After the Red Mosque Bloodbath Are Musharraf's Days in Power Numbered?

A violent crackdown ended the Red Mosque siege in Islamabad and allowed Musharraf to reestablish his authority over Pakistan -- for the time being. With al-Qaida vowing reprisal attacks, the conflict with Islamic fundamentalists threatens to throw the country into turmoil.
Von Rüdiger Falksohn, Padma Rao und Tobias Schreiter

In his youth, Abdul Rashid Ghazi had a reputation as a headstrong young man. As a member of the warlike Mazari tribe from northwestern Pakistan, his stubbornness appeared to indicate a certain fighting spirit. If nothing else, it definitely reflected a strong rebellious streak. He defied his father Abdullah's wish that he receive a formal Islamic education, dropped out of Koran school and refused to grow an appropriately pious full beard when he reached adulthood. Instead, he insisted on shaving.

Later, Ghazi returned to the fold after all. He studied international relations in Islamabad and went to work for the Ministry of Education. After his father, the founder of the Red Mosque, was murdered by rival Islamists in 1998, the prodigal son even embraced religion, becoming a leader known as a maulana.

Together with his brother Abdul Aziz, he took over the leadership of the Red Mosque, using it as a platform for preaching pro-Taliban views and voicing strong condemnation of the US invasion of Afghanistan. The Red Mosque became a center for radical fundamentalist teachings and the authority of the Pakistani government was challenged when students and leaders of the mosque set up a Taliban-style judicial system.

Recently, for a few days in early July, the Ghazi brothers even managed to attract the attention of the world by publicly leading the resistance movement against Musharraf. Along with hundreds of followers, they barricaded themselves in the mosque and engaged in bitter battles with state security forces.

His brother Abdul Aziz tried to flee the besieged mosque disguised in women's clothing, and was soon ridiculed as "Maulana Coward." Abdul Rashid, however, opted for a tragic hero's death. "My martyrdom is certain," he announced as their beleaguered stronghold was about to be stormed. "We trust in Allah that our blood will lead to a revolution."

He reportedly spoke of "genocide" and "naked aggression" in his last telephone call before the line went dead. Witnesses say that there was suddenly so much smoke inside the religious fortress that you could hardly see your hand in front of your face. A few hours after Ghazi's death, the army took full control of the mosque. On 11 July 2007, at 4:00 am, "Operation Silence" was completed, leaving behind a battlefield strewn with corpses -- and a number of important questions.

Was the apparently seriously wounded Ghazi actually killed by his own people to put him out of his misery, as was widely reported? If this were true, then he would not be a martyr, according to the strict definition of the term -- something which would certainly please Musharraf.

Were there also foreign fighters in the mosque, for example Uzbeks and Afghan Taliban, as was claimed? Why were the first casualties so hastily cremated that not even their relatives had time to identify them?

What was the actual number of casualties in the revolt against Musharraf's Western values? Government sources referred to 75 dead. However, the press, which had been largely hindered in its work, discovered that at least 800 funeral shrouds had been ordered and a similar number of empty graves had been arranged in H-8 and H-11, two cemeteries that had been rapidly sealed off from public view.

But the biggest question of all concerns Musharraf himself. Shortly before the celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the nation on August 14, he seems to be losing his grip on the country. The supreme commander of the army prides himself in wearing his general's uniform wherever he goes, yet remains as isolated and weak as the state apparatus that he heads. Without his army and support from the US, which was underscored by George W. Bush during the recent crisis, Musharraf's days in power would be numbered.

It was only by resorting to a show of military force that Musharraf was once again able to prevent the country's radical proponents of Shariah law from making a fool of him. His crackdown has gained him a temporary measure of respect abroad and at home, from the country's most influential political party, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), and among the large majority of moderate Muslims.

'This City Is Like a Ghost Town'

Musharraf is clearly in control in Islamabad, as recent events have shown, and he is respected in Lahore. But it's a different story altogether in Karachi and the semi-autonomous tribal provinces. In order to keep these rebellious forces in check, the president mobilized troops last week as a precaution in the region along the border with Afghanistan, where many of the Koran students in the Red Mosque come from.

In this part of the country, he has targeted another radical cleric -- a man who uses powerful slogans to rally thousands of supporters. Observers say the extremism of the Ghazi brothers pales in comparison to Maulana Fazlullah, a fundamentalist leader so reactionary that he refuses to appear on television -- because women can also be seen there.

Pakistan is looking less and less like a reasonably well-run state that enjoys the support of the country's main social groups. The country may have nuclear weapons -- the ultimate foreign policy trump card -- but the government doesn't even know the number of Koran schools in the country. The Interior Ministry estimates that there are 13,500 Koran schools -- known as madrassas -- in Pakistan, whereas foreign experts place the number at 20,000.

Pakistan is not yet a failed state, but it is in a precarious position. Religious fanatics would like to institute Islamic Sharia law for the country's 156 million citizens. Given the fundamentalist threat, it comes as no surprise that the government could no longer put up with the provocations of the Ghazi brothers. No secular president could tolerate a Pakistani parallel universe where the madrassas and the mosques follow their own laws.

Despite their support for the Shariah, it would be a gross misinterpretation to assume that maulanas like Abdul Rashid Ghazi are unsophisticated, old-fashioned figures. Ghazi belonged to the religiously oriented intelligentsia. He was, like many of his colleagues, an ambitious career-minded man with a modern education who had developed in a spiritual direction.

Irfan Raza, a lecturer at the Nicon College of Computer Sciences in Islamabad, knew the insurgent well and describes him as "highly educated." According to Raza, the security forces had been using Ghazi while they still needed him: "And when they no longer needed him, he had to die."

Raza alludes to links between the military, the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI and the madrassas. In the 1980s, this led to an Islamization of society and systematic support for jihad. At the time, there was a constant threat of clashes with India in Kashmir, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had just come to power in Iran, Iraq was embroiled in the first Gulf War, and the Soviets were occupying Afghanistan.

Pakistan felt surrounded by enemies. As a result, the army and the ISI, backed by the Pentagon, supplied money and knowledge to transform rural boys into mujahedeen, creating a pious and flexible force that served Pakistan's interests. In a number of Koran schools, these future soldiers were allegedly taught 60 different methods of sabotage, killing and torture, says Pakistan expert Boris Wilke from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. Between 1984 and 1994, the US contributed $50 million to the project, primarily earmarked for the Peshawar region.

For roughly a decade and a half, the madrassas proved useful to the military elite in Islamabad -- even the one-eyed Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar was trained in Pakistan. But ever since Musharraf, under pressure from the Americans, withdrew his support for the Taliban and began to fight them -- albeit in a rather halfhearted manner -- the Koran schools have turned against him.

Wherever the state has failed, the madrassas are present, primarily providing social services and education for extremely poor people. They have the status of independent private companies, with the same tax privileges. Islamic schools offer free accommodation and strictly traditional instruction -- and the maulanas, no matter how radical they might be, can indoctrinate to their heart's content. For a minority of perhaps 1.5 million Koran students, hatred of the West figures prominently in the school curriculum.

After his coup in 1999, Musharraf promoted this school system to secure the support of Islamic scholars and the intelligence services connected with them. Following his pro-American policy swing in 2001, however, he wanted to keep them on a tight rein. Gradually, this led to the resistance of religious leaders like the Ghazi brothers and Maulana Fazlullah: they no longer want to put up with Musharraf, who is aiming at another term in office.

"All across the country" extremism will now be combated with uncompromising severity, Musharraf announced last Thursday -- and promptly attacked the Koran-fixated Islamists on their own grounds, assuming a holier-than-thou tone and accusing the Islamists of "straying from the true path of faith."

Al-Qaida terrorists had allegedly helped to defend the Red Mosque -- and they swiftly swore revenge for the siege. In a video message, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor who serves as Osama bin Laden's deputy, said: "This crime can only be washed away by repentance or blood."

It looks like Musharraf's August celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Pakistan could be less festive than he had hoped.

As a precautionary measure, late last week heavily armed soldiers were stationed on every corner of the G-6 sector that was the scene of the siege in Islamabad, while groups of journalists were taken to the Red Mosque to inspect the traces of the fighting. After nine days of small-scale civil war, the curfew was cautiously eased, yet very few brave souls ventured onto the streets again.

"Take a look around you," says Rana Waqas who works at the "Savor Food" restaurant. He points to the empty tables that are normally filled to capacity at this time of day, during rush hour. "This city is like a ghost town."

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