COMMENTARY
 
Pakistan beyond the Red Mosque Operation
Weekly Pulse
July 13-19, 2007
From July 3 to July 10, it took the security forces more than a week to complete their operation code-named ‘Silence’ against the militants of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa—an operation that claimed hundreds of lives, including that of Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the Naib Khatib of Lal Masjid, and scores of security personnel.

In well over a day long surgical operation, the security forces led by SSG commandoes of the Pakistan army did succeed in killing diehard Mujahideen, numbering several dozens, who had given fierce resistance until the end. That was how over six-month old saga of confrontation between the clerics of Lal Masjid and the authorities of the State came to a bloody end. What had essentially triggered this confrontation was late last year decision of the Capital Administration to demolish a number of illegally constructed mosques/madrassas in the Federal territory.

Since Jamia Hafsa and part of the Lal Masjid were also built and expanded illegally, Ghazi Rashid and his elder brother and Khatib of Lal Masjid, Abdul Aziz Ghazi—the sons of late Maulana Abdullah—confronted the government on the issue of the dissolution of mosques/madrassas. What happened in subsequent months was a series of offensive steps taken by Lal Masjid-Jamia Hafsa students, violating the writ of the state in the Capital city, including the burning of CD/DVD shops, kidnapping of local and even foreign citizens and police officials.

Ghazi Aziz even went to the extent of declaring his brand of Sharia. Following in the footsteps of Mulla Umar, the Emir-ul-Momineen of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Ghazi brothers issued fatwas and took corresponding steps to eliminate vices like alcohol and sex from Islamabad. In doing so, they took the law into their hands. Above all, after the Musharraf regime started the military operation against Taliban and their sympathizers in South and North Waziristan in the spring of 2004, Aziz Ghazi issued a fatwa declaring the Namaz-e-Janaza of Pak soldiers killed there as un-Islamic.

These developments spanning almost a three-year period constitute the essential background to Operation Silence, and the same may determine the course of events in its aftermath. However, they key question after Operation Silence is that of responsibility for the carnage at Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa?

Question of Responsibility

Does the responsibility lie on the shoulders of a State that appeased the clerics for months and overlooked the arming of their mosque and madrassa for years? Or, should we blame Ghazi brothers for turning a religious site, a madrassa with thousands of poor male and female students, into a compound of militancy and arms?

A fair answer to the question is that both sides are equally responsible for this loss of precious life and the climate of fear and terror in the Capital and the country preceding and following the military operation against Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa. However, there are other relevant questions the answer to which will essentially determine the scale of responsibility on either side.

Questions such as: were all the male and female students taken hostage by the diehard militants inside the compounds of Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa during the week-long operation, especially in its final surgical stage, as claimed by the security officials and government spokesmen? Or, were most of them remained inside the compounds voluntarily, including the basement areas, out of their jihadi conviction, as claimed consistently by Ghazi Rashid until he spoke on mobile phone to private TV channels hours before his reported demise.

Whatever the truth, in the face of Operation Silence—in fact, the very day it began on July 3—it would have been prudent on the part of Ghazi brothers to let thousands of male and female students leave the compounds of Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa. If there were militants inside these compounds, and if they had no option but to fight with the security forces, Ghazi brothers were morally obliged to persuade the innocent students to leave the red zone.

However, as it turns out now, a supposedly religious site had overtime turned into a military compound, a theatre of war, with basements, bunkers and tunnels. If that is true, then we can safely draw the conclusion that Ghazi brothers and their hardcore religious militia was indeed preparing for an eventual combat with the security forces.

That is why they had dug themselves so deep, so much so that even a tunnel linking the Jamia Hafsa basement on the one side all the way with the minaret of the mosque on the other side was built. Such extensive defense mechanism, according to government claims, was responsible for the killing of scores of security personnel in the final day of the operation, which succeeded in killing several dozens of hardcore militants as well. Rashid Ghazi himself died in a classical combat environment, hiding in a bunker along with a number of militants. Security officials claimed he was shot in the leg and then asked to surrender, but the militants with him instead opened fire and in counter-firing by the security personnel, Ghazi and these militants died.

Only the commandoes and other security officials, who fought with these militants, can really tell us as to how the actual combat inside the narrow basements, bunkers and tunnels of Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa. But one thing is clear, insofar as the question of responsibility of the carnage is concerned, that Ghazi brothers acted irresponsibility right from the start. A mosque and a madrassa should be the last places to be turned into a virtual military compound. They are meant to be places for prayer and Islamic learning. Anyone using them for undertaking jihadi activity—and that also against fellow Muslims and a state with an Islamic base—should be acting illegally, irreligiously and immorally. And, if in the process, so many innocent lives are lost—the lives of those poor students, many of them orphans—then the primary responsibility for their unfortunate death lies on the custodians of the Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa. Maulana Rashid has met his fate, but his elder brother, his wife Umme Hassan and their daughters are in state custody. It is they who should be primarily held responsible for the carnage at Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa. They should face the law of the land for the purpose.

Government’s Appeasement

However, this does not mean the State or Government authorities should be absolved of the responsibility for perpetuating the Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa crisis and bringing it to a stage where only a full-fledged surgical operation—with all of its collateral damage—was needed to resolve. It would be pertinent here to make the same argument as has already been made frequently in media analysis on the issue: How is it possible that so much arms and militants reached Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa without the knowledge of the government, especially its intelligence apparatus.

Then there is this question of intelligence failure. It was only during the final round of Operation Silence that government sources were able to inform us about the extensive defense network in the form of bunkers and tunnels beneath the compounds of Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa. Is our intelligence capability so poor that our security agencies are unable to get any information about the under-ground construction activity that must have gone on for months beneath a mosque and a madrassa located right in the heart of the Capital?

Insofar as the question of operation itself is concerned, the way it was carried out, so many casualties had to take place even if it would have been carried out in the initial couple of days. The only advantage the security forces would have had then is the element of surprise. The unnecessary delay in surgical strike may have allowed the militants to entrench themselves in offensive or defensive positions. However, if we buy the press statement of General Waheed Arshad, the ISPR head, when the operation was in its last rounds, those commanding it were right in delaying the surgical operation.

One, as General Waheed said, the commanders followed a step-by-step strategy; two, the security forces were facing hardcore militants; and, three, the security situation inside the Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa compounds was very complicated. And, obviously, if the government’s priority was to prevent civilian casualties, then the security forces would have to act patiently, which they did until the final talks between Ghazi Rashid, on the one hand, and government and ulema led by PML-Q President Chaudhry Shujaat, on the other, collapsed.

Lessons and Implications

It was sad. It was tragic. But it had to happen. The irrational, the rigid, the immoral, the un-Islamic behaviour of the Ghazi brothers, their bigoted associates and religious militia had left no room for the government not to act decisively and militarily as an option of last resort. Nobody can blame the government for not trying to resolve the crisis over Jamia Hafsa and Lal Masjid through negotiations and compromises.

In fact, due to these very negotiations and compromises, the government was frequently accused of hobnobbing with the Ghazi brothers. It was suggested that the government was itself triggering this crisis to divert public attention from other bigger political challenges such as the judicial crisis. Such speculations have surfaced in the past, and they will in the future—until the government followed a policy of zero tolerance against all those forces and entities using religion for pursuing their extremist political agendas.

There are thousands of madrassas in the country, most of them playing a very important role in society—as they offer free food, lodging and education to the sons and daughters of poor citizens who cannot afford to education their children. This was true in the case of Jamia Hafsa and Jamia Faridia. What has happened there may be occurring in several others madrassas in the country, especially in the Frontier province: Religious vultures like the Ghazi brothers pray on these young souls, brainwash their minds, turn them into human shields—and all of that, accomplish their heinous politically-motivated religious designs. We should never let this happen again.

Jamia Hafsa was an illegal estate from the start. Its structure has to be demolished and the site has to return to the governmental institution, the National Book Foundation, to which it legally belongs. Insofar as Jamia Faridia is concerned, its status has now to be re-determined by the Ministry of Religious Affairs or the Auqaf Department. It would be better to shift it to another site well outside the residential areas of Islamabad. Jamia Faridia’s current location has been a cause of concern for the residents of E-7 Sector in the Capital. Its emboldened brigade of religious students has been consistently threatening the residents of the sector who are used to a traditionally peaceful lifestyle of our serene and beautiful capital.

There are dozens of other palatial madrassas in the Federal capital, which are also built on illegal estate. They remain potential hideouts of the same sort of militant and regressive elements that we have seen flourishing at Jamia Faridia, Jamia Hafsa and Lal Masjid right under the nose of the federal government. All of these madrassas have to be demolished, and, if possible, shifted to the neighbourhood of the Capital. The same policy should be adopted regarding other madrassas, which have been known for generating jihadi militancy and ideology, across the country.

There is also a lesson to be learned for the country’s ulemas community running these madrassas from the Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa episode: that there is a limit to their regressive percepts and acts. They have to act as responsible citizens of a country, which has a law. This law, however limited its applicability is, has to be obeyed if we as a nation wish to make a difference in this highly competitive world.

The Ulemas have to make sure that after graduating from their madrassas, the students who study there become responsible citizens of Pakistan, contributing to various facets of its national life. The Ulemas have to understand that, by inciting these poor students to challenge the writ of the State, they essentially play a high stake game. In this game, the government or the state authorities may show patience or pursue appeasement, but only to a particular extent. And when that limit is crossed, then the State can express itself so lethally that even the most experienced of all militancy cannot stand in its way.

Irresponsible actions have horrible consequences. An ignorant person is the one who acts without thinking about the consequences of his or her actions. So many youthful students, which may include diehard militants in the case of Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa operation, may be acting due to this ignorance. The clerics, the Ghazi brothers, leading them might not be ignorant of their actions. But the price of ignorance was essentially paid by the poor, innocent youth. In sum, the principal lesson for the religiously bigoted elements from Operation Silence is: never challenge the writ of the state, because when the state reacts, it reacts massively, and then nothing stands in its way.

Implications for Pakistan

However tragic the outcome of the Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa episode may have been, the challenge confronting the state of Pakistan in the aftermath of Operation Silence from the forces of religious extremism is not going to be over in the foreseeable future. No surprise that as soon as the showdown between the police and rangers and militants of Jal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa began, the attacks by extremist elements in the tribal belt of the Frontier province against police and army personnel gained momentum. In the days and months ahead, the pace of these attacks may increase. This means the security apparatus of the country has to proactively combat these elements and where ever they surface, they should be tackled with full force.

By undertaking a surgical operation against militants holed up in the compounds of Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa, the state of Pakistan has expressed its clear will to combat religious extremism in the country with a firm hand. This was a long-standing demand of our Western allies, especially the United States. President Musharraf has in particular been often accused of “not doing enough” in the war on terror. In the aftermath of Operation Silence, the international community may understand the extent of extremist danger the Musharraf regime is faced with, and it may also understand the level of commitment it has shown in combating this danger. All sand and done, we as a nation should stand firm against forces who defame us internationally, and corrupt the mindset of our youth, and exploit and malign our religious for their heinous extremist and terrorist ends.