A Prayer in the Militant Mosque

Note: Ten years ago this month, July, 2007, there was a ferocious battle at the Red Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan. Two and a half years later I gave a talk in Islamabad at a conference on Sufism and Peace. The following is an edited version of an essay I wrote from there.

J U L Y  2 0 1 7

The dawn call to prayer wakes me. It is still dark in Islamabad. Half dreaming I imagine the notes of the praying man’s song rise up through the neighborhood like a line of thin silver leaves, finding their way along the streets, brushing against closed doors, against windows, sliding through cracks into rooms, touching the skin of sleeping people like me, waking us if we are ready. Hayya 'ala-salat! – Come to pray!

militant mosqueWhile I am not formally a Muslim, I am not formally anything — and this gives me the chance to join praying people wherever they are. I get out of bed, dress, and leave the hotel into the still dark city. The sleepy guards at the gate with their submachine guns straighten up and nod to me as I go out.

There are no cars. An old turbaned street sweeper moves bits of paper along the gutter with his twig broom.

The Lal Masjid – the Red Mosque - is surrounded by a fence topped with razor wire, but the gate is wide open. I leave my shoes at the door.

An entry area opens onto a large, dimly lit prayer hall planted with columns; a few small lights break the shadows. Prayers are about to start. I join the line of about 50 men, shoulder to shoulder, waiting. One of the parts I like best about Muslim prayers is this line in which everyone is accepted equally — although I am obviously not Pakistani and look very different from everyone else, it doesn’t seem to matter. I also love when we touch our foreheads to the ground — the thought-filled heads of us men grounded on the common earth like electrical wires, for this moment subdued.

After prayers half the men leave. Those who remain sit in a corner listening to a lesson from a quiet-spoken teacher standing amidst them, or in the shadows praying by themselves, wrapped in their shawls like mounds of sand. The few lights are turned off and the hall becomes part of the dawn, the central dome brushed with blue-grey light. The soft sound of the teacher’s voice mingles with the voices of the solitary men reciting their prayers. The place feels like one peaceful heart waking in the dawn.

The Battle
I sit listening. I imagine the gunshots, the whiz of bullets glancing off these columns, the shouts, death cries and weeping that filled this mosque 2 ½ years ago when the Pakistan army attacked the several thousand madrassa students and heavily armed militants who had barricaded themselves here.

The Red Mosque and its large compound had long been used by Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, as a station for organizing and training militants who were sent to Afghanistan to battle the Soviets, or to fight in Kashmir. The ISI continued to support this mosque and other Islamist training centers like it after the 9/11 attacks — on the one hand seeking to align themselves with the Taliban so they would have leverage against the increasing influence of India in Afghanistan, and on the other hand so they could continue receiving American military aid to counter the Taliban/al-Qaeda presence in their own country.

But by 2007 this strategy came back to bite them. The Red Mosque had become the center of Islamist militancy against the Pakistan state itself in the very heart of the capital. The ISI could no longer control what went on here, and ruefully could have said with Macbeth:

       …that we but teach
       Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
       To plague the inventor.

In July, 2007, the mullahs and talibs (militant students) in the mosque threatened civil war if the Pakistan government did not accept Sharia law. The government, now eager to regain credibility in the eyes of the international community, reacted brutally. After the Pakistan army’s first assault on the mosque, many talibs escaped. Those who remained pledged to become martyrs. The final battle lasted three days and hundreds were killed.

The fall of the Red Mosque was a turning point for Pakistan. Extremists across Pakistan banded together, determined to destroy the government and establish an Islamic state. The terrorist attacks that resulted provoked ever more violent responses from the Pakistan and U.S. military, fueling an increasingly militant backlash from the population caught in the crossfire.

This particular sequence of events — a militant provocation is met with a brutal reaction from the state, which in turn causes more people to become militant, which leads to further polarization and destabilization — has been described as the basic Islamist terrorist strategy, and it is working.

The violent reactions of state powers to terrorist violence have played into the hands of the terrorists. Their long-term objective is to exhaust the will and resources of the state, creating opportunities for new Islamist regimes on local and ultimately national levels.

The Prayer
As I sit in the dawn light of the mosque, painfully aware of this dark tragedy, I try to pray — but everything that comes to my mind feels trite. What words could be adequate to address the suffering that took place here, and that continues around the world?

So I stop trying to pray and just sit still.

And then slowly, out of the stillness, I begin to sense something. What is it? Tenderness? Intimacy? Whatever it is, it is not complicated at all. It is utterly simple and somehow familiar in the same way my sense of being is familiar.

It feels to me somehow like the very heart of prayer — but prayer without any words, without even the sense of communication from the human world to a divine one. I am not making this happen — it is here already — a simple and unmistakable sense of connection, an intimacy with everything all at once.

In this intimacy there is no sense of judgment about good or bad, right or wrong, no distance between things. Nothing is excluded — not the wounded and dying talibs in this mosque, or the mullahs trying to be Allah’s heroes, or the frightened citizens in the locked-down city, or the politicians in their violent reactions, or people around the world anxious for their lives. Nothing is excluded.

It is as if a vast compassionate silence pervades our global tragedy, what Muslims call the Merciful, the Compassionate — ir rahman ir rahim — deep in the rock of this mosque, deep in the air between us  — an unspeakable compassion holding us all.

As I leave the mosque I hear my practical self ask: So? What good is it? What good is sensing this numinous compassion when the world is so full of hatred and violence? Don’t we need pragmatic policies that will liberate us from fear and the desire for dominance that poisons human history?

Yes, of course we do. But there is another pragmatism, and it feels to me that to realize and appreciate in this place the compassion and intimacy that connects everything is why I have come halfway around the world — why, unknown to myself, I got out of bed in the dark this morning to come here. For a few moments at least, the militancy and self-righteous fundamentalism of this place became transparent, and I became transparent with it — everything released its position — and our common intimacy was revealed.

It may be that for us to touch this prayer of our common heart, even briefly, is where we need to return, where we need to begin again, where we might finally find a compassionate path to a world of peace.