On July 10, 2007, Pakistani soldiers stormed the Red Mosque complex of Islamabad in an assault that killed some two hundred people, thus ending months of aggressive and well-publicized provocations by the students and teachers of its men’s and women’s seminaries. Instead of issuing the Pakistani state a challenge, however, the assorted kidnappings and armed incursions carried out by residents of the Red Mosque, not to mention the threat of suicide bombings, had presented it with a symbolic confrontation in the media. Indeed, the mosque’s religious radicalism in the carefully controlled environment of the capital compromised Pakistan’s security far less than the secular struggle for autonomy in its restive province of Balochistan did. The entire incident, therefore, exhibited an exemplary character rather than representing a problem of national security, such that Pakistani opinion both for and against the army’s action continues even now to be dominated by rumors that the whole crisis was staged either by the government or by the militants themselves.
But if the mosque challenged Pakistan’s government by its performance of impunity, in the glare of media attention, before the law-and-order image that gave its military rulers their legitimacy, the violent resolution of this confrontation by Pakistan’s army was equally theatrical in nature. It was no accident that this military resolution had the code name Operation Silence, implying its aim to muzzle rather than destroy dissent. So the army’s siege of the Red Mosque, and the negotiated settlement that Pakistani mediators had nearly reached with its leaders, were also broken off for demonstrative reasons. Possibly encouraged by the United States, General Pervez Musharraf seems to have decided that these men and women needed to be taught a lesson, not for the sake of a principle but in order to secure his own reputation as someone who did not cut deals with terrorists. In seeming to break with the long-established policy of tightening and loosening the government’s control of militant outfits for reasons of state, Musharraf was capitulating to the American policy of refusing to deal with these groups, a move that was backed by many in Pakistan’s liberal establishment, who have a long history of supporting military rule to safeguard their social privileges against the demands of Muslims and Marxists alike.
Searching for a regional precedent to Operation Silence, the Indian press immediately drew comparisons between the Red Mosque and the Golden Temple, which was attacked on Indira Gandhi’s orders during Operation Bluestar in 1984. Occupied by armed divines and students demanding Sikh autonomy, this shrine was besieged by Indian troops and was eventually stormed, causing the loss of over four hundred lives. Shortly thereafter, Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, some four thousand Sikhs were massacred in Delhi, and the Sikh-dominated province of Punjab was given over to an insurgency that lasted a decade and sent many thousands to their deaths. But while Operation Silence certainly follows the precedent of Operation Bluestar, it also suffers in the comparison. Similarly, the Red Mosque episode suffers in comparison with the storming of Mecca’s Great Mosque by French-backed Saudi troops in 1979, which evicted the armed supporters of a self-proclaimed messiah and killed hundreds. In a videotape released on September 20, Osama bin Laden added another precedent to Pakistan’s attack on the Red Mosque, which he compared to the destruction of the Babri Masjid by Hindu militants in 1992, an event that was preceded and followed by widespread riots and massacres in many parts of India. Unlike its more illustrious predecessors, including Srinagar’s Charar-e Sharif shrine and Hazratbal mosque, which were besieged by Indian troops after being occupied by militants in 1995 and 1996, respectively, the Red Mosque is not a particularly sacred site, and rather than demanding a separate state or proclaiming a messiah, its defenders wanted only to “clean up” society in the manner of NGOs, citizens’ groups, and other do-gooders.
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