From The Economist print edition
Why did it take the government so long to assert its authority?
APA nice day at school, dears?
A VIOLENT battle with Islamist extremism was fought this week in the heart of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. On July 3rd the army besieged the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, and its adjoining madrassa for girls. A radical cleric and thousands of followers, some of them armed, had since January been resisting the government's authority. In the ensuing clashes, at least 16 people died and dozens were injured. Thousands of inmates surrendered. As The Economist went to press, an unknown number—in the hundreds—stayed on. The cleric, Abdul Aziz, had been caught trying to escape, cloaked in a burqa.
To a government presenting itself as a bastion of “enlightened moderation”, the radical mosque had been a long and embarrassing provocation. The mullah's followers had resisted eviction from land they had illegally encroached on. They had occupied a children's library and kidnapped women. They had given the government a deadline to close brothels and music shops and tear down billboards depicting women. And they had threatened suicide-bombings should the government dare to use force.
The surprise is not that the government eventually did so but that it took so long. One reason was the risk of a bloodbath, threatening so many young women. General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, had added credence to the threats of suicide-bombings by saying the mosque sheltered militants linked to al-Qaeda. But that only made his government—a vital American ally in its fight against al-Qaeda—seem even more perverse in tolerating the mosque.
Some Pakistani commentators have also pointed out that the radical mullahs have had their uses for General Musharraf. They lent substance to the threat of Islamist extremism he uses to justify his lack of a true democratic mandate. They also served to divert attention from a nationwide protest movement against his attempt to dismiss the chief justice.
In this uncharitable view, that movement's recent sputtering helps explain this week's tougher approach. But also, the zealots went too far. Last month they kidnapped (and then freed) seven Chinese people from a massage parlour they said was a brothel. China—an “all-weather” friend to all Pakistani governments—was appalled. Despite the likely casualties, attacking the mosque was now even more clearly in the national interest. So much so that cynics wonder who came up with the deranged idea of kidnapping Chinese citizens.