Reporter’s Notebook: Damaged Mosque Belies Tensions in Pakistan
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SIMON MARKS: Hello from Islamabad, Pakistan. I’m NewsHour producer Simon Marks, welcoming you to the first of our special Online NewsHour podcasts from Pakistan, and I’m here with the NewsHour’s senior correspondent Margaret Warner. And together we’re putting together a week of special coverage for the program that you’ll be able to see starting on Labor Day. We’ll tell you more about that in a few minutes time.
Each day over the next week, we’re going to give you a glimpse behind the scenes of our reporting odyssey and a glimpse into Margaret’s reporter’s notebook as we travel across this country at what is a very dramatic moment in Pakistan’s history. And Margaret, for us this really began over the weekend in London with a fascinating encounter with a former Pakistani prime minister.
MARGARET WARNER: Right, Simon. We went to Duke Street in a posh neighborhood of London to the headquarters in exile of Nawaz Sharif, who as we know, was ousted in a coup seven years ago by none other than the current president, General Pervez Musharraf, but who just two days before we spoke to him, was the happy beneficiary of a Pakistan Supreme Court ruling ordering the government to let him return.
And so we found him and his retinue huddled in this multi-room suite trying to figure out just what to do next. And what he said when he could finally sit down to talk to us was that in no uncertain terms he is in fact coming back to Pakistan to challenge Musharraf, even if he runs the risk of being thrown into jail.
SIMON MARKS: Alright, well let’s take a listen to brief excerpt from that interview, Nawaz Sharif insisting as Margaret said that he is going to return to Pakistan even if President Musharraf sends him back to prison.
NAWAZ SHARIF: If he wants to put me in the jail, let him put me in the jail, because he kept me in the jail, in torture cells, in small little dungeons for fourteen months after staging coup d’etat against my government. So I’m not scared of these things at all, so I will go, and if he does that, I will face that.
SIMON MARKS: Not scared, says Nawaz Sharif. But Margaret, one of the big questions is, how the government is actually going to handle his return, if and when he does fly into Pakistani airspace. And we got an inkling of part of the answer to that question over the weekend, as well, didn’t we.
MARGARET WARNER: The government has been sending very confusing signals on this point, in good part because Musharraf, we’ve been told, is getting conflicting advice on what to do about Sharif. So to get to the bottom of this, after arriving on an all-night flight to Islamabad, we went to an equally posh neighborhood of this city, the difference from London being that every house is within a walled compound guarded by men with no-nonsense automatic weapons in their hands, to see the information minister, Tariq Azim Khan. Now he’s been very much the public voice of the Musharraf government during a series of crises this spring. I would say he gave us a mixed message, too.
On the one hand, he denied that the government had plans to immediately arrest Sharif at the airport, at least on the old detention order, which was a life sentence, but he said there were some new cases that had just been activated on Friday or reactivated that might in fact lead to another detention order. Let’s see, the second week of September, now that’s the very week Sharif is thinking of returning.
So we no sooner got back in our SUV when we heard the Pakistani press reporting that Musharraf that same day was telling his supporters that Sharif and his exiled brother were “definitely going to jail.” But the Sharif conundrum, as we know, isn’t the only problem besetting Musharraf. He’s got exiled Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whom I interview for the NewsHour last week in New York. She is planning a return soon, as well, to challenge him. And he’s got Islamic extremists, Islamic radicals pressing him from the other side.
SIMON MARKS: Islamic radicals, who of course, most recently, were pressing him at the Red Mosque here in Islamabad, and we had an opportunity shortly after we arrived in the city to go and visit what is left of the Red Mosque and its compound. What were your impressions of that?
MARGARET WARNER: Well, I was fascinated to see the site, because the television footage of this bloody ten-day standoff last month between radical Islamic students, their teachers, and Taliban fighters who came into Islamabad for the occasion that ended in a massive government raid had been so vivid. Yesterday what we saw was a shell of its former self, all the seminaries, all the libraries, the whole complex had been razed to the ground, leaving only the mosque itself.
What’s more, it was no longer the Red Mosque, it was no longer red. It had been painted over, this buff color, but we could see all the bullet holes, in trees, in the concrete walls, hastily patched with cement, but very, very obvious. Now this is right in the heart of downtown Islamabad, this isn’t out in the northwest territories somewhere where the Islamists are really a problem for the government. This is just five minutes from the information minister’s upscale neighborhood. And now what you have in the heart of the city is this heavily-fortified war zone, with concrete barriers, concertina wire, and very heavily-armed police with their camouflage APCs. And so we can see why this whole event and the visual aspect of its aftermath, is still so shocking to Pakistanis and to the Pakistani government.
SIMON MARKS: Absolutely, well we have a very busy day ahead of us today. We are going to make moves to continue our reporting and continue to fill Margaret’s reporter’s notebook. We’ll tell you all about our reporting today on the podcast tomorrow.
MARGARET WARNER: So, don’t forget, you can join us for a new podcast every day this week on the Online NewsHour, and our special coverage from Pakistan, a Pakistan week, will be seen on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and here online, all next week starting on Labor Day. I’m Margaret Warner.
SIMON MARKS: And I’m Simon Marks. Good-bye from Islamabad.