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Illegal religious structures

By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse ,April 01, 2011

The presence of as many as 83 illegally constructed mosques illustrates one dimension of the internal security challenges that Pakistan faces today (reported in a national daily on March 28th). It is a combination of poor law enforcement by the police and the city administration as well as the willful use of public spaces by religious groups, which occupy the land and construct mosque or a madrassa without any permission of the city administration. The pattern all over Pakistan is more or less the same. Compare this with the strict regulations (KDA, DHA, CDA ect) that private housing must comply with. 

The Red Mosque-Hafsa Madrassa crisis in Jan-July 2007 was also partially rooted in the government challenge to unchecked and unquestioned construction of religious structures. Following the operation at the Red Mosque and its bloody end, the government eventually backed off and the issue effectively went into hibernation. 

As far the illegal structures in Islamabad, according to the Interior Ministry’s official documents, these mosques are being provided with walk-through gates along with at least two police officials for security reasons. An official of the ministry said that as many as 50 mosques, including shrines, have been provided with walk-through gates so far. The Islamabad Police chief Wajid Durrani told (The Express Tribune) that it was his department’s responsibility to provide security to the people, while the administration’s task was to ensure that mosques and shrines are constructed legally. 

But the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) Administration and Capital Development Authority (CDA) say it is “difficult for them to keep a check on mosques, as it was a sensitive issue. An official of CDA’s enforcement team claimed that some mosques were being built on state land for commercial purposes. 

The clarification by the city administration is quite amusing as well as shockingly surprising; by describing it as a “sensitive issue” officials seem to imply that it is not wise to touch “sensitive issues.” Ducking under the excuse of “sensitivity” essentially is an attitude that stems from the past, when people like Maulana Abdul Aziz or his brother Abdur Rashid Ghazi were important pawns in the games that the security establishment played in and outside the country. 

Official sanction for such persons, or institutions run by them – regardless of their legal status – basically contravened the rule of law and flew in the face of claims to good governance. This paradox stretched beyond the capital itself – southern Punjab, Karachi, KPK or FATA – provided spaces to this nexus between mulla and the military, largely to the detriment of the rest of the society. 

The much-touted madrassah reform also fell victim to this paradox within the power structures, which have used appeasement of non-state actors as a tool to preserve the socalled “first-line-of defense.” The concept has turned out to be not only “broke” but also disastrous. This has gone to become a huge internal security challenge for the country and it certainly needs to 

a) Regularize all illegal structures built in the name of religion 
b) Reject and ban unauthorized construction in the name of mosque or madrassa 
c) Prohibit individual sermons (by certain religio-political groups) at mosques to prevent sectarian divide. Mosques even in Islamabad keep spreading hate speech against certain beliefs 
d) Register madaris and subject them to national curricula through parliamentary legislation 
e) Deromanticise the idea of jihad through an informed, parliament-led counter-narrative 
f) Outlaw all sorts of private armies / militias 

Pakistan has plenty to learn from other Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Iran, where the state controls the religious knowledge learning and dissemination to prevent sectarian disharmony within the society. In the case of Pakistan, certain state institutions have been complicit in the promotion of sectarian ( working relation with, and appeasement of Deobandi sects) as well as ethnic (MQM factions) violence.

This also resulted in sympathy for the non-state actors within the society, with silent onlookers because of the ambivalence of relations between the insurgents (militants, and jihadist outfits) and the counter-insurgents( security forces).

This collusion and the consequent silence of the civilian administration also provided the social space that the religio-political groups needed to proliferate the society. 

aking on illegal structures might not be easy but if the state were to establish its writ, it shall have to launch a process that regularizes these mosques and madaris. The process may be painful but if guided by the parliament, which is the pivot of the current dispensation, the government should be able to survive it. But the fear of survival, or challenge to its survival must not stop the government from challenging illegal construction. If the civic authorities can halt and demolish illegal construction worth tens of millions of rupees, why not mosques or madaris that have have been constructed without formal approval by the state authorities.

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk