Moment of Introspection by MOHD. ZEYAUL HAQUE (JULY 05, 2007)

At the time of writing this piece 1,200 students, teachers and assorted anti-government activists have been flushed out of Islamabad’s huge Lal Masjid by the Pakistani military. The whole world is looking at all this in amazement. The Muslim world is aghast. Military operations to get all the occupants out of the mosque are on.

This is one of the worst situations of break down of law and order triggered by a religious-minded group recklessly using a religious sanctuary. Muslim governments are always reluctant to use decisive force against armed people hiding themselves in a place of worship. After initial skirmishes in which the armed activists are able to shoot down a few security persons (and some bystanders) people holed up in such places are emboldened and become more reckless, while government forces feel humiliated and get determined no longer to use force in moderation. In Pakistan that moment has come after the initial rebel success.

Among the 1,200 people nabbed by the security forces is said to be a mullah who was caught trying to escape in a burqa (women’s veil). He is said to be an important leader of the rebels. This situation reminds one of the violent intrusion in the Haram Sharif at Makkah. Those Iranian revolutionists had to be eliminated by the Saudi government using great force right inside the Haram Sharif where violence is prohibited. It must have been an agonising decision for the Saudis. Killing them would have been improper, but leaving them to create havoc would have been a greater disaster. The Saudis chose the lesser evil.

Another similar episode was the storming of the most sacred shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar, Punjab, by the Indian army. Many people, including the rebel leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, died in the operation, and the shrine, the Golden Temple was partially destroyed. This led to a long period of Sikh insurgency and the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her own Sikh body guard. A devastating anti-Sikh riot followed within hours and spread to most of North India. Pakistan, too, can face such a civil war-like situation in the aftermath of the military operation at the Lal Masjid. Fortunately, so far the Pakistan army has not been using extraordinary force.

Just imagine what would have happened if such a situation emerged in Egypt, Syria, Algeria or Tajikistan. President Hosni Mubarak and President Islam Karimov are notorious for excessive use of force against Islamists. However, they would have controlled the situation much more quickly, without counting casualties. To his credit, General Musharraf is far less brutal. In fact, in this regard he is more like a democratic leader.

This brings us to the issue that is agitating the Muslim mind across the entire Islamic world. For quite a few years now it has been debated by ulema and Muslim intellectuals whether violent resistance against the government of one’s own country is justifiable in Islam. This is a great conundrum that has troubled the Muslim mind since the days of Karbala. Even the holy prophet’s (peace be upon him) family, his companions and the second generation of Muslims were divided over the issue. This great schism lies at the heart of Islam even today, dividing Shias and Sunnis.

The current understanding is that violent resistance against the government of one’s own country is not justifiable as it kills fellow countrymen and fellow Muslims rather than anyone else. In every operation if five people from government side (politicians, bureaucrats, army and police personnel) are killed, ten might be killed on the rebel side. Caught between the militant and the military, common people are always the worst sufferers and bear the highest casualties. Such militant groups within Muslim countries, more often than not, style themselves as Islamists.

These violent Islamists believe that none of the 57 or so Muslim countries are truly Islamic and their rulers are renegades. Because they cannot be driven out peacefully, so goes the Islamist argument, they must be driven out by force. This gives the governments the alibi to crack down on them with brutal force. This is a pattern that, sadly, continues from the days of Karbala. Violent opposition has always been crushed with more violent force by the Muslim state.

With the Lal Masjid face-off threatening to unleash a wider unrest in Pakistan the debate among Muslims over the justification and advisability of violent struggle against the government of one’s country is bound to intensify. Past Islamic thinkers like Rashid Rida and present thinkers like Ali Mazrui have been convinced that peaceful transfer of power characteristic of democracies is the ideal, and democratic procedures are compatible with Islam. In a democracy both government and opposition refrain from using force against each other.

One of the oldest Islamist groups, the Ikhwan-al-Muslimeen of Egypt, publicly renounced violence against the state at the turn of the century saying such violent struggles had deeply harmed Egypt, divided the society, destroyed human (Muslim) lives and energy and wasted precious time. Thus they foreswore violent struggle against their own state.

It is time for all Muslim societies to learn to rule and oppose strictly within a legally sanctioned, peaceful, democratic format. The days of use of force by government and opposition against each other are over.

Mohd. Zeyaul Haque


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