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 age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood