The showdown between security forces and militants, holding out in the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in Islamabad, could not have come at a worse time for President Pervez Musharraf.
The gun battle in the heart of the Pakistani capital Tuesday, which left 16 dead, comes as the president reels from a series of crises: a judicial challenge to his continuing rule, an unprecedented unified political opposition movement, a hostile popular media, and floods along the southern coast that have displaced over 200,000 people since last week.
Yet the continuing crisis and its attendant media coverage also left commentators ambivalent as to whether Pakistan's secular liberals or religious extremists will emerge emboldened from the government crackdown.
"How this will play out in the months to come is subject to the grand ending of this episode," says Syed Talat Hussain, a journalist and commentator. "If religious parties see dead bodies and blood on their television screens, they will take a hard stand. If this is somehow negotiated peacefully, the extremists will lose out."
The standoff appeared to be heading towards a peaceful conclusion after the head imam, Maulana Abdul Aziz Ghazi, was arrested as he tried to escape the mosque dressed in a burqa late Wednesday evening. When the Monitor went to press on Wednesday, the remaining few hundred extremists in Lal Masjid were still negotiating terms with the government through intermediaries and appeared to be willing to settle the standoff without further violence.
The violence in Lal Masjid that finally burst open this week has festered for months in an acrid and delicate political environment.
The mosque and adjacent women's madrassah, Jamia Hafsa, have been the base for some five thousand religious students who have operated under the leadership of two brothers, Ghazi Abdul Rashid and Maulana Aziz. Their aim: to "Islamize" the Pakistani capital under their interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law, and then carry the movement to the rest of the country.
Their campaign had involved vigilante moral policing operations like busting prostitution rings, raiding video stores, burning pornographic and other "immoral" media, and establishing a symbolic sharia court in the mosque. But when the "Lal Masjid Brigade" kidnapped half a dozen Chinese nationals from a massage parlor in an upscale neighborhood of Islamabad, "the government drew a red line," says Rasul Baksh Rais, a political scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
Special army forces surrounded the mosque compound this week, and a few students finally launched an offensive with high-grade military weapons, instead of the wooden poles they had wielded in public thus far. "The government managed to reach clarity by accident," says Mr. Hussain. "The president didn't have this on his agenda right now, but finally his hand was forced."
While it had avoided confrontation until now, the government did send several envoys to the isolated mosque in the hope of reaching a settlement. Religious leaders, the minister of religious affairs, the Saudi ambassador, and even the imam of Mecca's most sacred mosque were sent to engage the Lal Masjid clerics. But every time the pressure was ratcheted up, the brothers threatened jihad against the regime, and the government seemed to back down.
"This government has survived by talking out of both edges of its mouth – keeping multiple options open. It's been their strategy," says Hussain.
This may be a result, some observers say, of the uncertain environment the government operates in. A political opposition that smells blood has been ready to pounce on the slightest mistake the president makes. Opposition parties have been criticizing the government's inaction for months, but Musharraf has been much more trepid.
Only last week, Musharraf attempted to strike a deal with the media. During a National Media Workshop, Musharraf said the government would take action against Lal Masjid only if the media guaranteed not to show any dead bodies.
Since violence broke out – and TV cameras were present – the criticism has begun. Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the chief of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or the United Action Front, a coalition of Islamic parties, criticized the government for its "ill-conceived act, which will bring disaster and anarchy to the country."
"The government had been very careful not to open a religious front," says Rais. At the same time, he concedes, the government "has done pretty well in isolating the Lal Masjid clerics from all sides." Despite the growing tensions between the religious right and Musharraf, Lal Masjid clerics were unable to garner any support even from the religious camp.
Very early on in their campaign, they were ejected by Wafaq-ul-Madaris, the central board of madrassahs in Pakistan. The Islamic Ideology Council, the Islamic wing of the Pakistani legislature, also criticized them heavily.
But while Pakistanis were, for the most part, critical of the Lal Masjid Brigade's tactics of intimidation, harassment, and kidnapping, few in the country were ready to stand behind the brigade's obvious opponents: prostitution and pornography. Many agreed that something needed to be done about the lax Islamic moral standards in the increasingly cosmopolitan capital city.
"Many people in Pakistan feel as though the cultural changes taking place around them in the name of 'enlightened moderation' are not a true representation of their ethos," says Khalid Rahman, the director general of the Institute for Policy Studies in Islamabad. "After all, we have to recognize that people did start approaching the Lal Masjid with complaints about their neighborhoods – things they found painful to witness."