Pakistani General Pervez Musharaff's bad summer just got worse:
A long-simmering standoff between the government and a radical mosque in the heart of the Pakistani capital exploded into a vicious street clash on Tuesday, with a dozen dead and more than 100 others injured.
For over 15 hours, paramilitary forces and bandanna-clad Islamic fighters manning positions in the Red Mosque traded automatic-weapons fire. At least three female students at a religious school affiliated with the mosque were killed, as were an army ranger and a Pakistani photographer who was caught in the crossfire.
The leaders of the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid), brothers Maulana Abdul Aziz and Abdur Rashid Ghazi, have been in open opposition to Musharaff's rule for some time now, demanding the immediate introduction of sharia law and issuing fatwas against the Pakistani government and its ministers. Students at the associated madrassah seminary have been carrying out vigilante attacks throughout the capital, and the government had intended to shut the mosque down along with others it says were built on illegally-seized government-owned land. Aryn Baker, a reporter with TIME Magazine, was at the mosque conducting an interview on the broader subject of Islam in Pakistan when the clash began and brings a first-person recounting of the mosque occupants' fervor under fire.
For the past six months the clerics of the Red Mosque madrassah complex, which houses about 7,000 students, have openly defied the government, calling for the establishment of Islamic law throughout the country. Students and teachers from both the men's and women's schools have embarked on a vigilante anti-vice campaign in the capital, shutting down video and music shops for being un-Islamic. Twice now, the female students have abducted alleged prostitutes, saying that if the government doesn't cleanse the capital of sin, they will. "A man goes to medical school and becomes a doctor," says [interpreter and student Umma] Aman. "We go to a madrassah, so we must practice Islam. But the government is not letting us. How can we just sit down and allow this to happen? We must act on God's will, not our own desires."
At the moment it's not clear whether Pakistani forces will attempt to storm the mosque or whether some negotiated stand-down can be reached. Musharaff's position is already tenuous since his dismissal of former Supreme Court Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry in March, which has brought widespread protests from lawyers, journalists whose reporting was being baldly censored, and opposition parties, prompting many observers to mark his days as numbered.
Writers like Stephen Cohen and Hussain Haqqani, among others, have argued that Musharaff enjoys continued US patronage under the "There Is No Alternative" banner; that only a Pakistan under the firm grip of its military establishment can keep the Islamist movements from grasping control of the state's nuclear trigger. As Ahmed Rashid writes in his Post op-ed,
Musharraf promised the international community that he would purge pro-Taliban elements from his security services and convinced the Bush administration that his philosophy of "enlightened moderation" was the only way to fend off Islamic extremism. But Pakistan today is the center of global Islamic terrorism, with Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mohammad Omar probably living here.
Instead of confronting this threat, the army has focused on keeping Musharraf in power -- negotiating with extremists, letting radical Islamic students set up a base in Islamabad and so forth. Meanwhile, to spook the West into continuing to support him, Musharraf continues to grossly exaggerate the strength of the Islamic parties that he warns might take over his nuclear-armed country.
The question of whether to govern as an Islamic state, as opposed to merely a state for Muslims, has been a continually contentious one through Pakistan's troubled history, as Cohen's The Idea of Pakistan elaborates at book length and as the supporters of the Red Mosque demonstrate today. But it's worth recalling that the MMA coalition of Islamist parties has only enjoyed limited electoral success; this, together with the widespread public protests in support of Justice Chaudhry, may suggest that moderate Pakistani civil society isn't totally gone yet. Ungoverned tribal border zones, crime and drug trafficking, collapsing educational infrastructure, separatist movements in Baluchistan and the Pahstun tribal areas; all these forces and more combine to threaten Pakistani national integrity, bringing a #12 rank on Foreign Policy's index of Failed States.
An unelected autocrat like Pervez Musharaff is not going to be able to hold it together forever. Instead, observers like Rashid conclude, "the United States would be far safer if it pushed for a truly representative Pakistani government that could marginalize the jihadists, rather than placing all its eggs in Musharraf's basket." This summer isn't over yet.