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Students and Security Forces Clash at Pakistan Mosque

July 5, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: An embattled mosque, an embattled president in Pakistan. Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: Sporadic explosions and gunfire pierced the pre-dawn darkness near the Red Mosque in the heart of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. The mosque, long a bastion for Islamic militants, is now surrounded by Pakistani security forces.

Police used loudspeakers to urge hundreds of students holed up inside to surrender. Over the past three days, hundreds of Pakistani troops have tightened their grip around the mosque and its adjoining religious schools. It’s the strongest attempt to end months of efforts by student militants who were going out in the streets to impose a Taliban-style version of Islamic law in the capital city.

The worst violence erupted Tuesday, with clashes between security forces and armed students. Ten people were killed; scores more were injured; and another six are reported dead today.

The confrontation around the mosque in this overwhelmingly Muslim nation is just the latest political challenge to Pakistan’s president, General Pervez Musharraf. He already faces emboldened militants near the Afghan border and a pro-democracy movement triggered by his suspension of the country’s chief justice.

On Wednesday, the government ordered the Red Mosque militants to lay down their arms and surrender. Hundreds, mainly male and female students from the mosque’s madrassas or religious schools, obeyed the call. Yesterday, the Red Mosque’s top cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, was captured while trying to escape wearing a woman’s burqa. During an interview broadcast on state television, Aziz had this message for those still inside the mosque.

MAULANA ABDUL AZIZ, Head Cleric, Red Mosque (through translator): If they can get out quietly they should go, or they can surrender if they want to.

RAY SUAREZ: Authorities have imposed a curfew and cut off power to the area around the Red Mosque. It’s just a few blocks from Islamabad’s main government buildings. Pakistani officials said they’re holding back from storming the complex to avoid civilian casualties.

JAVED IQBAL CHEEMA, Interior Ministry Spokesman, Pakistan: We have to be patient. There are human beings inside; there are people inside; there are girls and women inside; there are children inside. So we have to take all these things into account. I mean, let’s not straightaway storming into the building.

Dilemma in Pakistan

Hasan-Askari Rizvi
Johns Hopkins University
The government of Pakistan is not all the time very clear how to deal with these kinds of groups, so sometimes they get a lot of space for doing their activities that undermine the order and peace in the country.

RAY SUAREZ: Officials say dozens of fighters, armed with guns and grenades, may still be holed up inside the mosque.

For more on all of this, we get two views. Steve Coll is a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001." He also served in South Asia for the Washington Post during the early 1990s.

And Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political scientist and is currently a visiting scholar at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

And, Hasan-Askari Rizvi, given everything that's been going on in Pakistan in the last couple of months, former prime ministers threatening to return and lead the opposition, lawyers rioting in the streets, fighting on the border, even with all of that, is this stand-off in the heart of the capital an extraordinary event?

HASAN-ASKARI RIZVI, Johns Hopkins University: It is an extraordinary event, and it represents a dilemma the Pakistani state and society faces at the moment, because some of the extremists and hard-line groups have become very powerful in Pakistan, and they want to play an oversized role.

The other aspect is that the government of Pakistan is not all the time very clear how to deal with these kinds of groups, so sometimes they get a lot of space for doing their activities that undermine the order and peace in the country.

RAY SUAREZ: Steve Coll, what do you make of what you're seeing?

STEVE COLL, Staff Writer, The New Yorker: Well, I think Dr. Rizvi is right. This is something that's been brewing for some time. Islamist religious parties have always been present in Pakistan, even some extreme ones. They've never been very prominent in the country's national life or in its politics. That's begun to change.

Twenty years of warfare on both Pakistan's western and eastern borders with jihadi groups playing prominent roles in those wars has changed some of the outlook of these parties. They have become emboldened; they've gained resources. And the Red Mosque episode is a kind of microcosm of this problem, one mosque in the heart of an otherwise pristine and preplanned and kind of anodyne capital, where a really militant group has taken hold and has created a confrontation of a sort that Islamabad, certainly as a city, has never known before.

The location of the mosque

Steve Coll
The New Yorker
We've seen many siege situations involving militants from this movement and in other contexts, as well, who do see bloodshed as their goal.

RAY SUAREZ: But you also heard Dr. Rizvi refer to a dilemma on the part of the Pakistani government. What's in the interest of those people still hunkered down inside that mosque, to further inflame the encounter, to bring on an armed incursion on the part of the police and army?

STEVE COLL: They seem to be of divided mind about that question. Maulana Aziz has gone out and asked for a peaceful resolution. He has preached and his followers have preached the glories of martyrdom, but he doesn't appear himself to wish to see many martyrs made in this episode.

However, there is clearly a hard core still down on the mosque, perhaps led by his younger brother -- it's unclear -- who do seem determined to fight until the end. And we've seen many siege situations involving militants from this movement and in other contexts, as well, who do see bloodshed as their goal. I think the government is trying to minimize the number, to isolate those who are determined to fight it out to the end, and then evaluate it from there.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Rizvi, does the location of the Lal Masjid, the Red Mosque, put it on a stage for the entire country? Does it raise the stakes for both the government and those inside?

HASAN-ASKARI RIZVI: Well, those people who are inside are in very small number. They may be 100 or maybe more. Most of them have surrendered, and it seems that they will contest the state authorities.

But the basic issue is that, if such challenges emerge in other parts of the country, how would the government deal? In this case, the government allowed the matter to fester for about six months, and then these people got so emboldened that they kidnapped Chinese living in the capital city, and that caused the crisis. They in a way crossed a red line, and that led the government to take action; otherwise, the government was suffering from inaction to deal with these kinds of people.

Enclaves of extremism

Hasan-Askari Rizvi
Johns Hopkins University
He [General Musharraf] faces a greater challenge in the form of the movement, political movement, led by lawyers and others, which want to change the system all together. So he's isolated and also under a lot of pressure.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you refer to them as "emboldened." The longer this goes on, is there a heightened chance that this will start to break out in other places in the country? And do rank-and-file Pakistanis grow in sympathy for those inside the mosque the longer this goes on?

HASAN-ASKARI RIZVI: Well, this group has not enjoyed support elsewhere, because this matter has been going on for the last six months, and this encounter for the last three days, and other Islamic groups have not really come out in their support.

But there are extremist groups, small groups, which have created enclaves in different parts of the country, especially in the frontier province and the tribal area. In the tribal areas, they can challenge, but in the province of Punjab or Sindh, I don't think they can muster enough challenge to threaten the government.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree with that, Steve Coll, that there's not so much danger?

STEVE COLL: Up to a point. I think Dr. Rizvi is right in the sense that, in mainstream Pakistan, in the Punjab and the Sindh, these kinds of institutions and certainly a siege of this character would remain quite unusual, but there is a change that is underway in the western side of the country in provinces like northwest frontier province, where militant groups have been carrying out attacks on civil police, civil authorities.

They attempted to assassinate a senior government minister quite recently. They have, in a sense, been coming down from the tribal areas and carrying out violent attacks on the state in areas where this was unusual, even a year ago. So, in that sense, I don't think that the Red Mosque episode is entirely isolated.

RAY SUAREZ: Does this confrontation find General Musharraf, America's ally in the area, in a weakened condition?

STEVE COLL: He has played his political hand poorly, in my judgment, because he hasn't built up the natural political alliances with political parties, like the Pakistan People's Party or the Muslim League, that could come to his aid in a moment like this.

He is isolated, and he has isolated himself now both from militant Islamists, on the one hand, and from liberal parties and movements that have been traditionally opposed to groups such as the one that have taken this mosque.

RAY SUAREZ: Hasan-Askari Rizvi, would you agree with that terminology, "isolated," for the president of Pakistan?

HASAN-ASKARI RIZVI: Yes, I would say that he is more isolated now because the Islamic groups are now against him and the mainstream political parties were also against him. And at the moment, he faces a greater challenge in the form of the movement, political movement, led by lawyers and others, which want to change the system all together. So he's isolated and also under a lot of pressure.

A search for political order

Steve Coll
The New Yorker
There is a creeping strength and growth of these organizations and movements that, if it's not checked, may yet change the character of Pakistani politics. It hasn't happened yet, but the change is significant over the last 10 years.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me follow up and close with this. This week, writing from Islamabad, Ayaz Amir, a Pakistani political analyst, said, "If extremism in Pakistan has a mother, it's military rule." Is Pakistan in danger now? Is the state becoming more unstable?

HASAN-ASKARI RIZVI: Well, there is a lot of pressure from the extremists to the Pakistani state. They can create serious problems for the administration, but these extremists are not in a position to overwhelm the state of Pakistan.

Yes, they have enclaves in the tribal areas. They have enclaves in the frontier province, but in the mainstream provinces, Sindh and Punjab and Islamabad, I think they can cause problems, but they can't take over Pakistani state.

RAY SUAREZ: How about you, Steve Coll?

STEVE COLL: I think that's true, but this change has been building up over 10 years. The Talibanization of Pakistan is something that civil servants inside the Pakistani government, inside the foreign ministry began to warn the army about in the late 1990s.

We're about a decade on, and we can see the results. There is a creeping strength and growth of these organizations and movements that, if it's not checked, may yet change the character of Pakistani politics. It hasn't happened yet, but the change is significant over the last 10 years.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, is the state moving closer to becoming ungovernable, not just from the mosque siege, but from a combination of many things that are going on across a range of the country's life?

STEVE COLL: Well, there are multiple crises going on simultaneously, and what they have in common is a search for a sustainable political order that is true to Pakistan's history, its constitutional traditions, and to the existence of large political parties in the country.

This is a country that has a robust politics. It's just that that politics isn't working under military rule, and the president is isolated. And unless he draws out more partners and opens up the process in a way that allows him to build these alliances, I'm afraid this pressure that Dr. Rizvi refers to is going to continue to build up.

RAY SUAREZ: Steve Coll, Dr. Rizvi, gentlemen, thank you both.