March Issue 2003

By | Editorial | Opinion | Published 19 years ago

The arrest in Rawalpindi of a key Al-Qaeda operative, Khalid Mohammed Shaikh, reportedly from the house of a Jamaat-i-Islami member’s residence, has opened up a Pandora’s box for the Pakistan government.

It lends credence to the oft-repeated assertion in western circles that Osama bin Laden and his men have been provided sanctuary by their erstwhile supporters in Pakistan, much to the embarrassment of General Musharraf, who has consistently denied the charge.

This is the third incident in which Al-Qaeda operatives have been found in the ‘protective custody’ of the Jamaat, a key component of the five-party religious alliance, the MMA, which is in power in two of Pakistan’s four provinces.

Shaikh’s arrest and subsequent hand-over to the US for interrogation could not have taken place at a more critical moment. On the one hand, the military-backed government was locked in a battle with the opposition, led by the MMA, over the Legal Framework Order that has paralysed the parliament. On the other, it was wrestling with the question of which way to vote on a Security Council resolution justifying the United States’ use of force to oust Saddam Hussein.

A ‘no’ would have earned the wrath of the US, but a ‘yes’ would have generated a severe backlash at home, and the MMA could use this anti-US sentiment to drum up support against Musharraf. Clearly the government is caught between a rock and a hard place, and its awkwardness is beginning to show. It kept waffling on the question of which way they planned to vote, and the issue was not even thrown open for debate in the National Assembly. Meanwhile, the opposition is making its views known vociferously on the streets of Pakistan.

The comrades-in-arms of the US in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, have now moved to the other side of the fence, articulating the anti-US sentiment that has swept the world in the wake of the proposed war against Iraq. Meanwhile, secular parties watch from the sidelines (or wait in the wings — like the PPP, whose chairperson has even forbidden party members to demonstrate against the US, just in case…).

It is the MMA that is protesting the loudest against a vote in favour of Bush — and against the presence of FBI operatives in the country, and the handing over of locals for interrogation to the US, and the fingerprinting of Pakistanis in the US. The MMA has learnt the art of winning elections — and extending its sphere of influence.

Instead of being on the defensive, post-Khalid Shaikh’s arrest, the Jamaat is on the offensive. The government meanwhile, is in a “state of denial” — and disarray. Classic was the news of the arrest of Osama’s sons — it emanated from the Baloch interior minister’s office and was promptly denied by the federal interior and information ministers’ offices.

The MMA is on the warpath. And what’s more it looks like the alliance is on the way to fashioning their own Islamic state — no questions asked. After raiding cinema houses, pulling down hoardings and posters, burning video cassettes, harassing musicians, banning music in public transport and the display of musical instruments in music shops, the MMA proposes to go one step further and introduce the recommendations of the Islamic Ideology Council.

According to these recommendations, coeducation will be phased out, female patients will only be treated by female doctors, family planning as a state policy will be abolished, women will not be allowed to use cosmetics, donning the veil will be mandatory — the list runs on.And there is not even a murmur of protest from the progressives in the political ranks.

It is ironic that the upholders of such retrogressive views have stolen a march over the country’s progressive element — and are leading the anti-US cry against war in Iraq.

Rehana Hakim is one of the core team of journalists that helped start Newsline. She has been the editor-in-chief since 1996.