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Lessons from the Lal Masjid tragedy

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- For my first three days in Pakistan, no conversation could go more than a few minutes without a reference to the crisis at the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) compound. I had landed in Islamabad on July 8, and by then it seemed clear that government forces would eventually storm the mosque and the attached women’s seminary to end the confrontation with fundamentalist clerics and their supporters.


The final assault was finally unleashed as two companions and I drove to Lahore as part of a lecture tour. During several hours of intense discussion in the car, they gave me background and details that explained the real tragedy of the conflict.


When the news of the final assault came via cell phone we all fell silent, and we all quietly cried -- for those killed and for opportunities lost, out of our grief and from our fear.

In the Western news media and even much of the Pakistani press, the story was framed as crazed radical Islamist forces challenging relatively restrained government forces. Indeed, the two brothers who ran the mosque preached an interpretation of Islam that was mostly reactionary and sometimes violent. None of us in the car -- two Muslims and one Christian, all progressive in theological and political thought -- supported such views.


But there was more to the story. Farid Esack,


one of the world’s foremost progressive Muslim theologians who was in Pakistan to teach and lecture, and Junaid Ahmad,


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a Pakistani-American activist and law student directing the lecture series, both pointed out that key social/economic aspects of the story were being overlooked.


In addition to calls for shariah law under a fundamentalist Islamic state, Lal Masjid imams Abdur Rashid Ghazi and Mohammed Abdul Aziz critiqued the corruption of Pakistani political, military and economic elites, highlighting the living conditions of the millions of Pakistanis living in poverty. As in most Third-World societies, the inequality gap here has widened in recent years, as those who find their place in the U.S.-dominated neoliberal economic project prosper while most ordinary people suffer, especially the poor.


“We can reject the jihadist and patriarchal aspects and still recognize that there is in this fundamentalist philosophy a call for social justice, a challenge to the power-seeking and greed of elites,” said Esack, the author of Qur'an: Liberation and Pluralism. “When I spoke with Ghazi, it was clear that was an important part of his thinking, and it’s equally clear that the appeal of this theology is magnified by the lack of meaningful calls for justice from other sectors of society.”


Esack, who teaches at Harvard Divinity School and is a former national commissioner for gender equality in South Africa, had been visiting the mosque regularly and speaking to Ghazi and others inside until government forces sealed the area a few days earlier. A native of South Africa who was active in the struggle against apartheid, Esack spent much of his childhood in Pakistan at a madarasa, where he was a classmate of Aziz. Contrary to the media image of Ghazi, the cleric had a broader agenda and wanted to learn more about how an Islamic state could be structured to ensure economic equality, Esack said.


“My vision of an inclusive polity influenced by progressive Islamic values is very different than Ghazi’s, of course, but his theology should not be reduced to a caricature, as it so often was, especially in the West,” Esack said. 

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Ahmad emphasized that another crucial part of the story involved economics, specifically land. Press reports focused on the provocative activities of students and supporters of Lal Masjid members threatening video store owners, raiding brothels and clashing with police, but an underlying cause of the conflict was the existence of “unauthorized” mosques. Many of these mosques and madrasas had been built without permits on unused public land in Islamabad. As the city has grown more crowded and developers eyed that real estate for commercial building, the government took the risky step of destroying some of those mosques (though the many non-religious, profit-generating projects also built without permits remain undisturbed). Clerics protested, adding to the intensity of the Lal Masjid conflict.


Esack and Ahmad agreed that another aspect of the crisis mostly ignored in the press was the fact that the events played out in Islamabad, home to the more secular/liberal and privileged elements of the society. While those liberals might ignore such movements and conflicts in the outer provinces, many found it offensive that such an embarrassing incident could happen in the capital, where the world eventually would pay attention.


“We hear about how this is bad for the image of Pakistan, with no comment about the lives of ordinary Pakistanis and the substance of what the country is about,” Ahmad said. “Instead of talking about these fundamental questions of justice, many people wanted to see the incident ended to avoid further tarnishing of the country’s image. It’s like the obsession the United States has with simply changing its image in the Muslim world rather than recognizing the injustice of its policies.”

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)

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