Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Mosque Siege in Islamabad

General Musharraf is in trouble in Pakistan, trying to walk the tightrope between American demands and the strong Islamic extremist segment of his population. The most recent troubles are taking place in Islamabad, where a mosque and its attached madrassa are surrounded by Pakistani forces. The mosque was the center for a Taliban-type version of Islam and the students have for some time applied a vigilante justice to the general population of the city:

For the past six months the militants have challenged the Government of President Musharraf by attempting to establish a Taleban-style Sharia system in the capital. Many of the students come from tribal areas of the North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan.

The stand-off intensified when the clerics established Islamic courts and their supporters raided houses, dragging out women who they alleged were involved in prostitution.

The situation came to a head last month when they raided a massage parlour and abducted about half a dozen Chinese women.

Moderate Pakistanis had expressed frustration over General Musharraf's reluctance to take action against the militants.

Government forces claimed that one reason for their inaction was the fear of causing the deaths of dozens of innocent bystanders. More than 3,000 female students, some as young as 5, lived in the seminary and were used as human shields against any threat of the use of force. Leaders of the mosque also threatened to launch suicide attacks.

The siege has indeed already resulted in deaths, and more may die before it is over.

Although most of the students have surrendered, a core group remains within the mosque. That group does not include the "bombastic cleric" of the mosque, Maulana Abdul Aziz who tried to escape clad in a woman's burqa*:

Throughout the day, a steady stream of female students left the mosque grounds, and a burqa-clad Aziz tried to join the exodus, Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani said.

Aziz -- a tall man with a substantial gut -- apparently raised the suspicions of female police officers who were checking the students. He was placed under arrest and has been charged with murder for his role in the Tuesday clash, a day-long shootout between army rangers and Red Mosque militants that claimed at least 12 lives.

The cleric's arrest while wearing a burqa was a jarring sight, and Pakistani television stations showed endless replays of a gray-bearded Aziz being led away from the mosque by shotgun-wielding security forces. In the video, he was still wearing the all-black burqa from the neck down, though he was clutching the outfit's hood in his hand.

"This is totally unexpected. It's also unacceptable," said Misbah Saboohi, a law professor at the International Islamic University who grew up with Aziz.

In fiery speeches to his followers, Aziz had preached a strict separation of men and women with rigid adherence to gender rules that he said are set forth in Islamic law. He once issued a fatwa, or religious edict, against a female government official for publicly hugging a man who was not her husband.

"He himself was doing what he preached people should not do," Saboohi said. "He said that men and women should be separated. And here he's dressing like a woman and mingling with women."

Others were more forgiving. "Everyone has freedom to wear what they'd like," said Siraj-ul-Haq, senior minister in the North-West Frontier Province and a member of a far-right religious party. "If he is wearing pants or shalwar or burqa, it's up to him."

Even awful events have their humorous moments, I guess. They certainly have material for a feminist interpretation.

*All the sources I found call the outfit Aziz wore a burqa. But I don't think burqas have detachable hoods.