Thursday, 5 July 2007

Maulanas on TV and an Anatomy of a Seige

Here's an interesting article written by a reporter for Time magazine who was inside the Jamiah Hafsa Madressah interviewing the headmistress when all the trouble started a couple of days ago. If you get past some of the more breathless sensationalising it makes for an interesting read. Here's a paragraph:
"Come on, we are going out to protest," said Aman. I only recognized her by the glasses perched on the outside of her mask. I follow her outside the madrassah gate where a hundred or so black robed women chant in unison against Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and against George W. Bush. A crack, a small explosion, and a cloud of acrid tear gas drifts our way, fronted by a pack of stampeding men. Apparently they had tried to occupy the neighboring Environment Ministry. I run back to the gate, having lost Aman in the sea of panicking black robes. More explosions, more tear gas. And the gunshots begin. First from the mosque, then in retaliation from the rangers. We are caught in a narrow corridor, bullets slicing through the thick smoke on either side of us. Another canister of tear gas rolls past my feet, spewing cottony clouds that claw at my eyes and tear at my lungs. Sweat, picking up gas particles clinging to my clothes, burns my skin. Someone from the second floor above the gate pours a bucket of water on us. Blissful reprieve, even if it lasts only a few seconds. I fight for breath, and I fight my instinct to breathe deeply. Eyes streaming, coughing, choking, spitting, we scrabble at the front door, battling to get through the narrow passageway, eight at a time, back into the madrassah, into safety.

Meanwhile, the guys on Metroblogging Islamabad continue to do a great job of keeping an eye on developments. They've also posted up video clips of two interviews - the first was an interview done over the telephone with Maulana Rashid Ghazi in the lal masjid by ARY and the second is one done with the captured Maulana Aziz Ghazi by the state-run PTV.

Both are interesting, though the second one turns into a polemic representing the government's position towards the end, with the interviewer barely giving Maulana Auntie the chance to respond. I truly enjoyed the grilling the ARY anchor gives Maulana Rashid.


A few thoughts: Now, I don't give much credence to the conspiracy theory that these two guys were stoking up the whole issue on the orders of the government to distract attention from the Judicial crisis. However, I can't shake the feeling there's something not quiet right here.

Firstly these guys are just not masterminds of anything. They are, in fact, quiet hapless, buffoonish not in that they are stupid, but almost sheepish as if they've been playing a naughty game and have been found out.

Secondly, there's an interesting point in the PTV interview where the interviewer asks Maulana Auntie where his students got guns from and what guns had to do with Islamic training. He replies that his madressah did not possess any guns until a few days ago when a few guns and gas masks were given by "friends" who said that the government was planning an operation against them. He decline to say who these friends were.

Now when the interviwer asks the question, he asks about klashnikovs, because klashnikovs are ubiquitous in Pakistan. Almost every automatic weapon you find in the country, whether used by private individuals, militants, police, rangers or army are AK-47s. But recall my earlier post were I pointed out that apart from a few AK-47s the students had snatched from the police, they were armed with MP-5s. Only in the army special forces will you find MP-5s. Oddly enough the "friends" of the Maulana provided MP-5s.

Even more interesting is this article I came across in the Asia Times which has this startling claim:
Ghazi admitted to this correspondent two weeks ago that things were not in his hands and that if he ever tried to compromise with the government (as there was considerable pressure from the clergy around the country to do so), he and his brother would be killed by their students.

Now this made me sit up and take a closer look:
The Lal Masjid "movement" has steadily fallen into the hands of Islamic militants connected with the radical bases of the Taliban in the two Waziristans. In the past few months, brothers Ghazi and Aziz have lost a lot of their power, becoming more like puppets whose strings are in the hands of the students around them.

Aziz's attempt to sneak away from the mosque dressed in a veil is evidence of this. Within minutes of his arrest, Aziz was sped away to the nearby headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence, from where he telephoned his brother and told him to lay down his weapons. Similarly, a delegation of Muslim scholars visited the mosque to seek a peaceful solution. The militant students forced Ghazi to issue a statement that they would not surrender.

Now there may just be something to this. Both the Ghazi brothers are political creatures. Cronies of Zia-ul-Haq, they have survived and thrived in the murky world of Islamabad's power politics not because of ideological rigidity but because they have known when to cut deals and with whom. It seems entirely possible that they lost control of the Frankenstein's Monster that they had created.

What is most extraordinary in the interviews was just how little they seemed cued in to what was happening around them. Rasheed, when asked of his brother's arrest claimed he had gone out to meet someone! Aziz claimed that it was only when he was outside that he realized how serious the situation was, and that's why he was now calling on the students to lay down their arms and surrender. His statements also seem to reveal that he had no clear idea of what the male students were getting up to when they rushed the rangers outside the masjid a couple of days ago.

Now part of this may well be attributed to attempts to save face. But the chronology of how events blew out of control is interesting. This is what I have reconstructed from news reports:

- Unnamed 'friends' provide automatic weapons and gas masks to some students and warn of operational planning within the armed forces for storming the Madressah.

- Meanwhile, the keystone cops surrounding the madressah are replaced by rangers by the government. They start setting up a cordon around the madressah.

- Seeing the perimeter being set up, a group of students rush out to stop them, sending some running and grabbing their weapons.

- The rangers, not being the same timid hapless souls as the much abused Punjab Police respond with teargas and aerial-firing.

- Jumpy students, now armed and expecting a government "operation", think they are under attack and respond by firing directly at the rangers, killing one.

- The rangers pull back to the cover of their barracks and start returning fire. The streets in front of and around the madressah are given over to roving bands of madressah students, intermingled with journalists and bystanders. Some are focusing on firing back at the ranger positions, others fan out and attack the Environment ministry and a girls' school.

- Government authorities rush in reinforcements and liberal use of armed force and teargas push the students back into the compound. In the crossfire numerous students, journalists and some bystanders are injured or killed.

- With public reaction turning strongly against the madressah, the government decides to initiate a proper siege. It sends in special forces and Brigade 111 - which is, interestingly enough, Musharraf's most trusted men - the people who launched the coup that brought him to power.

- The students of the madressah had so far been engaged in games of cat and mouse with the Punjab police - overwhelming small groups and revealing in the power of proclaiming their faith to the world in theatrical displays now find themselves in a serious war situation. They start surrendering in droves.

- All that is, except for a militant hardcore nucleus who hold out and are accused to pressuring other students to stay and, possibly, pressuring the mosque authorities to stay as well.

Now what's interesting about this scenario is that whoever it was who gave the weapons to the students did the masjid authorities absolutely no favours. In the hands of jumpy, hot-headed youths, it was a recipe for disaster. By sparking the bloodshed on Tuesday, they coalesced popular public opinion against them and finally roused the ire of the government.

With friends like these...


1 comment:

Skeptic said...

Though conspiracy theories are always distasteful to my mind but in this particular case I can’t rule out some kind of collusion between Musharraf’s regime and these clerics. Musharraf has shown some uncharacteristic flexibility towards Lal Masjid clerics and if we look at the motives he has everything to gain by highlighting this issue to the Washington and also to the liberal circles in Pakistan. You rightly pointed out that these guys are just not masterminds of anything. They are, in fact, quiet hapless, buffoonish not in that they are stupid, but almost sheepish as if they've been playing a naughty game and have been found out.

Another possibility that you mentioned that they have lost control of the Frankenstein’s monster that they created sounds plausible but this madrassah is located near the headquarters of Pakistan’s ubiquitous ISI. So either there are elements within ISI who are opposed to Musharraf or there is a collusion between Musharraf’s regime and Lal Masjid clerics, or some elements associated with the Lal Masjid.

It really is a complex picture and it is premature to say anything with certainty but I am sure that even when this drama ends, we may never know what exactly happened there. I wish we had a law like in the USA where they make the confidential documents public after 50 years.