KARACHI - Low-profile government-sponsored
rallies to condemn publication of cartoons
featuring the Prophet Mohammed have swiftly
escalated into a campaign directed against
Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf.
In this respect, the Shah-i-Mustafa (in
respect of the Prophet Mohammed) rallies have
already turned into a nascent Tehrik-i-
Nizam-i-Mustafa movement -
that is, to enforce Prophet Mohammed's way of
life, or sharia law, on to society.
Hussain Ahmed, leader of the six-party opposition
religious grouping the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal
(MMA), who was briefly detained on the weekend,
has set a deadline of March 23 to depose
Musharraf, but there are clear signals that within
a matter of weeks the military regime could have
further lost some of its grip on power.
The administration has already in effect
been sidelined in the tribal areas of North West
Frontier Province, where in South and North
Waziristan a Taliban-led administration is in
place and the Pakistani security forces cannot
move beyond their district headquarters of Wana
province has turned into a quagmire, with the
armed forces having lost their iron grip to
insurgents, who are now calling the shots. Almost
daily, the fierce resistance blows up gas
pipelines and electricity lines in the
resource-rich region, and there is little the
Pakistani army can do. Last week, three Chinese
engineers and their Pakistani driver were gunned
down in Balochistan. The Chinese are helping build
the important warm-water Gwadar port.
such a situation, the country's largest province,
Punjab, has been the only base from which the
establishment has been able to maneuver freely.
Now even this is under threat.
province, whether in small districts such as
Chiniot or the headquarters of the armed forces,
Rawalpindi, or the national capital, Islamabad,
the masses have taken to the streets to vent their
displeasure with the state.
political surface It is an open secret that
the government encouraged and sponsored rallies
ostensibly against the cartoons of the Prophet
Mohammed. The aim was to send a message to the
West of the dangers of extremism in Pakistan, and
that it could only be contained by the military
This scheme has badly
backfired, which the government was quick to
realize. After a few rallies in Punjab, for
example, the administration imposed the so-called
Section 144 across the province and in the federal
capital, under which all public gatherings were
banned. A large rally in Islamabad on Sunday,
however, defied the ban, even in the face of the
military, paramilitary and police. Tear-gassings,
shootings with rubber bullets and baton charges
followed, with wide-scale arrests.
unprecedented reaction, when the police arrested
hundreds of workers at a rally, private citizens
of Islamabad, who are mostly employed in the
public sector, took to the streets and pelted the
police with stones. Ultimately, the administration
backed down and allowed the rally to continue.
Among those arrested were many top
leaders, including the secretary general of the
Jamaat-i-Islami, Syed Munawar Hasan. Qazi Hussain
Ahmed was also arrested, at his residence in
Mansoor, Lahore, but such was the reaction that he
was set free after just one day in detention.
The extent of the popular demonstrations
has led the most organized and most powerful
member of the MMA, the Jamaat-i-Islami Pakistan,
to harness this people's power into an
anti-Musharraf movement. The only obstacle is the
leader of the opposition in the National Assembly,
Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the chief of the
Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam, a powerful segment of the
MMA, who is not ready to launch such a campaign.
However, inner circles of the MMA tell
Asia Times Online that whether or not Rehman
supports the movement is not critical, as it is
the masses that are driving the campaign.
Behind the political scenes In
addition to the religious-political parties, the
country's hardcore religious segment has embraced
the call for Tehrik-i-Nizam-i-Mustafa, and by
implication the ouster of Musharraf. This includes
the madrassas (seminaries) and calls from the
On Friday, after a call by
Maulana Abdul Aziz of the Lal Masjid, Islamabad,
about 5,000 people pledged their willingness
(bait) to sacrifice their lives for the
cause of jihad against the pro-US Musharraf
government. Similar pledges were made in other
mosques in Islamabad, and in Rawalpindi and
Maulana Abdul Aziz and Ghazi Abdul
Rasheed are sons of the slain Maulana Abdullah.
The government has wanted on numerous occasions to
arrest the brothers for their fiery remarks, but
has never done so as they command great respect
not only in the civilian population, but also in
the army. Many top officers visit them in their
modest houses near Lal Masjid, even though the
Ministry of the Interior has branded them wanted
For the first time, white flags
on which the Kalma (There is no God but the
one God. Mohammed is the messenger of God) was
inscribed in black appeared in sizable numbers at
demonstrations. These special flags recall those
used by the Prophet Mohammed 1,400 years ago.
Historical parallels The current
situation parallels the tumultuous times of 1977
when the Pakistan National Alliance, in which
left- and right-wing parties were grouped,
launched a Tehrik-i-Nizam-i-Mustafa that paved the
way for the an army coup in which General Zia
ul-Haq removed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and imposed
A bureaucrat who retired
after reaching the senior position of secretary to
the government of Pakistan recalled that
anti-traditionalism had reached a serious level in
the 1970s. Alcohol had become a part of the social
culture and social climbers prevailed in the power
corridors. A leading US-based magazine ran a cover
story titled "Pakistan: A country ruled by pimps
Speaking on condition of
anonymity, the bureaucrat said, "In fact,
Tehrik-i-Nizam-i-Mustafa was a mass rebellion
against the establishment when it tried to change
The reasons for the
dissatisfaction with Musharraf might be different
- chief among them is his pro-US position in the
"war on terror" - but powerful mosques, jihadis,
religious parties and opposition parties have
added their weight to the movement. Musharraf is
currently on a state visit to China.
Friday, the opposition parties called for
countrywide demonstrations, and on Sunday they
called for a rally in Lahore, even though protests
have been banned there.
More protests have
been scheduled for next month. These could
coincide with a visit by US President George W
Bush, although no dates have been announced.
The situation is fast coming to a head.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Bureau
Chief, Pakistan Asia Times Online. He can be
reached at [email protected].