02 April 2007

Vigilantes assert themselves in Islamabad

According to Pakistan's leading English-language daily newspaper, the country is undergoing "creeping Talibanisation", a phenomenon that is no longer confined to outlying, semi-autonomous regions like Waziristan, but has reached Islamabad.

A group of female religious school students has taken over a children's library located near their school, the Hafsa Madrasa, and the government has failed to respond. Emboldened, the has annexed the library. Further, vigilante groups linked to a pro-militant mosque called Lal Masjid (which has connections to the Hafsa Madrasa) have started threatening shopkeepers selling audio-visual material. The vigilantes are apparently patrolling the area around the mosque, batons in hand, while the authorities are reluctant to restore the government's writ over the federal capital, fearing that a confrontation may get out of hand (Dawn).

After the coup d'état which brought him to power, President Pervez Musharraf, desperate to give his regime a degree of legitimacy, decided to stifle the popular opposition (Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto's parties), and to artificially strengthen the Islamist parties. Before him, the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, helped create the Taliban. Before that, President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, another military strongman, cloaked himself in religious populism. Pakistan is still reaping the harvest, not to mention Afghanistan.

Yet that's not the whole story. Not all religious parties are alike. Under Begum Khaleda Zia, Bangladeshi religious parties were sometimes in government as coalition members, yet, as far as I know, no vigilante groups wandered around Dhaka telling video stores to shut down.

Perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that, while the Bangladeshi Islamist parties, such as Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, were members of a democratically elected coalition government, working in partnership with one of the most popular parties in the country, the Pakistani Islamist parties are pawns in Musharraf's hands. As such, there is little to keep them away from fanaticism. That, in turn, may legitimise fanaticism among unaffiliated groups such as the Lal Masjid gangs.

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