguised in a burqa. These links seem to have been behind the ineffectual attempts by Gen. Musharraf’s administration to deal with the unfolding situation at the mosque—the indecisiveness in direct contrast to the heavy-handedness with which liberal or secular protests are handled.

The government’s inaction emboldened the Lal Masjid affiliates to start undertaking vigilante action in Islamabad, along the lines of the Taliban’s Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice Department, or Saudi Arabia’s Morality Police—something that their brothers in Peshawar and areas bordering Afghanistan had long been doing with impunity. The government did nothing to put down this growing monster in the country’s capital. The Lal Masjid had encroached on government land to build the Jamia Hafsa women’s madrassa, and so electricity, gas and water to the illegal structure could have been cut off long ago. The madrassa had been in operation for years before the government served it notice in January, in a drive to demolish illegal buildings. It was in protest of this order that Jamia Hafsa students occupied the children’s library.

All of this was well before Gen. Musharraf suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on spurious charges. This sparked off a lawyers’ movement for constitutionality that erupted into widespread public protest in March—and was then conveniently relegated to the background by the drama surrounding the Lal Masjid. On July 20, in a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court ruled that Chaudhry be reinstated, and quashed the charges of misconduct against him. While the Chaudhry issue has significantly reduced Gen. Musharraf’s political standing, the Lal Masjid affair weakened his links to the crucial religious right.

Dire predictions of Gen Musharraf’s underestimation of the ramifications of the Lal Masjid calamity began immediately. “The government, with its ham-handed handling of the situation, has in fact created the potential for further problems ahead,” warned lawyer Asma Jahangir, chair of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “The deaths of so many at the hands of state forces may act only to pave the way for greater extremism in society and support for the violent cause militants espouse.”

The US-based think tank Statfor noted in early July that radical Islamist forces constitute a minority in Pakistan, although a significant one. “While the vast majority of Pakistanis do not support jihadists, they do not necessarily support Musharraf’s agenda either,” Stafor’s researchers noted. The report also predicted that the Red Mosque operation is likely to be “the beginning of a long confrontation between the state and radical/militant Islamist forces,” which could lead to military operations in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the tribal areas, “as well as nationwide social unrest.”

These apprehensions were soon borne out. Since July 10, pro-Taliban elements have increasingly clashed with the Pakistani military, and have intensified suicide attacks around the country, taking scores of lives. For the first time, a suicide bomber targeted a lawyers’ pro-democracy rally on July 17 in Islamabad, just minutes before Iftikhar Chaudhry was to arrive to address the meeting. The target, a welcome stall set up by workers of Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party, raised speculation that the bomber was aiming at not just the lawyers’ movement but also Bhutto, for having supported Gen. Musharraf’s action against the Lal Masjid. Two days later, three separate attacks killed more than 40 people in Balochistan and NWFP, where more than 100 had been killed during the previous week alone.

This is a situation that military action alone will never resolve. What is needed is a long-term political road-map, to bring Pakistan back into the fold of democracy. Meanwhile, as Gen. Musharraf battles religious zealots and political liberals, unable to take assistance from one against the other, it is clear that there is more violence, rather than less, written in Pakistan’s immediate future.


This story first appeared in the August issue of Himal Southasian, Kathmandu, Nepal

It also ran in the September issue of Peacework, Cambridge, MA

See also:

Real Change on Anti-Woman “Hudood” Laws?
by Abira Ashfaq, Peacework
WW4 REPORT, April 2007

From our weblog:

It hits the fan in Pakistan —as pipeline talks open with Iran
WW4 REPORT, Sept. 25, 2007


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Oct. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution