x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Radicals gain ground in Pakistan

Last year's siege at the Red Mosque in Islamabad has turned a tragedy into a vehicle for radicalising Muslims across the country.

Muslims shout slogans outside the Red Mosque in Islamabad as they mark the first anniversary of an army raid on the complex.
Muslims shout slogans outside the Red Mosque in Islamabad as they mark the first anniversary of an army raid on the complex.

Before Sunday's suicide bombing, thousands of people, mostly religious students, had gathered at the Red Mosque in central Islamabad to remember those killed in a military raid on the compound one year ago. According to authorities, about 100 died in last year's weeklong siege and subsequent storming of the mosque and adjacent women's seminary, the Jamia Hafsa. However, those that gathered there on Sunday morning believed the real death toll was 2,000 - perhaps as high as 3,000 - most of them girls from the seminary who were later buried in secret graves.

The mourning and anger on Sunday was palpable - and the legend was growing. That morning, before the suicide attacker struck, and as thousands looked on, a group of men dug with their bare hands through the dirt of the bulldozed seminary, recovering what they said were the effects of the dead. Occasionally, they would triumphantly hold up a shiny piece of plastic: bracelets worn by the girls, they said. Others said they had unearthed fragments of human bone.

"We hope that those who killed these girls [last year] will also be finished," said Mohammed Abu Bakar, with tears in his eyes, echoing the sentiments of many. Blame was laid on Pervez Musharraf, the president, and the United States for propping up the unpopular leader and also the security forces. As the light faded on Sunday, a suicide bomber did take revenge against the easiest of targets: police sent to provide security for the event. At least 19 people were killed and 50 injured.

Shah Abdul Aziz, a cleric and former member of parliament, told the crowd before the bombing: "I want to tell America jihad will continue, it will never stop. "Pervez Musharraf, you thought you could crush the Islamic movement by attacking the Lal Masjid [Red Mosque], but we are telling you, you have failed." It is not only the fundamentalists who converged on the Red Mosque that day who believed that hundreds had been killed in last year's raid; it seems that most of Pakistan has accepted this conspiratorial view as fact. There is no evidence for bloodshed on that scale but it has turned a tragedy into a vehicle for radicalising Muslims across the country. It means that ordinary Pakistanis are incensed by the Red Mosque operation.

The conspiracies are given greater credence by the dozens of unanswered questions. Such as why authorities watched the militants assemble for months at the Red Mosque last year, taking in a large cache of arms, including rocket launchers, before making their move. The site is in the centre of Islamabad and close to the headquarters of the ISI intelligence agency, making it probable the government knew exactly what was going on.

Equally inexplicable was the violence of the assault on such a sensitive compound. Even the non-religious suggest that it was done to demonstrate the terrorist threat to Pakistan, for the benefit of the country's western allies and aid-givers. The Red Mosque militants had demanded the imposition of Islamic law in Pakistan and begun to brazenly enforce it around them, threatening music shops and kidnapping women who, they said, ran brothels.

The call for sharia is what the Red Mosque symbolises, the fundamentalist challenge to the Pakistani state. But the attempt by Mr Musharraf to burnish his credentials as a moderate backfired. Several of Mr Musharraf's own former ministers have said the raid was one of the major reasons why the president's allies were trounced in elections in February. It also bolstered support for Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister who was ousted by Mr Musharraf in a coup in 1999, and who surprised many with the strength of his showing at the polls. Mr Sharif tried to pass legislation that would have brought in Islamic law when he was in power in the 1990s.

Most damaging of all, though, was that last year's Red Mosque debacle unleashed a campaign of suicide bombings across Pakistan. Taliban insurgents and other extremists, already fighting the government and providing support for militants in Afghanistan, warned they would take revenge for those killed at the Red Mosque. That violence took on geopolitical significance after it led to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December, and sent a humbled Pakistan state into peace talks with the militants - a process that was denounced from Kabul to Washington.

Even before Sunday's suicide bombing, the events at the Red Mosque showed the clear and imminent danger to Pakistan from a class of radical Islamists who have no faith in the current order. One year on, the legacy of the Red Mosque still tears at the fabric of Pakistani society and politics. @Email:sshah@thenational.ae