Battle for Pakistan's soul

The siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad has come to a bloody end - but the struggle between the Pak

Pakistan is facing one of the most serious political crises in its modern history. After eight days of tense military stand-off in the capital between the army and several hundred militant students from a religious seminary, the Pakistani capital awoke just after dawn on Tuesday to a series of thunderous explosions in the heart of the city. By late afternoon, columns of smoke and ash were hovering in the air and dozens of militants and government troops lay dead or wounded. Pictures of the battle were flashed around the world as Washington and London's critical ally in the war on terror saw its capital turned into a war zone, in scenes unimaginable in the 60 years since the creation of Pakistan.

In the past week a quiet, tree-lined district made up of large, comfortable family villas and private schools has been transformed into a battlefield. Tanks, armoured personnel carriers, hundreds of metres of barbed wire and thousands of Pakistani special forces and paramilitary units of the army have cordoned off the area. At the epicentre of this no-go zone, where a strict curfew has been imposed and the residents forced either to leave or remain indoors, is the so-called Red Mosque ("Lal Masjid") and the all-female madrasa attached to it, the Jamia Hafsa.

The Red Mosque is the oldest mosque in the city, and was established shortly after Pakistan's capital was moved from Karachi to the purpose-built city of Islamabad. Its founder was Maulana Abdullah Ghazi. He was renowned for his Friday sermons on the need for Muslims to wage jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. As such, he was patronised and favoured by Washington's chief ally and link to the Afghan mu jahedin, the military ruler General Zia ul-Haq. Like Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies, Maulana Abdullah did not dispense with his links with the militant Islamist groups and ideologies that grew up around the Afghan mujahedin after the Soviets were driven out. Clerics like him were funded, encouraged and often guided by the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies throughout the 1990s. Their links with jihadist groups through the mosques and religious seminaries they ran were essential to Pakistan's regional policy (whether in opposing India in Kashmir or maintaining influence in Afghanistan).

But the jihadist movement's increasing strength and influence steadily and inevitably outgrew the tight leash imposed on it by its creators and sponsors in the Pakistani state. The founding of al-Qaeda by Osama Bin Laden, himself an early Arab volunteer in the mujahedin war in Afghanistan, was just one example of this. In 1998, Maulana Abdullah met Bin Laden and promised the al-Qaeda leader to "continue his work inside Pakistan". Maulana Abdullah took his younger son along to the meeting with Bin Laden; that son, Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi, was the man leading the 200 or so militant students who have been holed up inside the Red Mosque, besieged by the Pakistani military in the heart of Islamabad. He was killed during the ensuing fighting.

The crisis over the Red Mosque began six months ago. Yet General Pervez Musharraf did nothing about it, to the consternation of Pakistan's middle class, which was growing ever more fearful of the madrasa's brazen confrontation with the Pakistani state and of its ambition, in the words of Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi, "to destroy the failed political system in Pakistan which has betrayed the majority of the country's poor and establish a sharia state instead".

What the militant students and leaders of the Red Mosque wanted to do was create a model for Pakistan's estimated 20,000 madrasas to follow. It was the simple but tested and highly effective Islamist model of setting up parallel social and welfare institutions, aimed at highlighting how the state had failed the majority of ordinary people. It has worked for Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon and many others.

The madrasas offer the millions of desperately impoverished rural families a chance to send their children to cities and towns, where they will be given an education and a place to live in what the families see as a morally and socially conservative environment. They will be fed regularly, thus reducing the pressure on what is already a subsistence existence. It is a role that the Pakistani state has struggled to match, with one of the lowest comparative expenditures on education in the world. The education that the madrasas offer is, of course, strictly religious, but the Red Mosque's ideological links with jihadist groups inevitably exposed the students to far more than just spiritual instruction. The militants of the Red Mosque extended their model beyond the walls of their madrasas and out on to the streets of Islamabad. The female members of the madrasas led vigilante operations. They kidnapped brothel owners, harassed sex industry workers, threatened music shops and even policemen. They did so aggressively, taunting the authorities to stop them.

Musharraf's failure

Fearful of a nationwide showdown with the thousands of madrasas and their militant students and leaders, and after decades in which the seminaries had been an effective tool for the Pakistani state in domestic and regional policy, President Musharraf's government failed to respond to such challenges to its authority.

While domestic considerations deterred him from confronting the students and leaders of the Red Mosque, international pressure from key allies was pushing him in the opposite direction. A turning point came when a group of Chinese women working at a massage parlour was held hostage by female students from the mosque. Beijing, with considerable commercial interests in Pakistan, was alarmed that its citizens could be taken off the streets of the Pakistani capital and paraded in front of the international media while the government did nothing. Beijing wanted to know if it had a stable ally in Pakistan. It was at this moment that Musharraf decided to take action and the confrontation with the militants at the Red Mosque started, at the beginning of the month.

Yet there is much more at stake in this crisis than the immediate battle. At its heart, it is about the Pakistani state cutting the cord and confronting the jihadist groups and ideologies it has given rise to. The prominent Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussain has described this as "a battle for the soul of Pakistan" - a struggle to establish what kind of country it wants to be, six decades after it was founded following the Partition of India.

None the less, the bloody end to the siege on 10 July will have a fearful and profound impact on Pakistan in the coming months. It will have made "martyrs" of the students and leaders killed in the operation and thereby ensured that Musharraf will become a mortal enemy for many militant madrasa leaders and their followers in the country.

How civilian politicians in Washington and Pakistan respond will be critical. Both have had their frustrations and differences with Musharraf and with Pakistan's armed forces. But Washington's and Pakistan's main civilian political parties are solidly behind him in Pakistan's emerging divide.

The violent end of the Red Mosque in Islamabad marks the beginning of a critical shift in the politics of Pakistan. The decades-long alliance between the Pakistani state and the jihadist movements that it supported has begun to be broken. It is a point from which it will be hard to return. It is indeed the start of the long battle for Pakistan's soul.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Chavez: from hero to tyrant

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.