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Behind The Red Mosque

By Tarek Fatah

12 July, 2007
The Globe and Mail

In the spring of 1965, Pakistani military dictator Ayub Khan rigged an election to hold on to his presidency. This triggered outrage among the people, especially in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Students and trade unionists joined lawyers and academics in the streets chanting the slogan, Ayub kutta, hai, hai (Ayub the dog, shame, shame).

Fearing a mass uprising, the field marshal (a good friend of presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson) dipped into the time-tested tool used by all tyrants: He wrapped himself in the flag. What better way to deflect the wrath of the people than to wage war on the infidel "enemy," India.

So, in August of 1965, he launched Operation Gibraltar, sending thousands of Pakistani troops in civilian clothes deep into Indian-administrated Kashmir. New Delhi retaliated by attacking Pakistan on Sept. 6, resulting in a 17-day war that ended in a stalemate.

For a few months, Ayub Khan was a hero. The opposition demonstrators had disappeared, branded as traitors. It seemed that he had succeeded in positioning himself as the saviour and would rule Pakistan for another decade. That didn't happen. Within four years, Ayub Khan was gone in a wave of citizens' protests that led to nearly 100,000 people being arrested and hundreds killed.

Among the admirers of the fallen field marshal was a young student at Karachi's St. Patrick's High School. His name was Pervez Musharraf. Like Ayub Khan, he, too, would topple an elected government. And like Ayub Khan, he, too, would be America's key ally in the region.

Leading up to the crisis of the Red Mosque of Islamabad, General Musharraf was facing an unprecedented uprising by the ordinary citizenry, led by the popular and recently dismissed chief justice of Pakistan. As the sweltering summer of discontent spread across the country, tens of thousands of lawyers poured onto the streets in what is known as the "black coat" protests. Finding no room to maneuver, Gen. Musharraf emulated Ayub Khan, and manufactured a crisis. Then, like a knight in shining armour, he stepped in to put down the rebellion by Islamists holed up inside the Red Mosque.

It's important to know that the Red Mosque was a creation of Pakistan's intelligence services, which used it for decades to recruit armed jihadis. It was another U.S.-backed Islamist dictator, General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who had allowed the Red Mosque jihadis a free hand in spreading their hateful doctrine of extremism under the name of Islam. The Americans simply went along.

The brothers who led the Red Mosque rebellion - the one who was arrested trying to escape in a burqa, as well as the mullah who died in the fighting - worked for Pakistan's intelligence agencies. Their father, too, was an employee of the government and ran the fiefdom in the heart of Islamabad until he was assassinated.

The mullahs and radical jihadis in the Red Mosque were all actors in the game of Pakistani roulette. As long as the mosque remained a visible hotbed of Islamist activity, Gen. Musharraf could show the West that it needed him to fight terrorism. Just as Ayub Khan was able to convince successive U.S. administrations that, without him, Pakistan would slide into communism, Gen. Musharraf has convinced George Bush that, without him, Pakistan would become one large Red Mosque teeming with jihadis trying to whip the nation into an Islamist nuclear power.

What he fails to disclose, of course, is that the arming of the Red Mosque could not have happened without his government's full knowledge. There's no way that machine guns, rocket launchers and ammunition could be brought into the heart of Islamabad, next door to government ministries, without arousing the suspicion of the country's omnipresent security agencies.

Today, the Pakistani army will claim to have stamped out a hotbed of Islamic terrorism. Tomorrow will be another story. Abdul Rashid Ghazi will emerge as the martyr of the Islamist movement in Pakistan, and his death will become the rallying cry for the Islamofascists, not its end.

In the end, Gen. Musharraf was caught in his own trap. He could not put the jihadi genie back into the bottle, so he had to kill it. He may come out as a hero to the White House and to Pakistan's ruling upper-class elites, but history dictates that this will be a short-lived romance.

Both Gen. Musharraf and the Americans who prop him up must realize that, to fight malaria, one needs to drain the swamps, not kill individual mosquitoes. The best way to fight Islamist radicalism in Pakistan is to ask the general to step down and organize democratic elections without the aid of fraudulent voter lists that deny exiled politicians a return to the country.

For too long, the U.S. has propped up men in uniform who ruin the political and social fabric of Pakistan. The risks are too high to continue playing this game of Pakistani roulette. Like his hero Ayub Khan, Gen. Musharraf, too, has sucked almost a decade out of the life of the nation. Like Ayub Khan, he, too, should go, or the country will go, instead.

Tarek Fatah, a former student activist in his native Pakistan, is founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress.



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