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

REGIS BOSSU/SYGMA/CORBIS
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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle