Recent events have underscored the power of Islamist groups to pressurise the government in Islamabad. Irfan Husain reports

One theme running through Pakistan’s turbulent history is the series of state retreats before Islamist forces. From 1947 to 2017, it has been one defeat after another for secularism and liberalism.

Vladimir Lenin once told soldiers of the Red Army: ‘When charging with a bayonet, if you find mush, push. But if you find steel, withdraw.’ The forces of Islamic fundamentalism have mostly found mush in their victorious march. The only leader to push back hard was General Ayub Khan, who not only initiated a well-organised family planning programme, but also put an end to child marriage and the practice of triple talaq which allowed a husband to pronounce ‘I divorce you’ three times to end a marriage. Indian Muslim women have suffered under this iniquitous law until recently when, mercifully, the Supreme Court finally put an end to it.

But Ayub Khan’s Family Law Ordinance, passed in 1961, remains a rare victory for secularism. Others included General Musharraf’s termination of separate electorates for minorities when he abolished an earlier law passed by Zia-ul-Haq, yet another military dictator, which had Hindus, Christians and Parsis voting for candidates from their own communities, thereby effectively disenfranchising them, given the huge geographical spread of their constituencies. Musharraf also raised the number of women parliamentarians by enabling parties to nominate female members according to the seats they win.

UNDER SIEGE: the Jamia Hafsa madrassa in the Red Mosque, 11 July 2007
UNDER SIEGE: the Jamia Hafsa madrassa in the Red Mosque, 11 July 2007

Ironically, all these laws were passed by generals, and by fiat. Nevertheless, they are all laws of the land – a smattering of progressive legislation in a benighted nation. When Musharraf staged his coup in 1999, his arrival was met with a quiet sigh of relief from Pakistan’s liberals: here was man who professed to admire Mustafa Kemal Pasha, the founding father of modern, secular Turkey; rumour had it that he enjoyed his whisky, appeared to love his two dogs, and his mother wore a sari.

But one growl from the mullahs that Kemalist secularism had no place in Pakistan was enough to ensure that Musharraf’s Indian immigrant mother never appeared in public again. Nor, indeed, did his dogs. Once Musharraf decided he enjoyed being in power, he backed away from the notion of ‘modern Islam’ that he had espoused in the early days of his presidency.

After 9/11, when he became the darling of the West, he played a double game by running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. By picking and choosing between the ‘good’ Taliban – the ones that mounted attacks in Indian Kashmir and Afghanistan, but spared targets in Pakistan – and the ‘bad’ Taliban – those who blew themselves up together with innocent civilians – Musharraf came under mounting criticism from his American patrons. This selective support was aimed at pushing the military’s political agenda in Afghanistan and Kashmir. But it also served to curry favour with Pakistan’s Islamists. The big losers were Pakistani civilians and security personnel: Pakistan has suffered around 60,000 dead in terrorist attacks since 9/11.

Lenin once told soldiers of the Red Army: ‘When charging with a bayonet, if you find mush, push’

On Musharraf’s watch, we also had the Lal Masjid (or Red Mosque) incident in 2007. Here, female students at the madrassa known as Jamia Hafsa occupied a neighbouring children’s library run by the government. Instead of taking action, Musharraf allowed the situation to drag on while desultory negotiations went on with Abdul and Rashid Aziz, two brothers who ran the religious complex.

Meanwhile, an unknown number of jihadi militants had entered the complex, despite a large police presence. This drama played out in the middle of the country’s capital under the glare of TV cameras as hysterical newscasters highlighted the crisis. The female students, growing bolder due to the government’s inaction, raided video shops and set fire to DVDs. But when they attacked massage parlours operated by Chinese citizens and kidnapped traders, the stage was set for an armed assault on the Lal Masjid complex.

The climax arrived on 11 July, 2007, when army commandos, known as the Special Services Group, led an assault after security personnel came under attack. One hundred and fifty-four people were reported killed, including Rashid Aziz. His brother Abdul was arrested while trying to sneak out wearing his wife’s burqa. Today, he has filed various cases for murder against Musharraf and the government. Had the military dictator taken firm steps the very day a government library was occupied, the crisis would have been defused long before it was allowed to escalate.

Swat, a lovely snow-clad valley in Pakistan’s north-west and Malala Yusufzai’s home, was occupied by the Tehreek-e-Taliban (Pakistan), or TTP, in 2006. Run by Maulana Fazlullah, a charismatic cleric known as Mullah Radio for his popular and inflammatory broadcasts that condemned female education and urged jihad, the TTP signed an agreement with the provincial government that effectively ceded control of the valley to the militant group. Initially welcomed by the locals for their promise of swift justice, in contrast to the judiciary’s lethargic pace, the TTP occupation soon turned into a nightmare. It took a video of a young woman being flogged to outrage the countryand mount pressure on the government to attack. A full-fledged military assault, involving artillery and helicopter gunships, was needed to clear the TTP from the valley.

But perhaps the most abject surrender to the dark forces of fundamentalism came recently, again in Islamabad. The background to the crisis reveals the extent to which Pakistan has regressed over the years: a piece of draft legislation in which the words ‘I solemnly swear’ were replaced by ‘I believe’ in the bill designed for candidates and voters to sign. This related to the country’s draconian blasphemy laws, and bound the candidates to an oath confirming that the Prophet Mohammed was the last prophet, thereby rejecting the Ahmadiyya claim that the 19th century founder of their sect, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was the last messenger of Allah.

More worrying than the government’s lack of spine is the army’s role in the whole affair

This tiny semantic change set off a storm, with the opposition cashing in on the ruling party’s embarrassment. Islamists popped out of the woodwork to castigate the government. But it was a newly minted outfit calling itself the Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool (TLYR)that led the charge. Demanding the resignation of the law minister, they staged a sit-in on the Faizabad Interchange that connects Islamabad to Rawalpindi, a nearby garrison city that is home to thousands of civil servants. By shutting down this key artery, TLYR prevented them – as well as many students – from reaching their work places, schools and colleges in the capital. At least one child died in an ambulance because the route to the hospital was blocked.

DISRUPTION: The TLYR-staged sit-in on the Faizabad Interchange
DISRUPTION: The TLYR-staged sit-in on the Faizabad Interchange

Despite the inconvenience caused to thousands, the government failed to act and the sit-in dragged on for three weeks, accompanied by the usual craven talks, with the TLYR refusing to budge. Finally, a botched police operation was called off after the protests spread to Karachi and other cities. The army and its intelligence service, the ISI, joined the negotiations and an instrument of surrender was duly signed. This agreement, signed by the interior minister and a serving major general among others, stipulatedthat the law minister would resign. Other clauses included the scrutiny of school curricula by members of the TLYR, and even tougher application of the blasphemy laws.

But more worrying than the government’s lack of spine is the army’s role in the whole affair. The agreement concluded with an expression of gratitude for General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the army chief. Earlier, a tweet from the military’s PR outfit, the ISPR, advised the government to ‘handle the Islamabad sit-in peacefully’, and went on to pompously pronounce that ‘violence is not in the national interest’. Earlier, Bajwa had all but refused to send troops to protect the nearby state buildings.

To complete the country’s utter humiliation, news channels carried images of a serving major general handing out envelopes containing a thousand rupees each to the protestors.

Clearly, the Islamist bayonets have been meeting nothing but mush for decades now.

Irfan Husain writes for Dawn, Pakistan’s biggest-selling English-language newspaper, and has also written for many other international publications, including The Economist and TheTimes of India. He is the author of the prize-winning book Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.

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