War of words — Rafia Zakaria

In the past year, Islamabad has been unable to come up with a coherent narrative that clearly defines who exactly the Islamist enemy is and why Pakistani citizens must commit to fighting it

One year ago, on July 3, 2007 an eight day standoff began between security forces stationed outside the Red Mosque and militants holed up inside. Courtesy of the twenty-four hour news cycle, itself a new arrival in the Pakistani television repertoire, people around the country became witnesses to the storming of the compound, home to the notorious Jamia Hafsa.

In a lurid sequence, images of holed up militants, defiant burqa-clad women dominated television screens to be followed by scenes of surrender and ultimately the tragically hilarious botched escape attempt by one of the mosque’s leaders Maulana Abdul Aziz.

Since the bombardment of the compound eight days after the siege began, the mosque has been re-opened and has become the centre of reverent homage from people all around the country. According to news reports, bullet ridden paintings still hang in the mosque compound and a hand written script in the hand of Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi are central attractions of awe-struck visitors many of whom even adorn their children in red caps to pay homage to the militants slain at the hands of security forces.

This iconisation of the Red Mosque observed in the deference afforded to the site may well be the most overt symbol of the stratification of Pakistani politics into two disparate and opposing brands.

On the one hand is mainstream politics represented by the major parties, committed largely to the themes of democratic governance however poorly construed. These include the parties of the flailing ruling coalition as well as those currently in the opposition and also the Islamist parties which have a history of participating in the democratic process. While disagreeing on major issues, these parties remain at least nominally committed to retaining Pakistan’s identity as a democratic state and are not hesitant to manufacture opportunistic alliances with foreign powers to ensure the longevity of their own regimes. This brand of politics is notably represented by a coterie of business and feudal elites who based on name recognition and massive fortunes are able to ensure a piece of the pie regardless of the administration.

The Red Mosque debacle proclaimed the presence of another brand of politics quite separate from the elite consociationalism discussed above. Committed to a militant Islamist agenda that denounces the existence of corruption in governance and makes overt attempts to curb the spread of moral profligacy through daredevil acts of moral vigilantism, this new brand of politics is more populist, more rhetorically appealing and unconstrained, unlike its opponents, by the pressures of appearing democratic.

The popularity of this new brand of politics, distinct from the Islamist politics of old, is testified to not simply by the reverent adulation of the Red Mosque site but also the continuing success of the Taliban insurgency which is spreading its wings from the backwaters of FATA into cities like Peshawar.

With the explicit appropriation of avenging the Red Mosque into their political agenda, the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan has become the frontline group representing this new form of politics in Pakistan. Distinguishing itself from the elite old-boy cronyism of parliamentary politics, this new brand of politics is proving more adept at selling itself to a public that seems to be disenchanted with the possibility of democratic politics ever delivering the rule of law or providing any real access to democratic decision making.

The question of which brand of politics the band of elite-dominated opportunists in Islamabad or the would-be Islamist revolutionaries in FATA get to define the place of the Red Mosque incident in the minds of Pakistanis depends on who is better able to weave into their larger political agenda.

In the past year, Islamabad has been unable to come up with a coherent narrative that clearly defines who exactly the Islamist enemy is and why Pakistani citizens must commit to fighting it. Their task of course is complicated by the taint of US support which despite its political inconveniences provides monetary incentives that make ruling Pakistan a lucrative venture for those currently in power.

Caught in this trap Islamabad fits neatly into an Islamist construction of a garish two-faced giant whose greed, hypocrisy and callousness toward the plight of the literally starving Pakistani poor makes public beheadings and forced veiling look like venerable examples of law and order.

The Tehreek-e Taliban has thus been astoundingly successful in making the Red Mosque saga a part of their political narrative and has neatly accommodated it into their characterisation of democratic governance as an excuse for corruption and the Pakistan Armed forces as sold out agents of the United States government.

So convincing is their political tale, and perhaps so fed up is the ordinary Pakistani citizen, that even grotesque acts of intimidation such as forced veiling and public executions have been successfully presented to local populations as promises for restoration of law and order and have failed to initiate public outcry.

A year after Red Mosque, the prognosis for Pakistan appears particularly grim. As Islamabad and the Army play what now seems a carefully rehearsed game of peace deals and onslaughts in FATA, their collective inability to present a convincing political narrative against Islamic extremism bodes ill for a country battling a virulent insurgency that sees few limits to its power and is adept at using moral vigilantism as a means of demonstrating its power.

The contrast between the power of the Taliban to publicly execute alleged criminals before thousands and the ineptitude of a government unable to deliver even the most meagre sustenance to its citizens becomes more marked every day.

While much is being said about the means and ends of the counter-insurgency operations, a look back at the Red Mosque incident and its iconisation as a massacre in the hearts and minds of many in Pakistan should alert the administration of the enormous cost of losing the political war even if it wins the military one.

To truly defeat the new enemy the war of words is as crucial and perhaps even more so than the one fought with weapons.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Source: Daily Times, 5/7/2008

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