Using religion as a tool of power

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

ONE positive result of the Lal Masjid operation is that it has brought into the open the ambiguities and contradictions in our social values and political attitudes. Hopefully, the tragic events of last week will shock people into confronting the truth.

The crisis began in January when the radicals of the Lal Masjid took matters into their own hands by getting the female students of Jamia Hafsa to occupy a government-owned children’s library. The action was in retaliation to the demolition of the illegally built mosques on encroached land in the capital city.

At that time, public opinion was, by and large, against the extremists and in favour of firm action by the authorities to get the library vacated. But the government in its wisdom dillydallied, pretending that it was negotiating with the Ghazi brothers. The intermediaries, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Ejazul Haq, however, lacked the credentials of playing the role of honest brokers. Nevertheless, they were allowed to drag on the negotiations giving the militants the opportunity to fortify their stronghold, entrench themselves in the mosque while escalating their demands.

Initially, they had demanded the restoration of the demolished mosques. At the time of the showdown, they wanted Sharia to be imposed in Pakistan. To demonstrate their strength, the clerics got their students to kidnap people and attack video shops.

Obviously, the abduction of the Chinese proved to be the last straw, as was confirmed by President Musharraf in his speech last Thursday. It was then that the government decided to act. When it did, it bungled and those very people who were demanding action have now become the harshest critics of the government.

What does all this prove? Many things. Notwithstanding its loudly proclaimed commitment to wage the war on terror, the Musharraf government failed to set a clear-cut anti-terrorist agenda for itself. If that had been so there is no reason why the Lal Masjid issue should have been allowed to hang fire for six months with all its political implications.

The president’s resolve expressed so firmly not to allow the militants to challenge his writ rings hollow because it does not explain why action was not taken earlier to nip the problem in the bud.

When the end came, it was bloody. The casualty figures released by the government are 103, but unofficial estimates run into the hundreds. Who is to be believed? The government which should know best is at a disadvantage. Its credibility is low and its strategy is now suspected of being a ruse.

The role of the political parties in the country has not been above board either. They appeared to be condemning the clerics in the days of the stand-off. Even the All Parties Conference held in London on July 7 and 8 took no stand on the Lal Masjid in its declaration, although the operation against the militants was in full swing at the time. Once it was over the opposition parties changed tack and held the government responsible for the killings.

The MMA was the most vocal in its criticism and declared three days of mourning for the so-called ‘shaheed’ of Lal Masjid. The PPP leader, Benazir Bhutto, was the only politician from the opposition who categorically supported Musharraf’s move on the Lal Masjid operation although she held him responsible for fuelling extremism rather than containing it.

The question that is being evaded is: once matters reached a head what was to be done? The blame game that has begun takes us nowhere. One may endlessly debate the strategy employed by the president which was ruthless once negotiations broke down, resulting in the large number of casualties, especially of women and children. But how long will our leaders continue to dwell on the original sin? Is it not time to move on?

In this noise over the Lal Masjid operation, one could not fail to be struck by the muted reaction of the public to events in Islamabad. In the TV programmes that provided for viewers to call in with their comments most of them were heavily weighted against the Islamic militants who were invariably held responsible for holding women and children hostage to use them as human shields.

At this stage, we also need to ask ourselves a few pertinent questions. Why is it that religion has emerged as the yardstick against which every issue is measured? Those who are in a position to raise their voices and who claim to be the leaders of opinion (that includes the government) drum on Islamic Sharia to drive home their point of view and mobilise support for themselves. Every shade of opinion is doing that.

There are those who are religious by temperament. They cite Islam — of course, their own version — to prove themselves to be correct. There are others who challenge their doctrine. There are still some others who really do not care for either of these but seek refuge behind the plea that they have to be sensitive to the religiosity and sensitivity of the public. But generally, it is not customary to seek the advancement of a cause simply because it is good and appeals to our innate humanism and sense of fair play.

The Lal Masjid crisis has exploded the myth that religion is the only prism through which an ordinary Pakistani perceives politics. Most people prefer to be left alone to practise their faith in the time-honoured tradition of ‘live and let live’. In practical life, they are quite secular (though not in the sense of being godless) in their approach. Had that not been the case, the public reaction to the events in Islamabad would have been quite different. There would have been an outcry of ‘Islam is in danger’.

On the contrary, public concern has centred on the sanctity of human life — especially in the case of children. The parents who gathered at the scene of action to take their sons and daughters away displayed a characteristically human response — parental love. If there has been any reaction it has come from the political leaders and the militants in the tribal areas.

It is time that those who rule Pakistan, be they soldiers, politicians, bureaucrats or whatever, stop using Islam as a crutch to perpetuate themselves in office.

If they have got away with this, it is not because the people believe what they say about religion and the state. It is because the people of Pakistan are powerless. They have been kept in a state of ignorance to deprive them of their potential to organise and wield control over their own life. Hence, by default, the leaders can obfuscate issues and flaunt religion as a tool of their own power to silence the people.