my first three days in Pakistan, no conversation could go more
than a few minutes without a reference to the crisis at the Lal
Masjid (Red Mosque) compound. I had landed in Islamabad on July
8 and, by then, it seemed clear that government forces would eventually
storm the mosque and the attached women's seminary to end the
confrontation with fundamentalist clerics and their supporters.
assault was finally unleashed as two companions and I drove to
Lahore as part of a lecture tour. During several hours of intense
discussion in the car, they gave me background and details that
explained the real tragedy of the conflict.
news of the final assault came via cell phone we all fell silent,
and we all quietly cried - for those killed and for opportunities
lost, out of our grief and from our fear.
In the Western
news media and even much of the Pakistani press, the story was
framed as crazed radical Islamist forces challenging relatively
restrained government forces. Indeed, the two brothers who ran
the mosque preached an interpretation of Islam that was mostly
reactionary and sometimes violent. None of us in the car - two
Muslims and one Christian, all progressive in theological and
political thought - supported such views.
there was more to the story. Farid
Esack, one of the world's foremost progressive Muslim theologians
who was in Pakistan to teach and lecture, and Junaid
Ahmad, a Pakistani-American activist and law student directing
the lecture series, both pointed out that key social/economic
aspects of the story were being overlooked.
to calls for shariah law under a fundamentalist Islamic state,
Lal Masjid imams Abdur Rashid Ghazi and Mohammed Abdul Aziz critiqued
the corruption of Pakistani political, military and economic elites,
highlighting the living conditions of the millions of Pakistanis
living in poverty. As in most Third-World societies, the inequality
gap here has widened in recent years, as those who find their
place in the U.S.-dominated neoliberal economic project prosper
while most ordinary people suffer, especially the poor.
"We can reject
the jihadist and patriarchal aspects and still recognize that
there is in this fundamentalist philosophy a call for social justice,
a challenge to the power-seeking and greed of elites," said Esack,
the author of Qur'an: Liberation and Pluralism. "When I
spoke with Ghazi, it was clear that was an important part of his
thinking, and it's equally clear that the appeal of this theology
is magnified by the lack of meaningful calls for justice from
other sectors of society."
teaches at Harvard Divinity School and is a former national commissioner
for gender equality in South Africa, had been visiting the mosque
regularly and speaking to Ghazi and others inside until government
forces sealed the area a few days earlier. A native of South Africa
who was active in the struggle against apartheid, Esack spent
much of his childhood in Pakistan at a madarasah, where he was
a classmate of Aziz. Contrary to the media image of Ghazi, the
cleric had a broader agenda and wanted to learn more about how
an Islamic state could be structured to ensure economic equality,
can reject the jihadist and
patriarchal aspects and still recognize
that there is in this fundamentalist
philosophy a call for social justice,
a challenge to the power-seeking
and greed of elites," said Farid Esack,
the author of Qur'an: Liberation and
Pluralism. "When I spoke with
Abdur Rashid Ghazi, it was clear
that was an important part
of his thinking, and it's equally clear
that the appeal of this theology
is magnified by the lack of
meaningful calls for justice
from other sectors of society."
of an inclusive polity influenced by progressive Islamic values
is very different than Ghazi's, of course, but his theology should
not be reduced to a caricature, as it so often was, especially
in the West," Esack said.
that another crucial part of the story involved economics, specifically
land. Press reports focused on the provocative activities of students
and supporters of Lal Masjid members threatening video store owners,
raiding brothels and clashing with police, but an underlying cause
of the conflict was the existence of "unauthorized" mosques.
Many of these mosques and madrasahs had been built without permits
on unused public land in Islamabad. As the city has grown more
crowded and developers eyed that real estate for commercial building,
the government took the risky step of destroying some of those
mosques (though the many non-religious, profit-generating projects
also built without permits remain undisturbed). Clerics protested,
adding to the intensity of the Lal Masjid conflict.
Ahmad agreed that another aspect of the crisis mostly ignored
in the press was the fact that the events played out in Islamabad,
home to the more secular/liberal and privileged elements of the
society. While those liberals might ignore such movements and
conflicts in the outer provinces, many found it offensive that
such an embarrassing incident could happen in the capital, where
the world eventually would pay attention.
about how this is bad for the image of Pakistan, with no comment
about the lives of ordinary Pakistanis and the substance of what
the country is about," Ahmad said. "Instead of talking about these
fundamental questions of justice, many people wanted to see the
incident ended to avoid further tarnishing of the country's image.
It's like the obsession the United States has with simply changing
its image in the Muslim world rather than recognizing the injustice
of its policies."
In the construction
of that image, the stories of the reality of the lives of people
at Lal Masjid are typically untold. As the crisis unfolded and
some of the madrasah students left the compound, the government
gave them some money and told them to go home.
is, many had no homes to go to," Ahmad said. "Whatever the reactionary
theology of Lal Masjid, it provided a place for many who were
dispossessed or from poor families. If the economy ignores people
and the state provides nothing, where will they go?"
My trip to
Pakistan had been set months in advance; my presence there during
this crisis was coincidence. Throughout my stay, as I listened
to the discussion about the conflict, I realized how much less
I could have understood the events if I had been in the United
States, even though I would have been reading the international
press on the web. The complexity of such stories so rarely makes
it into print, and the humanity of the people demonized drops
out all too easily.
of these mosques and
madrasahs had been built without
permits on unused public land
in Islamabad. As the city has
grown more crowded and
developers eyed that real estate
for commercial building,
the government took the risky step
of destroying some of those
mosques (though the many
projects also built without
permits remain undisturbed).
Clerics protested, adding to the
intensity of the Lal Masjid conflict.
As we drove
in silence, I thought of how easy it is from positions of safety
and comfort to denounce fundamentalism, how often I have done
just that. But who are we targeting when we make such statements?
I have no trouble denouncing the bin Ladens and al-Zawahiris,
or the Bushs and Robertsons, and critiquing their twisted worldview.
But what of the ordinary people struggling against the elites
who ignore the cries of the suffering? When those people take
up a fundamentalist theology that we Western left/progressives
reject, must we not highlight the inequality we also say we oppose?
some have asked him what he hoped to gain by going to Lal Masjid
and talking with someone like Ghazi, but he has no doubts about
the value and appropriateness of his visits there.
abandon engagement and dialogue with those who hold these beliefs,
we are abandoning hope. My goal is not to wall myself off from
other Muslims, but to search for authentic connections, even across
these gaps. Is that not how we can heal the world, and ourselves?"
he said. "It is precisely when we start to think of some of us
as 'chosen' and others as 'frozen' that we happily become willing
to defrost them with our bombs."
in the car, as we absorbed the news that the troops had cleared
the mosque and that Ghazi and dozens of others were dead, I felt
angry at people like Ghazi and at the same time a deep sorrow
for his death. I felt a much deeper rage at Pakistan's military
president, Pervez Musharraf, and the U.S. leaders who support
him. And I felt a kind of fear for the Muslim fundamentalism that
unleashes such violent forces, which always reminds me of the
equally frightening Christian fundamentalist theology circulating
in the United States.
between a deep sense of despair and an equally deep sense of hope.
Once the confrontation was set in motion, perhaps the people inside
the mosque and the soldiers killed were doomed. But in the car
in that moment, I could feel hope that the work of people like
Esack and Ahmad was setting in motion other forces. Mostly I was
grateful to be in their company to share the grief. In such moments,
that connection is perhaps the most human and the most hopeful
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas
at Austin and a member of the board of the Third
Coast Activist Resource Center. He is the author of The
Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and
of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity. He can
be reached at email@example.com.