Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Lal Masjid/Jamia Hafsa Issue: A Vast Conspiracy?

Reading this post on The Glasshouse, I was reminded of one of Tom Friedman's rules for understanding the Middle East, which says that if you can't explain something to Middle Easterners without a conspiracy theory, then don't try to explain it at all - they won't believe it. I would say Pakistan is beset with the same plague; for many analysts, every move and countermove in Pakistani politics could form the basis of an Oliver Stone movie.

The Glasshouse, in its author's words, thinks that this (the Lal Masjid/Jamia Hafsa) ruckus has been created by the military establishment. The conspiracy theory hypothesis, as stated by four columns linked to in the post, says that it is in fact the machinizations of the Musharraf government that is responsible for what is happening in the capital today, and that these tactics are motivated by two main concerns. One, to distract the general populace from the "suspension" of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Two, to show the Western world in general and the U.S. in particular that Pakistan is a big, bad cesspit of Islamic extremism and as such, Musharraf and his government represents the best chance of warding off and countering said extremism.

I am not doubting that a number of political events in Pakistan's history have resulted from the curiously diabolical ideas and actions of political players. I have to say, though, that this one seems a bit of a stretch. I say this for a number of reasons.

First, there is the very real issue of the empirics of the case. As I noted in an earlier post, there are four distinct constitutive elements to the Lal Masjid/Jamia Hafsa challenge. The first of these took place on January 21 when female students of the Jamia Hafsa madrassa occupied the children's library near the illegally constructed mosques at the root of the crisis. The Chief Justice, as you will recall, was suspended on March 9, a full seven weeks after the beginning of the Lal Masjid/Jamia Hafsa shenanigans. That means that the Lal Masjid/Jamia Hafsa situation simply could not have been "created" by the government as a response to the hue-and-cry raised over the "suspension" of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

The response to that argument would concede the point that the government did not create the situation, but would contend that it is allowing it to fester by not taking action against the Lal Masjid/Jamia Hafsa. In essence, it is the equivalent of the Pakistani position on the insurgency in Kashmir: we didn't create it, but we will sure as hell take advantage of it by fanning the flames. I dispute this view, too, for reasons I elucidate below.

As I said, my first issue with the conspiracy theory hypothesis concerns the empirics of the case. My second, and more important issue, is with the logic of the argument, which goes thusly: Musharraf stands to gain from this crisis because he will show the Western world that he alone, along with the army, can stand between the extremists and control of the state. The problem with this logic arises when one considers that it assumes that Musharraf must be effective in dealing with the crisis. Only in the case that Musharraf can demonstrate his willingness and ability to counter the threat does the logic hold true. If Musharraf appears helpless, he ends up looking worse than he would have if the crisis never took place. In other words, if Musharraf backs down from the challenge, for whatever reason, he incurs a net-loss in political worth. One can plainly and clearly see that the latter description is a more apt one for what we are witnessing. Musharraf is at present demonstrating nothing to the Western world, except for an acute disability to curb Islamic extremism. If he was as positively in control of events as the conspiracy theorists would have you believe, he would have snuffed them out the moment it became a major issue, which was about three weeks ago.

My third issue with the conspiracy theory hypothesis is that it is not falsifiable. That it is to say, there exist no set of circumstances or events that will disprove the hypothesis. If Musharraf eventually does clamp down on the extremist elements, the conspiracy theorists will say, "Look, we were right. Musharraf exacted all the political mileage he could out of it, and then took care of it when he had to." If Musharraf doesn't clamp down on them, the conspiracy theorists will say, "Look, we were right. Musharraf is exacting all the political mileage he can out of this. He will take care of it when he has to." No matter what happens, the conspiracy theorists can twist events to point to the verity of their hypothesis. If these conspiracy theorists presented this hypothesis in any social science class, they would get an F. (Maybe a D, only because conspiracy theories are always entertaining.)

My fourth issue with the conspiracy theory hypothesis relates, in part, to the second. As I said earlier, a corollary of the hypothesis is that Musharraf is in complete and utter control of events in Pakistan and can pull strings where- and whenever he pleases. This in turn implies that if his purported goals aren't being met by the vast conspiracy, he will change his course of (in)action. Now, whether or not there actually is a vast conspiracy, no one can doubt that its purported goals (i.e. distraction of the populace, satisfaction of the West) are simply not being reached. There is a protest every other day in some major city on the Iftikhar Chaudhry case. Similarly, there are reports in the Western press every other day that continue to question Musharraf's viability as a ruler and Pakistan's alliance with the U.S. Given these exigencies, shouldn't we have seen action from the government a while ago? Should it really be waiting for the Lal Masjid/Jamia Hafsa crowd to promise suicide bombings before moving into action? I submit that it should not.

My fifth, and final, issue with the conspiracy theory hypothesis concerns the relatively easy availability of a rival hypothesis. As most of you will probably know, there exists a principle by which scientific theories are measured called Occam's razor, which says that all things being equal, the simplest explanation for a phenomena should be employed. Here's my explanation: what you see, at least in this case, is what you get. Musharraf, already burned by his quick trigger vis-a-vis Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, doesn't want to expend any political capital on the Lal Masjid/Jamia Hafsa situation. He waited for them to stop doing what they were doing, but instead of being placated by his pusillanimity, they have predictably grown stronger. Now he will have to take much stronger action than if he had acted straight away.

Let us also not forget that we have been here before. Does anyone remember the bullshit we faced over the non-issue of the marathon? These same goons thought they world would come to an end if men and women actually had the temerity to run a race together. What about the religion column in the new passports? The government had gone ahead with the provisions with the machine-readable passports before the political representatives of these goons forced a backtrack. The political hits the government took in those instances showed quite clearly that this government does not have a particularly adroit way of handling the extreme right in our country. Both those instances, just as this one has, showed Musharraf's inability to reign the extreme right in, and thus ran completely counter to the central hypothesis of the conspiracy theorists: that Musharraf likes showing how good he is in standing between the extreme right and political power.

The only, I repeat only, way I could find myself believing this entire episode is a result of a vast conspiracy is if the conspiracy theorists make all of the following claims, and no others:
  • The government did not create the Lal Majid/Jamia Hafsa crisis. It erupted on its own, and the government saw a useful opportunity to distract the population/show the West how valuable it is by not doing anything to control it.
  • The government planned on curbing the Lal Masjid/Jamia Hafsa crowd at an unknown point in time called x, where x was far enough down the road that the country was suitably distracted from the Chief Justice fiasco but not so far as to cast doubt by Western governments on the Musharraf regime's ability to deal with religous extremism. X was definitely and categorically some time before the Lal Masjid/Jamia Hafsa crowd threatened suicide bombings and called for the imposition of Sharia.
  • The government could not take action at time x even though it wanted to because by that time, the activities of the Lal Masjid/Jamia Hafsa crowd had taken on a life of their own and could not be curtailed by their alleged puppet masters. In other words, the government does not control any and every political development in the country, even those perpretrated by its minions.
That's it. If the conspiracy theorists stick to those claims, then I might find it easier to believe them. Anything else, and I'm forced to conclude that the conspiracy theorists doth protest too much, and simultaneously give Musharraf both more and less credit than he deserves.


Anonymous said...

Excerpt from Protest and Lal Masjid By Mir Jamilur Rahman

It has been reported, but not yet confirmed, that Faridia and Hafsa between them have about 10,000 resident pupils, 2,500 males and 7,500 females. The male pupil hides his identity behind a black mask that covers his head and face which looks quite ominous. The female pupils are clad in black and armed with stout bamboo sticks. They present a formidable and awesome picture. It is nearly impossible to determine the gender of the person clad from head to toe in black burqa. They are tall, hardly anyone less than 5 feet 9 inches which is well above average height of Pakistani females.

Are these women trans-sexuals?

Ahsan said...

thanks for your comments anonymous.

well, i dont know if they're transsexuals or not. i do have two points/questions as regards to this. one, who's measuring their height? are journalists taking a guess? surmising from their photographs? standing next to them and comparing? shouldn't we know this?

second, even if the implication of the article is true (i.e. they're men under the burqas) how does that make a conspiracy more or less likely? that part is not clear to me.

Ali said...

Wow its been a while since i've written anything on the blog. For starters I can access it through blogspot which is always nice.

Anyhow I agree with you here Ahsan (I know you love hearing that!). I just can't get myself to buy the conspiracy theory. LIke you pointed out I am certainly not of the opinion that Mush exerts as much power as is being purported. That he tried to use this event to his advantage, but failed seems more plausible.

Another thing that strikes me is that the government is absolutely incapable in dealing with militant women. They disregard them for being women, many politicians in government and in opposition, have gone on to say that these 'bachiyan are lost' or some such bullshit. Secondly I they just don't know what to do, how do they arrest women en masse, especially when they're not Human Rights activists and likely to carry some weapons.

The conspiracy theory diverts us from the fact that there are thousands of militants living in the heart of our cities and that Islamism is flooding our society.

Two Examples:

Two islamic groups, the Deobandis and Barelvis, clashing at Boat Basin with 'madrassah students' taking up position atop buildings with guns! I didn't even know that there was a hardcore madrassah right next to Mottas!
Full Story:

Second example. Yesterday I ventured to Nando's (at PECHS) for dinner with a female friend. It was pretty full, and yet there were only two women adn that too in full Burqas. There were families there, you could tell, without women members. It was so weird to see a respectable eatery filled with about just men; its somehting I've honestly not witnessesd before.