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Pakistan: The Rule of the Taliban

She kidnaps and imprisons Pakistani citizens in the name of Islamic morality. She has the police beaten up and holds them prisoner. And with her husband, the mullah of the Red Mosque - the oldest mosque in Islamabad - she manages to get al-Qaeda members freed from prison: today in Pakistan, where the influence of the Taliban, that had been confined before now to the tribal regions of the North, continues to spread, it's a woman, an Islamist virago, who openly defies the power of President-General Musharraf, author of the 1999 coup d'Etat and today holder of the atomic bomb ...

Ume Hassan, the headmistress of the Hafsa madrassa, the biggest Koranic school for girls in Pakistan, is a long crabby woman whose face is ravaged by great grey circles under her eyes. She launches her diatribes neither from the mountains that separate Afghanistan from Pakistan, nor even from Peshawar, the city conquered by the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), the Islamist party that brings together six religious organizations. No, it's from the capital, Islamabad, this Pakistani Washington with broad avenues lined with trees and embassies, that Ume Hassan spits out her hatred of Musharraf and of Pakistan's loose morals as she stands in front of a screen of a thousand black ghosts raising their fists. She launches punitive expeditions, unleashes her burqa brigades against CD sellers, then burns the CDs in the courtyard of her school. Ume Hassan vociferates in her shrill voice and the president-general obeys! Ume Hassan's husband, the Maulana Abdul Aziz, is sought by the police. Yet, every Friday, he pronounces his sermons from the sulfurous Red Mosque, sermons in which he threatens the government, threaten to organize suicide bombings or to spray acid on unveiled female university students. He doesn't forget bin Laden - to whom he sent a message of condolence on his father's death - in his prayers.

From time to time, when the 8,000 male and female students at the Red Mosque go too far, the religious complex is encircled by police. Never for long. Shortly after the London attacks in July 2005, Ume Hassan's school for girls was searched. At the time, the students violently defended themselves against the police intrusion. For four months, they have been occupying a public children's library to protest the demolition of several Islamabad mosques, all built illegally on public land. Not only has the government failed to expel them, but it ended up giving in to their demands, and the minister of religious affairs must proceed to rebuild one of the destroyed mosques!

For a week, police have been trying to recover three women and a baby, whom these women students kidnapped. The main hostage, "Aunt Shamim," had been accused by these madwomen of God of being a madam. It took the Red Mosque students' kidnapping of four policemen to bring on the Mosque's encirclement by paramilitary forces. The forces ended up withdrawing when the crisis was resolved: the government agreed to free some students and a former member of the Pakistani secret services linked to al-Qaeda. Disconcerting, especially given the very unstable regional context, this government laxity has become the symbol of Musharraf's weakness and of the Talibanization of minds and mores in Pakistan.

Ume Hassan received us grudgingly at her madrassa. She does not like non-Muslim journalists. On the school's patio, there reigns a beehive atmosphere, one of an overcrowded gynaeceum. At least a thousand girls, their heads covered with colored veils, go about their occupations, take naps, eat lunch, but mostly study in small groups. The youngest, ages 4 to 7, chant from the Koran as they shake their heads forward and back. Others comment on the Hadiths and recite their Islamic catechism. "We have finally convinced our Taliban friends that the Islamization of mores happens through women's education. An educated girl is an Islamicized family. You will see, when they return to power, they won't burn down any girls' schools," the headmistress argues. In Afghanistan, the facts contradict her: the burning of schools has started again in the regions where the Taliban win back terrain.

Ume Hassan preaches an Islamic feminism confined to the home and school. And what if, after all, this free Islamic education could become the vector for the emancipation of women of modest means in Pakistan? After having visited those tribal zones where no family dares send its daughter to school for fear of reprisals, and after meeting members of NGOs like "Smile Again" who take care of horribly mutilated women, victims of sulfuric acid attacks, one would like to believe it. And what does it matter, after all, that the exams only cover religious matters? Doesn't this school have the merit of teaching the poorest girls in Pakistan how to read and write?

Yet in this touching tableau of Koranic phalanstery, there are signals that arouse suspicion. The picture of a Kalashnikov on a wall. A closet full of black burqas. And men of determined air armed with AK-27s in the school's back yard. There is the mechanical exaltation of Mona, a young student of fifteen who talks to me about the sole object of her adolescent preoccupations: "Isn't He magnificent? And the gentleness of the first ray of light He makes appear at dawn, and the intoxicating perfumes of the flowers He has created! I could talk to you about my God all day long, like a woman who always finds some subterfuge in order to evoke the object of her love." Another young girl who takes us on a tour of the occupied library congratulates herself that almost no fathers withdrew their daughters from the madrassa since the contest of strength between the school and the government began. Is she afraid? "What of?" she asks. "The government has bombs. We have our bodies!"

The dream dissipates, but the not the malaise that seizes visitors as soon as they cross the threshold of this school-prison that the girls may leave only to return to their families that reclaim them. It's clear: in the mind of the Red Mosque mullah, these child-soldiers are weapons in his fundamentalist propaganda. As in that school in the city of Tank, in Waziristan, where twenty-one children were kidnapped by the Taliban last March to become kamikazes ... So then why has Musharraf resigned in the face of the ravings of this violent sect? No doubt because he shrinks from the prospect of the massacre of little girls that an assault could turn into. But above all because he has never been defied to this extent since the coup d'etat that brought him to power in October 1999. So then, the Red Mosque in the heart of Islamabad has become a sanctuary for terrorists infiltrated by the Pakistani secret services, the allegiance of which is not very clear.

"Musharraf has never been so weak before," explains Ahmed Rashid, one of Pakistan's best specialists. "He has the power neither to master the galloping Talibanization of Pakistan, nor to democratize the country's institutions. From military decision-making bodies to the Islamists, every one is turning their back on him."

It's the firing of the Supreme Court president, Judge Iftikhar Chaudhry, first magistrate of the country, accused of "misconduct and abuse of authority," that has set the country on fire against Musharraf. While elections were approaching, the president wanted to replace the judge with a more malleable one who would not question his intention of running for the presidency next November while remaining head of the Army - which is forbidden by the Constitution. Iftikhar Chaudhry had the courage to stand up to the president: this not very charismatic man has consequently become a symbol of opposition to the government. And from Peshawar to Karachi, where forty-one people have been killed in street fighting, the demonstrations have brought all parties together, even those that had been allied to the president-general.

"Musharraf was my student and my subordinate," explains Hamid Gul, former head of the Pakistani secret services. "But today he is infantilizing the nation. He must abandon his uniform!" The former boss of Pakistani spies, whom many today still suspect of helping bin Laden, wears little, well-waxed moustaches that give him the appearance of a thin Hercule Poirot. He also explains to us with satisfied conviction that the West should give up, that the victory of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is a certainty. "And I know what I'm talking about; I was the one who trained them to fight the Soviets!" In this period of high turbulence, the Red Mosque fundamentalists could prove useful to Musharraf, which explains the government's paralysis in the face of the provocations offered by Ume Hassan's burqa brigades. The regime also wants to show the Americans - who are underwriting the Pakistani army to the tune of millions of dollars - that the Islamist danger is truly there and that they must continue to support the President-General.

But how much longer will the United States support Musharraf if he continues to demonstrate his weakness opposite the fundamentalists? The US is already encouraging Musharraf to ally with ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's party the PPP, and Bhutto could soon return from exile. "The Americans are not dupes," answers Christophe Jaffrelot, Director of the Center for International Studies and Research (CERI) and a Pakistan specialist. "They've understood Musharraf's double game, but as long as he hands them over the remains of an al-Qaeda number three from time to time, they'll support him. All the more so as they still hope Musharraf will finally hand bin Laden over to them. That will never happen, even if he could do it, because bin Laden is Musharref's chief trump. And then, if Bush dropped Musharraf now, that would mean admitting that he had erred in his war against terrorism." But by protecting fanatics like those at the Red Mosque, Musharraf has gone too far in his duplicity.

Today, the terrorists and the Taliban he has protected for reasons of domestic policy are no longer content to go fight in Afghanistan and Kashmir, but are committing more and more attacks on Pakistani soil. In Peshawar, the Maulana Muhammad Yusuf Qureshi, sheikh of the oldest mosque in the city, has offered a million dollars to anyone who assassinates the Danish cartoonist who authored the controversial caricatures of the Prophet. He asserts to the "Nouvel Observateur" that he could also launch "Islamic propaganda actions by deeds" to support the Red Mosque if Musharraf does not decide to apply sharia.

In Lahore, the most liberal of Pakistani cities, some maulanas call on the elites of the wealthy bourgeoisie to bring their wives to heel, by beating them, if necessary. A development that appalls Jamila, a middle-class woman from Lahore: "I'm afraid today. We're no longer sheltered from a fanatic who decides to spray us with acid at a red light because he's decided women mustn't drive any more." As A. H. Nayyar, a physician and respected pacifist in Pakistan explains, "the fundamentalist wave is so strong that the Red Mosque extremists could claim the title of Commander of Believers and enjoy widespread support. If the military do not learn their lessons from their past mistakes when they played sorcerer's apprentice with religious fanatics, then I'm afraid for this country."

Sara Daniel

Photos: Bertrand Meunier, Tendance Floue.

Translation: Leslie Thatcher.

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About Sara Daniel

Portrait of Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel, a French journalist, war correspondent, expert on the Middle East.
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