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Talibanisation of Islamabad

Talibanisation of Islamabad

Author: G Parthasarathy
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: April, 19, 2007

Over two decades ago, a visiting Indian journalist, charmed by the old world splendour of Lahore and the vigour and vitality of the bustling commercial city of Karachi, where I was then India's Consul General, described Islamabad as a city of "bureaucrats, bores and boulevards". Islamabad has always been a sanitised city, far removed from the reality of what is Pakistan. The Army and bureaucracy that have received preferential allotment of housing plots are comfortably ensconced there. It was always presumed that the capital would remain immune to ferment elsewhere in the country.

Two events in recent days have shattered this comfortable belief. The first has been the unprecedented solidarity of the legal fraternity, after Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry unexpectedly refused to bow when peremptorily sacked by President Pervez Musharraf, dressed up in his attire of a four-star General. The more ominous development has been the defiance shown by two clerics, Maulana Abdul Aziz and his brother Abdur Rashid Ghazi, who appear determined to challenge the established order and coerce it into adopting shari'ah in the capital.

While it was widely expected that the ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 would lead to a reduction in Islamic radicalism in neighbouring Pakistan, the opposite seems to have happened. With Taliban and Al Qaeda supporters seeking haven in Pakistan, their radical supporters, particularly in the tribal areas (FATA) and elsewhere in the North-West Frontier Province and in Baluchistan, have risen to challenge the writ of the Pakistani state. These areas bordering Afghanistan are now becoming progressively Talibanised.

When Gen Musharraf deployed over 80000 troops in FATA to force tribals to end support for the Taliban, the Pakistan Army received a bloody nose, losing over 700 soldiers. More ominously, over 300 officers and men reportedly face disciplinary action for refusing to take up arms against fellow Pashtuns. Paradoxically, even as Pakistani soldiers were being killed by Taliban supporters in Waziristan, Gen Musharraf permitted Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders to seek haven in Quetta.

With Gen Musharraf's writ over the NWFP being successfully challenged, pro-Taliban elements soon established shari'ah courts, banned videos and music, forbade barbers from cutting and trimming beards and prevented girls from receiving modern education. In Peshawar and other places in NWFP that abut the tribal areas, local Taliban have threatened English language schools, warned schoolgirls to veil themselves and ordered men not to shave their beards. Elsewhere in FATA, armed Taliban stop vehicles and remove cassette players and radios and force men to grow beards. What is shocking is that the two clerics in Islamabad are threatening to enforce similar measures in Islamabad from the precincts of a masjid-madarsa complex they control, which is located barely one mile away from the Prime Minister's Secretariat, the Supreme Court and the Parliament.

Maulana Abdul Aziz runs Lal Masjid, set up with tacit approval of the powers that be, in the very heart of Islamabad. His brother Abdur Rashid Ghazi runs two madarsas - the Jamia Hafsa (for burqa-clad girls) and Jamia Faridia (for bearded male students). A few months ago, the girl students of Jamia Hafsa forcibly occupied a children's public library after the administration demolished seven illegally constructed mosques.

The two brothers then proclaimed their determination to enforce shari'ah in the capital. They set up a shari'ah court to hear public complaints, with their male students warning owners of video parlours and music cassette stores to close shop, while females driving cars were warned to stop doing so. They even issued a fatwa against Pakistan's gutsy Tourism Minister Nilofar Bakhtiar for being hugged by a paragliding instructor in Paris. A campaign against vice was launched with the abduction of a woman accused of encouraging prostitution and two of her family members. When the Islamabad police sought to rescue the kidnapped women, they had to beat a hasty retreat when their vans were seized in retaliation. In the meantime, the shari'ah court started entertaining petitions from women police personnel, complaining of sexual harassment.

There is an understandable disinclination to use force against the masjid-madarsa complex. Over 70 per cent of the students are Pashtun. They are evidently well-armed. Given the fact that around 20 per cent of the Pakistan Army is made up of Pashtuns and recent experiences in Waziristan, any significant loss of lives would provoke Pashtun outrage. Moreover, responding to appeals from the clerics, a large number of madarsa students from across Pakistan have converged on the site of Lal Masjid.

Gen Musharraf deputed the President of the Muslim League (PML-Q) Chaudhry Shujat, who is given to yielding to pressures from religious extremists, for talks with Maulana Aziz. Shujat has held talks with the clerics, with the Musharraf dispensation showing signs of buckling to their demands. The Government has agreed to reconstruct the seven illegal mosques it had pulled down. It has also agreed to act against alleged centres of prostitution. The clerics have refused to close down their shari'ah court and remain firm on their demands for the introduction of shari'ah. Measures to deal with this situation will figure prominently when Pakistan's real rulers, the Army's Corps Commanders meet in Rawalpindi this week.

Reflecting on developments in Islamabad, the Editor of the Lahore-based Friday Times, Najm Sethi notes: "More mullahs (across Pakistan) are likely to follow suit, if the issue is not 'closed' swiftly. Brothels, billboards, veils, music, film, haircuts, dress, and schools - there will be no end to 'concessions' demanded in the name of jihad and Islam." The process of Talibanisation moving eastwards from the NWFP appears to have commenced. In Lahore, the student wing of the Jamat-e-Islami, the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, has beaten up "un-Islamic" students and proclaimed "Islamisation" of the campus. Can this process of creeping Talibanisation of Pakistan be halted?

It can, if Gen Musharraf and the Army establishment take a few crucial steps. These include an irrevocable break with their traditional partners - the Islamic political parties - an end to support for groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, which declare "Hindus, Christians and Jews" as "enemies of Islam", and for the Taliban, apart from the secularisation of education, with mainstream political parties being allowed to function freely. Whether Gen Musharraf has the inclination, will or ability to undertake these measures remains to be seen.

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