Red Mosque in Rebellion

by Daniel Pipes  

Imagine that an Islamist central command exists — and that you are its chief strategist, with a mandate to spread full application of Shariah, or Islamic law, through all means available, with the ultimate goal of a worldwide caliphate. What advice would you offer your comrades in the aftermath of the eight-day Red Mosque rebellion in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan?

Probably, you would review the past six decades of Islamist efforts and conclude that you have three main options: overthrowing the government, working through the system, or a combination of the two.

Islamists can use several catalysts to seize power. (I draw here on "Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop: How Inevitable is an Islamist Future?" by Cameron Brown.)

  • Revolution, meaning a wide-scale social revolt: Successful only in Iran, in 1978–79, because it requires special circumstances.
  • Coup d'état: Successful only in Sudan, in 1989, because rulers generally know how to protect themselves.
  • Civil war: Successful only in Afghanistan, in 1996, because dominant, cruel states generally put down insurrections (as in Algeria, Egypt, and Syria).
  • Terrorism: Never successful, nor is it ever likely to be. It can cause huge damage, but without changing regimes. Can one really imagine a people raising the white flag and succumbing to terrorist threats? This did not happen after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in Egypt in 1981, or after the attacks of September 11, 2001, in America, or even after the Madrid bombings of 2004.

A clever strategist should conclude from this survey that overthrowing the government rarely leads to victory. In contrast, recent events show that working through the system offers better odds — note the Islamist electoral successes in Algeria (1992), Bangladesh (2001), Turkey (2002), and Iraq (2005). But working within the system, these cases also suggest, has its limitations. Best is a combination of softening up the enemy through lawful means, then seizing power. The Palestinian Authority (2006) offers a case of this one-two punch succeeding, with Hamas winning the elections, then staging an insurrection. Another, quite different example of this combination just occurred in Pakistan.

The vast Red Mosque complex, also known as the Lal Masjid, Pakistan's ruling institutions, boasts long-standing connections to the regime's elite, and includes huge male and female madrassas. But, turning on its benefactors, Kalashnikov-toting burqa-clad students confronted the police in January 2007 to prevent them from demolishing an illegally constructed building.

In April, the mega-mosque's deputy imam, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, announced the imposition of Shariah "in the areas in our control" and established an Islamic court that issued decrees and judgments, rivaling those of the government.

The mosque then sent some of its thousands of madrassa students to serve as a morals police force in Islamabad, to enforce a Taliban-style regime locally with the ultimate goal of spreading it countrywide. Students closed barbershops, occupied a children's library, pillaged music and video stores, attacked alleged brothels and tortured the alleged madams. They even kidnapped police officers.

The Red Mosque leadership threatened suicide bombings if the government of Pervez Musharraf attempted to rein in its bid for quasi-sovereignty. Security forces duly stayed away. The six-month standoff culminated on July 3, when students from the mosque, some masked and armed, rushed a police checkpoint, ransacked nearby government ministries, and set cars on fire, leaving 16 dead.

This confrontation with the government aimed at nothing less than overthrowing it, the mosque's deputy imam proclaimed on July 7: "We have firm belief in God that our blood will lead to a[n Islamic] revolution." Threatened, the government attacked the mega-mosque early on July 10. The 36-hour raid turned up a stockpiled arsenal of suicide vests, machine guns, gasoline bombs, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, anti-tank mines — and letters of instruction from Al-Qaeda's leadership.

Mr. Musharraf termed the madrassa "a fortress for war." In all, the revolt directly caused more than 100 deaths.

Mosques have been used as places for inciting violence, planning operations, and storing weapons, but deploying one as a base to overthrow the government creates a precedent. The Red Mosque model offers Islamists a bold tactic, one they likely will try again, especially if the recent episode, which has shaken the country, succeeds in pushing Mr. Musharraf out of office.

Our imaginary Islamist strategist, in short, can now deploy another tactic to attain power.

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