ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- For 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.
The final 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.
When the 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.
But 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.
In addition 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."
Esack, who 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 madarasa, 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, Esack said.
"My vision 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.
Ahmad emphasized 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 madrasas 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.
Esack and 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.
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"We hear 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 madrasa students left the compound, the government gave them some money and told them to go home.
"The problem 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.
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?
Esack said 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.
"When we 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."
That moment 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.
I bounced 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 of endeavors.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center . His latest book is Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007). Jensen is also the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html.