Français   |  

Subscribe to the whole site

Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > After the elections


After the elections

Hope and the Problem of Islamic Extremism

Wednesday 20 February 2008, by FAWZIA AFZAL-KHAN

Following the crackdown on Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad at the beginning of July 2007, militant violence increased in Pakistan especially in North Waziristan and other parts of FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) -but also, as many Pakistani liberals and allied western elites have seen to their horror in this past year, it has spread to places once considered safe from such violence, like Islamabad itself and adjoining Rawalpindi which have witnessed several suicide bombings in recent months, as well as Lahore where sixteen policemen were victims of a suicide bomb blast in front of the Lahore High Court in early January of this year (Jan 10th, 2008). Baitullah Masud’s army of Pakistani Talibans had already sowed much terror in the Swat valley prior to the Lahore bombing and thus indeed, according to figures provided by the South Asia Intelligence Review, approx. 1,580 people died in militant violence from Jan-Aug 2007 alone-30% civilians, 20% soldiers and 50% militants-an increase in 30% from the same period of the previous year. Many in the Pakistani intelligence community and general citizenry also blame Masud (though he denies any involvement)-for being the mastermind in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on Dec 29th, 2007.With her clear statements against Islamic extremism and its practitioners in Pakistan, Benazir was a clear target for those whom she would de-fang had she come to power.

While the religious nuts are nowhere to be seen on Pakistani screens as footage of the day of elections (Feb 17th 2008) unravels to reveal bhangra-dancing young men and children celebrating their party’s victories at the election booths (the PML-N in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and important province, and the PPP, Benazir Bhutto’s party across the board in all provinces, 87 National Assembly seats going to the PPP and 66 to the PML-N)-it is important to understand that these militants are still armed and dangerous, and that they represent a mind-set which has taken deep root amongst the poor and the downtrodden segments of Pakistani society. It is certainly good news that Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s coalition Islamist party-the MMA-has succeeded in winning only three seats in the 272-member National Assembly, and in the NWFP Provincial Assembly-which is their stronghold, the MMA has won only 8 seats compared to the secular ANC which has claimed 29 seats total so far. Robert Reid reporting for the Associated Press writes,

In the north, prominent pro-Taliban cleric Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman was trailing far behind his rival from Bhutto’s party with more than half the precincts in their district reporting. "I’m very happy, but we have to struggle," said Sadiq ul-Farooq, a senior official in Sharif’s party. "We face serious problems - the economy, law and order and then the problem of terrorism, which is 70 percent because of President Musharraf. He has to go. ii

While Farooq’s contention-that 70% of the problem of terrorism and the rise of extremism in Pakistan can be laid at the door of Musharraf’s policies-is echoed across the Pakistani spectrum-and that with Musharraf’s defeat at the polls (the party he has backed, the PML-Q coming in a distant third in the elections)-the Islamist coalition has lost its base and official patronage-may very well be true, the problem of Islamic extremism remains a thorny dilemma that needs to be kept front and center at a moment many hope will be the beginning of better times for Pakistan. The militants in the North are still armed, and the extremist ideology they have spawned and have themselves become pawns of as they train young folks to become suicide bombers in the name of God and Islam, needs to be de-fanged and derailed through careful planning which must now move beyond the short-sighted military operations mounted against them in Pakistan’s tribal areas, as well as in Swat more recently, and against the Red Mosque adherents last July by the Pakistan army under President Musharraf’s leadership. Indeed, what I will present in this article is material gathered through recent interviews with the former director of the women’s wing of the Red Mosque, Umme Hassan, and a young woman named Misbah (not her real name)-to show that the extremist ideology has infiltrated deep into the minds and hearts of not just jihadi young men but women as well, and that until this brand of thinking is countered by another more tolerant and humanistic message based on equality and justice for all of Pakistan’s citizenry, the Islamist threat will not simply disappear with the new ruling dispensation poised to take power following the elections. iii

Umme Hassan was the principal and founder of the Jamia Hafsa-the women’s seminary-lying adjacent to the Red Mosque in Islamabad’s prestigious F-7 sector, close to the Army GHQ. She is the wife of its leading cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who was the leader also of the men’s seminary, the Jamia Fareedia, and who, during the Army operation against the Red Mosque last July, was captured while (according to journalists and army sources on the scene)-trying to escape the premises ignominiously clad in a burqa, and is currently in jail as his case is being tried.iv His younger brother-and Umme Hassan’s brother-in-law-the more charismatic "public face" of the Red Mosque Islamists, Ghazi Abdul Rashid, was killed during this army operation which lasted a full week (july 3rd-10th).

As I entered through the gates of the house in the back lanes of the former mosque where Umme Hassan now lives and where she agreed to meet me briefly in January while I was in Pakistan, I saw plastered on the gate a poster of Ghazi Abdul Rashid, his face smiling beatifically through a screen of dripping blood, the caption declaring him to be "shaheed"-a martyr in the cause of Islam. Once inside, past the suspicious armed and bearded guards, I was welcomed by Umm Hassan in the front bedroom-simply adorned with two beds and an armoire, a humble music system on the mantelpiece playing some religious music, which she later told me were "naats" or hymns" being sung in praise of her brother-in-law and her own dead son-a mere lad in his twenties who was also slain during the Red Mosque debacle. She claimed that these tapes were gifts prepared by the "many people of Pakistan who loved and admired Ghazi and appreciated his sacrifice in the true cause, as they did my son’s."

In the brief conversation that ensued between her, myself and three other young women gathered in the room, one of them Umme Hassan’s own daughter-this, prior to their all going off to court to appear at one of Abdul Aziz’s hearings-she and the other women emphatically denounced the Army and Musharraf as devils; Umme Hassan actually compared Musharraf to Dracula! Her contention was that if indeed, they (the Jamia Hafsa and Lal Masjid seminarians) were in possession of the type and amount of ammunitions that the army claimed they had when the army launched the offensive against them back in July, how come they were never used, or least were so paltry that they barely lasted against the army for a week? She went on to say-and in this she was corroborated by the other young women-that her brother-in-law had maintained from the start of the offensive that the army was going to plant ammunitions inside the building to show the outside world that the Red Mosque Islamists were diehard militants and indeed had been infiltrated by foreign Taliban and Al-Qaeda elements-hence, they had to be eliminated. "That is why my brother-in-law, Shaheed Ghazi Abdul Rashid-and my own husband too-kept asking for journalists to be allowed in to the mosque’s premises, so they could see for themselves that we were not armed militants, but peaceful worshippers of the one true God and one true Islam." She continued angrily, "It is Musharraf and his thug government that wants to spread chaos in this land, not us. We have not plundered the coffers of this state-we have not asked our followers to spread fire in Pakistan-like the army or the PPP. We did not kill anyone, until we were attacked. And," here she demanded an answer, "if as they say, we had so much ’asla’-ammunition’-then how come we lasted in there only seven days? Where did all that ammunition go?" One of the other girls let out a sarcastic laugh, "it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who was behind this. I mean, why were the media not allowed in to the premises till two days after the operation was over? By then the army jawans had already gone in, twisted fans, burnt our armoires and other furniture, including religious books worth a crore of rupees, and then they had the nerve to claim that they had found thousands of CDs preaching jihadist warfare! Does that make any sense? Why only these Cds were left to be found while all else was razed without a trace? It was the army tankers who sprinkled petrol all around our mosque and seminary and told the world it was ours!"

By now, the other women in the room had all warmed to the act and began pouring their hearts out. One started crying remembering how, "Sanya was martyred. She had gone upstairs to do her wazoo when she was shot by a sniper’s bullet-clean through the heart. She went to her death smiling, "God is here."

When I asked Umme Hassan why her people refused to enter into a dialogue with the army and the civil society members like Bilquis Edhi who reportedly tried to talk to them and come to some agreement, she retorted, "what nonsense they would have you and others believe! There were never any ’muzakiraat’ bibi-no, it was all a farce, meant to impress the world that we were being recalcitrant. But we were supposed to talk to these people through megaphones! Can you have a discussion like that? " "But your husband-I mean" I said, somewhat haltingly since it was so clearly an embarrassing thing to bring up, "Maulana Abdul Aziz, he absconded from the scene, leaving all of you women and children so vulnerable-and left wearing a burqa! How do you explain that? Wasn’t that shameful on his part?" Umm Hassan laughed unexpectedly at my allegation, surprising me with her reaction. " My dear lady," said she, obviously pitying my naivete, "my husband was asked to come out wearing that burqa, by the army folks who said they wanted to negotiate with him, but without anyone knowing. And we believed them, like fools. So when he went outside, accompanied by our daughter, they nabbed him and then paraded him on TV like that to make him-and all of us-look really bad."

The remainder of our time was spent with Umm Hassan and her cohorts talking bitterly about the Bush-Mush-Blair axis of evil, and how they must all be exposed as enemies of Islam, and of the people of third world Muslim countries like Pakistan. All these leaders-and their followers here like Musharraf, and even the PPP and other parties-need to be exposed for what they all are: unbelievers who hate the followers of Deen, of Truth.

Given the interesting turn in Pakistani politics, with the routing of Musharraf’s backers, many analysts believe that the religious parties and the Islamist extremists they used for their own ends, have had their support bases cut off, and will, if the winners form a stable coalition-be removed as a threat from the arena of Pakistani society. Rashid Rahman, a senior Pakistani journalist, said to me this morning that he believes that the new ruling coalition of secular democratic parties which have swept the polls, if this coalition can indeed form a "stable government in the center," will lead to talks between their representatives and those of the local Taliban in the provinces as well, especially in the tribal regions where these latter folks have more of a following or base than anywhere else. He claims that through a process of local contacts and persuasive dialogue, the local Taliban element can and will be "defused." Especially if-and here again Rahman believes it can be so-the army is persuaded to adopt different tactics from the scorch-earth policies they have so far and quite unsuccessfully been pursuing against the local militants.

Thus, Umme Hassan and her ilk’s desire to "expose and weaken" the ruling tyrants of this world and of Pakistan may very well come true. But if indeed, Musharraf and his government have played the militant angle to both strengthen these elements and later destroy them as well (with obviously uneven and unpredictable results as was the case once the Afghan Taliban jihadis created with the help of the US were let out of the bag and then couldn’t be put back again)-then, while it may be true that the governmental support which these militant groups were at least covertly enjoying is now going to be perhaps completely withdrawn, it does not necessarily follow that the jihadist/Islamist threat is therefore over.

To illustrate my thesis regarding the deep inroads that jihadist Islamic thinking has made on the psyches of the average Pakistani citizens hailing from modest villages dotting the agricultural belt of the country, I would like to draw your attention to a few of the statements and sentiments expressed by a young woman in her late teens who was given the name "Misbah" by a journalist for BBC Urdu Service, who interviewed her following this young woman’s "escape" from the Red Mosque after the militants there were captured and the mosque closed down last July. The interview was conducted in August and September of 2007, and later published in Urdu, but I managed through a friend’s help to get it translated into English and will attempt here to summarize and quote what I consider to be rather telling passages from it.

The first of these reveals the mindset that I am calling "Islamist/jihadist." Upon being asked how it feels to be home in her parents village and to be the object of concern of so many family and friends who keep pouring in to inquire after her since her ordeal in the Red Mosque/Jamia Hafsa operation, Misbah, replies fervently that,

I met with my mother first after returning from Jamia. Every one is coming to meet me. When I meet them, I wished to be martyred. Had I been a martyr, and these people come here, I would have been more happy. That would have been the real contentment. I am not satisfied now.

While it is a common perception amongst the liberal elite that the female students trapped in Jamia Hafsa during the Lal Masjid operation had been taken hostage by the ’extremists’ and were forced to stay there so that they could be used as human shields, Misbah’s comments leave no such indication despite her being there for the fateful seven days. Rather, she was a bit dejected, according to her interviewer, repeatedly voicing her desire for martyrdom over escape.

"We also wanted to carry out suicide attacks but we were short of weapons. We asked for weapons from Aapi Jan (wife of Maulana Abdul Aziz, Umme Hassan). We, all 30 students left at the end, wanted to carry out suicide attacks but Aapi Jan said that weapons were too short even for the ’brothers’ (Male students of the Lal Masjid)", Misbah continued. "Where can I provide you weapons from", Misbah quoted Aapi Jan as having said. "We were in good faith and expected that we will get the reward even for our desire to be martyred. We were confident that if given a chance, we can carry out suicide attacks".

Despite the somewhat confusing syntax, it is clear that several months after the operation and the closure of the Red Mosque and both the male and female seminaries attached to it, Misbah still believes in Jihad as she did before the Lal Masjid operation when she used to chant jihadi sentiments along with other female students of Jamia Hafsa while holding a bamboo in her hand outside the Lal Masjid.

According to her interviewer, Misbah soon started speaking without any prompting:

They [Musharraf’s army] have demolished Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa and now I wish that more Lal Masjids and Jamia Hafsas are built in every nook and corner of the country. I wish now if God permits me, to work with the same ’Jihadi’ passion as before back there. If that cannot happen, I will immediately open my own madrassa to impart ’Jihadi’ training there.

Misbah’s comments give the lie to Umm Hassan’s claims that her outfit and that of her husband were not imparting any politics of hate or encouraging their impressionable wards to become suicide bombers and "spread fire" and destruction in the country. Yet, through her own words, it is clear that Misbah-and presumably other women students like herself (and there were at least 600 inside by most counts)-felt they were doing nothing wrong; rather, they were the victims of a Yezid-like tyrant, who, along with other corrupt and immoral government officials, was out to "get them" and their heroic leaders. When their electricity and then their water supply is cut off and tear gas fired on them by the army rangers, Misbah draws comparisons between the army’s tactics and those of the tyrant Yezid who attacked the true believers and innocent victims of anti-Islamic tyranny, the brothers Hussain and Hassan:

There were no basements in that building. The government functionaries dubbed the classrooms as the basements and those whom they called channels were rooms in use of our teacher (Maulana). Electricity remained available till Wednesday.

It was a bit awkward when they cut off electricity. They did just as Yazid had done. Water also was not available and now they have cut off electricity. We could not do anything but just pray to God. We had a torch. The lighter, and we all were dependent on that. When we had to offer the prayer we used that. We did not do ablution only to save water. We mostly did ’Tayammum’ to offer prayers.

Aapi Jan did not tell us about the operation. We came to know about that when they were to carry out the operation there on Tuesday. The dialogue continued all the night on Monday. We came to know that but late. We had juice and slanty crisps to eat. On Thursday, we used that but after that they also hurled bombs on the stores and where we used to prepare food. After that we faced starvation.

Soon thereafter, the end of the operation drew nigh, and many of the girl students left the madrassa on the urging of their parents. Misbah reports the feeling of dejection that came over those like herself who stayed back, and the feeling that they were being betrayed. She claims that the girls who left did so as a result of parental pressure, not because they wanted to:

On Thursday, twenty girls left the Jamia for homes. After that we were thirty left. Parents continued to come and take their daughters back to home. They were weeping, insisting that they were there to meet martyrdom but their parents took them away forcibly.

Raza Khan asks a crucial question-and provides some answers to it-in his astute analysis of the Jamia Hafsa phenomenon on the pages of You! Magazine. He writes,

It is very important to explore why such a large number of girls joined Jamia Hafsa in the first place, and then how many among them got enamoured by militancy. It’s common knowledge that most of the girls at Jamia Hafsa hailed from poverty stricken families and far flung areas. A senior interior ministry official on condition of anonymity revealed that most of the girls were from the Frontier, Hazara and Potohar region including Upper Dir, Battagram, Manshera, Swat and Kohistan. A significant number of girls joined Jamia Hafsa from conservative areas like North, South Waziristan and Bajaur tribal agencies. It’s interesting to note that one of the militant girls, who was like a ringleader, hailed from Mal Khel tribe of Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan. All the above-mentioned areas are very backward and the majority of their inhabitants live below the poverty line. Facilities at Jamia Hafsa like boarding, food and stipends allured a large number of female students towards the seminary as most of them belonged to downtrodden families. Being indebted to the Ghazi brothers and Umme Hassan, wife of the chief cleric Ghazi Abdul Aziz, it’s but natural that these girls were easily indoctrinated by the militant and extremist views of their benefactors.v

Indeed, what is even more astonishing is that so many of them, like Misbah, remain loyal, months later, to the militant and coercive agendas of the Lal Masjid-Jamia Hafsa administration. Khan underscores the same point in his essay by telling his readers:

As an 18-year-old girl speaking in a Potohari accented Urdu told You! "Even if the madrassah is demolished, the thinking of its girl students would remain unchanged. No one can scratch from our minds the spirit of what we learnt from our teachers." Reportedly some girls coming out of Jamia Hafsa, and upon reaching their ancestral areas, warned of suicide attacks if the government did not spare the clerics of Lal Masjid-Jamia Hafsa.

So the question that remains relevant and I would argue, urgent to ask today, after the jubilation over the election results simmers down, is this: how are people like these girl students of madrassas like the Jamia Hafsa, and their many more male counterparts all over the country, to be brought back into a more secular, more democratic framework? While Raza Khan suggests that much of this "rehabilitation" process has to occur inside the homes and at the hands of the parents of these young people who were simply "abandoned" to the coercion of the madrassa forces due to inability or selfishness of parents to provide for their material and educational needs, it seems to me that the problem is greater than simply one of parental neglect which can be "fixed" by the remedy of "parental love." Thus, while I do agree with Khan that,

It is indeed a matter of concern how these girls, after having being indoctrinated with extremist dogmas and tactics in Jamia Hafsa are going to be re-integrated into the society

I disagree that simply providing "full-scale psychological therapy" and " the opportunities of good education and love," will do the trick. Or that it is now the "responsibility of the parents to reintegrate their daughters in their respective social set ups."

Instead, I would argue that the task at hand is one for which the next government of Pakistan, being formed even as I write these words, is going to have to take the largest share of responsibility, by moving the nation toward a welfare state system, one in which the state provides a healthy secular-oriented educational system for all its citizens, free and accessible medical care for all, and employment opportunities that deliver wages that people can live on with a modicum of dignity and self-respect. Then, and maybe then, we can hope to see the tiger of extremism tamed back into a household cat, if we are lucky. Otherwise, I am afraid that, as Raza Khan also underscores at one point,

For a variety of reasons the attendants of Jamia Hafsa could fall prey to the extremist and militant groups again since the seed has already been sown in their minds.

Indeed, like him, I feel this is the biggest challenge for the parents and relatives of these underprivileged youth of Pakistan, but also for philanthropists and others concerned with and committed to altering the class stratified nature of Pakistani society, but, above all, for the government. Let the new government pay heed to this challenge, and fill the vacuum that militant ideologues and extremist ideologies have been so quick to exploit in these past scary decades.

Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Professor, Department of English, Montclair State University. She can be reached:

Fast Update/no.4/july-aug 2007

ii, Robert Reid, "Pakistan opposition heads toward victory" The Associated Press Feb. 18, 2008, 11:36PM

iii I have written about the Jamia Hafsa phenomenon earlier. See my "What Lies Beneath: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Burqa Brigade" in, 7-8July

2007; which was reprinted in altered form in The Friday

Times of Pakistan ( "Operation Not ­So-Silent: Meeting Ghazi Sahib," July 13-19, 2007, vol

xix, no. 21), and more recently, in Social Identities (Routledge/Francis and Taylor,

January 2008.)

iv In "A dangerous game", an editorial in The Dawn newspaper of Pakistan, the editor informs us that Maulana Abdul Aziz was almost issued a release order by the current administration prior to the general elections, possibly for the purpose of garnering a few extra votes for themselves from their Islamist constituency:

DOES Chaudhry Shujaat realise what a dangerous game he is playing? He and several PML personalities have met Maulana Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid fame and there are reports that the hard-line cleric is to be released. Whether or not he is guilty of any crime is to be decided by the court. But there are cases against him relating to his involvement in the Lal Masjid insurgency last summer. The ’deeds’ of the brainwashed commandos wearing polka dotted kaffiyehs and led by him and his dead brother, Ghazi Abdul Rashid, have included arson, murder, kidnapping (including those of some Chinese nationals), illegal use of firearms, etc. Only a court can release him if it acquits him of the charges. Maulana Fazlur Rahman, too, visited him, and one of Abdul Aziz’s relations told a press conference that his family expected him to be released. On the eve of the general election? Feb 14th, 2008

v Raza Khan, "Clash of Ideas," in You!