Saturday, April 07, 2007

Give Them An Inch And They'll Take About 14,000 Miles

I don't know whether to laugh or cry about what's happening in Islamabad right now. As this story in Dawn details, the clerics of Jamia Hafsa/Lal Masjid have now trampled all over the writ of the government four times in the last 45 days. First, female students of the madrassa illegally occupied a library next to a mosque constructed on land that did not belong to them. Second, they kidnapped women associated with a "brothel" in Islamabad and held them captive for two days. Third, they demanded that the government set up Sharia Law in the country and close video and music shops. Now, they've set up a parallel "justice" system next to the mosque where clerics will hand down verdicts and judgments in accordance with "Islamic injunctions". As an addendum, the clerics of the mosque are threatening the government with suicide bombings if any action is taken against them. Remember, all this is happening in the capital city of Pakistan.

It seems to me that Musharraf, because of his ham-handed tactics in "dealing" with Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in particular and relative unpopularity in general, does not wish to expend any political capital (if he has any left, that is) on this mess. I find this quite funny to be honest: intelligence and police forces can clamp down on protestors angry about the disappearance of their relatives and media organizations within hours, if not minutes, but when it comes to facing down extreme right-wing elements, the people actually committing crimes, they are either powerless or choose to appear powerless. Again, let me emphasize, this is happening in the capital city of Pakistan. We see a parallel justice system and a bunch of hooligans taunting the government not in some remote town in Balochistan, not in interior Sindh, not near the Afghan border, but in friggin' Islamabad within shouting distance of the any and every important government building.

I'm not sure what Musharraf's strategy is here. I'm not even sure he has a strategy. What I am sure of is that processes like Talibanization are especially prone to the tipping-point trajectory made famous by Malcolm Gladwell's book. In other words, once Talibanization reaches a critical mass, I believe it will be impossible to turn it back. I don't think we are quite there yet but I also don't think we are that far off. People can point to art galleries in Lahore and plays and comedy shows in Karachi and say, "Hey, look, our culure is vibrant and alive. We will never experience what Afghanistan experienced." To those people, I say, think again. It takes merely dozens of people, with the right amount of ammunition and local support, to turn an entire society upside down. In the extreme case, we have even seen small cabals initiate and carry out genocide, such as in Rwanda and Cambodia.

I am not suggesting we are on the verge of genocide in Pakistan. What am I suggesting is that political history tells us small groups of people can wield wildly disproportionate power on events and that if they are not stopped soon enough, it becomes impossible to stop them. We have already seen the testicular fortitutde of these clerics multiply manifold with each instance of the government backing down. It does not take a great deal of imagination to picture them growing ever stronger and more unabashed with each week. Combined with the political upheavel enveloping the country, I fear for the worst, all the while hoping for the best.


NB said...

Agreed dude. I myself just cant quite figure what the best way is to sort these guys out. Arresting them could make them heros and martyrs, while leaving them to their ridiculous activities within their Lal Masjid Pulpit is equally unacceptable and dangerous.

This is in a sense why I've always said that practically you cant exclude religion from the Political discourse in Pakistan. Doing so leaves a vaccum which the Lal Masjid Muftis and the Qazi Hussains are then free to occupy. They may then steer the relgious discourse in whichever direction they choose.

Such a valuable and potent social force cannot be left to such people, nor should it be left to the Government of the day (as they have successivly proven to be opportunistic, fickle and inconsistant in their religious preferences, and the State as a religious actor consequently lacks credibilty, sadly even when they espouse englightened moderation)

The -Religious Leaders- of people who declare themselves as liberals and moderate Muslims have to reassert their religious/moral authority over the faith (or the following or whatever you want to call it) otherwise Pakistan could very well slide towards that tipping point, as it seem to be doing.

Ahsan said...

i am ready to concede the finer point here - that the lal masjids of the world hijack the political discourse vis-a-vis religion if they are left alone in the practice of that discourse - but i have problems with the larger issue: that of the place of religion in a country's politics. i have no problems with leaders and politicians talking about/thinking about religion but i do have a problem, as you well know, with religion having an *official* and *Public* (capital P) role in a society. a prime example of the type of society i would like us to become is indonesia or malaysia. religion is important part of those countries and an important part of the daily lives of its citizens, but they are by and large secular, with the state, generally speaking, not taking definitive stances on religous matters. is such an arrangement not possible in pakistan? if you think not, then why not? i myself am unsure of the answer to the first question.