The Red Mosque Operation: Whither the US-Pakistan alliance?

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Barkha Shah | 11 Jul 2020

In recent months, the tendency towards radical Islamisation of Pakistani society has received considerable attention in national and international media. This fact has become an important source of concern for the Musharraf government, which remains an important ally of the United States in its war against terrorism.

The recent tumult created by the Red Mosque clerics is indicative of the increasing influence of radical Islamists in urban centres of Pakistan. Nevertheless, the recent military operation against the Red Mosque and its associated seminaries, which began last week, presents a different outlook towards the increasing influence of radical Islamists.

Fuelled by the government's demolition of some small mosques built illegally on state-owned land in Islamabad, the Red Mosque clerics, led by the Ghazi brothers, launched an anti-vice campaign in Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan. Given the secular stance taken by the Musharraf government and its drive towards "enlightened moderation", these clerics claimed that it was their responsibility to launch a campaign against anti-Islamic practices in Pakistan.

As a result, the Ghazi brothers attempted to establish a parallel government- a state within the state- by establishing a shariah court and establishing anti-vice squads in Islamabad. These anti-vice squads, which have been active since early 2007 have vandalised music stores, raided weddings, kidnapped police officers, and their last major operation was the capture of some Chinese nationals, who were purportedly involved in running a brothel under the guise of a massage parlour.

Realising the vulnerable position of President Musharraf viz. the judicial crisis that continues to engulf Pakistan to date, the group intensified its activities since March 2007. The absence of a military crackdown led some analysts to predict that preference of negotiations over a violent military operation was indicative of the government's recognition of the power wielded by these religious groups. Such recognition, they argued, was likely to result in a greater radicalisation of the Pakistani society, as it would encourage the future politicisation of extremist groups who are not currently part of mainstream political activity in Pakistan.

Since March, the government sought to negotiate with this militant group, which  threatened suicide bombings if shariah laws were not implemented. This rather soft stance of the Musharraf government came as a surprise to most Pakistanis, who expected the government to act in customary military style and launch a violent crackdown on this group, which was openly challenging the writ of the state. After the failure of unending negotiations with the Red Mosque group and increasing international pressure since the capture of Chinese nationals in late June 2007, the Musharraf government decided to take action.

However the launch of the military operation to flush out the mosque compound has potentially change the opinion of many. It was unlikely the state was going to back down after military action was ordered with the total annihilation of the perpetrators the likely end result. But it was day two of the military operation that deserves attention. After an offer of surrender, more than 1000 students of the Red Mosque and Jamia Hafsa (an adjoining radical Muslim school for women) chose to break ranks and give up. Amidst the surrendering women, the older of the two Ghazi brothers and the leader of the pack, Maulana Abdul Aziz, attempted to escape the scene wearing a women's burqa, when he was caught by a vigilant female police officer. This incident dealt a humiliating psychological blow to the morale of the remaining Red Mosque group and to that of the other radical Islamist outfits.

For the Musharraf government, this military operation and the following events may come as a happy tiding, as civil society opinion regarding radical Islamism seems to be changing rapidly since the Red Mosque imbroglio began. Also, this change in civil society opinion is indicative of its inclination towards a less extreme form of Islam- a stance that gels perfectly well with Musharraf's drive towards "enlightened moderation".

In the absence of the attempted escapade by Maulana Abdul Aziz Ghazi, the Musharraf government could have risked a severe backlash from the radical Islamist outfits in Pakistan on the grounds that the pro-US Musharraf government was attacking Islam- the very basis for the existence of Pakistan. However, the fact that the leader of the Red Mosque group attempted to escape the scene in the fashion that he did, has exposed the hollowness of the tall claims of martyrdom-over-surrender made by these radical Islamist groups, hence leaving other Islamic groups in the country with little handle to thrash the government with.

This military operation is not only likely to strengthen Musharraf's political future in Pakistan, but also the position of the Pakistan army as the sole hope as far as containing radical Islamic elements. Although US think-tanks like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editorials in major US newspapers like the Washington Post and The New York Times this week urge for a review of the US-Pakistan alliance that grew out of the War on Terror, the reverberations from the Red Mosque incident are likely to strengthen US-Musharraf ties further, with Pakistan remaining an active US ally. For the military in Pakistan is the best insurance policy against radical Islam - the stakes seem far too high for the US to consider changing horses now.

Barkha Shah is a UAE-based commentator on Pakistani affairs. She has an MPhil (Development Studies) from the University of Cambridge.

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