Illegal structures: paradox of rule of law

Published: December 15, 2011
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The writer is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and a fellow of International House of Japan/Japan Foundation, Tokyo

The writer is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and a fellow of International House of Japan/Japan Foundation, Tokyo

In the maze of issues, most Pakistani politicians lose sight of some matters that are fundamental to the rule of law. The construction of illegal structures, such as mosques and seminaries, in the name of Islam, offer a pressing example of apathy towards one such issue.

Consider the presence of as many as 83 illegally constructed mosques and seminaries in Islamabad alone. This is the result of a combination of political expedience, poor law enforcement by the police and the city administration, as well as the wilful use of public spaces by politically affiliated religious groups, which occupy the land and construct illegally without permission from the city administration. The pattern is more or less the same all over Pakistan.

This also reminds us of the Lal Masjid crisis in 2007, which was largely rooted in the government’s campaign against illegal constructions of religious structures. The campaign triggered a massive reaction, which resulted in the Lal Masjid violence. The government eventually backed off and the issue effectively went into hibernation.

The ministry of interior provides mosques and seminaries in Islamabad — including the illegal ones — with walk-through gates, along with at least two police officials for security. An official of the ministry said that as many as 50 mosques, including shrines, have been provided with walk-through gates because officials say this is part of their primary responsibility.

Moreover, the police, according to officials, are not supposed to check whether these mosques or seminaries were constructed with the permission of the Islamabad Capital Territory. The Capital Development Authority (CDA) says it is “difficult for them to keep a check on mosques as this was a sensitive issue. A number of mosque administrators — who usually represent the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam — have gone on to claim official lands to extend their facilities or put up new structures.

Where is the law and what about the strict regulations that the CDA invokes to penalise residents of Islamabad for alterations or additions to their homes?

Most officials duck under the ruse of mosques and madrassas being a sensitive issue, an attitude that stems from the past, when people like Maulana Abdul Aziz or his brother Abdur Rashid Ghazi (of the Lal Masjid) were important pawns in the games that the security establishment played in and outside the country.

Official sanctions for such persons or the institutions they run — regardless of their legal status — basically contravene the rule of law and this flies in the face of claims to good governance. This paradox stretches beyond the capital itself and is more pronounced in southern Punjab, Karachi, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa or Fata, where clerics associated with mainstream religio-political parties appropriate barren or state lands to raise structures for mosques or madrassas.

The madrassa 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 so-called ‘first-line-of defence’. The concept has turned out to not only be ‘broke’ but also disastrous. This has become a huge internal security challenge for the country and it certainly needs to be addressed by taking some of the following measures: a) regularise all illegal structures built in the name of religion b) reject and ban unauthorised construction in the name of mosques or madrassas c) prohibit individual sermons (by certain religio-political groups) at mosques to prevent sectarian divide. Even mosques in Islamabad tend to spread hate against certain beliefs due to the unmonitored speeches of these clerics and d) register madrassas and subject them to national curricula through parliamentary legislation.

Pakistan has plenty to learn from other Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Iran, where the state controls religious learning and its dissemination to prevent sectarian disharmony within the society.

Taking down illegal structures might be painful, but the state should launch a process that regularises these mosques and madrassas and delegitimises all unauthorised actions. This constitutes the foundation of the rule of law that we all must uphold.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 15th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (7)

  • Anti-Sick
    Dec 15, 2011 - 10:37AM

    Mr. Gul, Pakistan has bigger problems to deal with. I suggest you give importance to issues of top priorities such as load shedding, corruption, inflation etc. than whether mosques are being built legitimately or not.

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  • Aristo
    Dec 15, 2011 - 10:54AM

    Removal of encroachments (Masjid & Madrassa) will never happen in Pakistan, even-though, it is against the spirit of Islam to begin with.

    Totally agree with your observations.

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  • Z
    Dec 15, 2011 - 11:42AM

    Excellent Article addressing taboos. Certainly there are many issues to address but it is none less important.

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  • Irshad Khan
    Dec 15, 2011 - 4:33PM

    Very good article, pointing out law breaking activities by so-called religious groups, purpose behind is to make money and a very comfortable life of the people who make such adventures. Land grabbers also start with construction of a mosque and behind it comes a big Kachchi Abadi in a few days time. It is said by religious authorities that a mosque, once constructed, can not be demolished on any pretext. With the mosque, comes a Madarassah and some comfortable houses for Imam, Moazzin and other group members. All the residents around have to pay Chanda for development and lively-hood of the group. Such groups are not properly educated to run religious affairs and educate people about Islam and thus a lot of sectarian troubles/hatred are created. Government has to take action and make proper laws with consultation of properly educated Ulemas.

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  • Meekal Ahmed
    Dec 15, 2011 - 7:57PM

    Your proposals all have merit but I have been hearing about doing all this for at least a decade. Even Mush the dictator chickened out in the end.

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  • You Said It
    Dec 16, 2011 - 2:45AM

    There are various ways to bell the cat. If there is little appetite for demolishing illegally built construction in religious places, the government should start to closely monitor their finances. Rules that require mosques and madrassas to disclose the funds they raise and how these are utilized, etc will bring transparency into what is really happening. This will also set an example for other institutions across the country that have to account for their funding. This can be done across the board to address corruption issues.

    Other laws such as Right to Information, etc through which citizens can demand why the police has not taken action against an illegal construction. Or for citizens to proactively report illegal construction activity immediately after it is started (before the mosque takes shape) will enable the government to handle this without causing unnecessary hue-and-cry.

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  • Abdullah Khan
    Dec 20, 2011 - 8:23PM

    The story itself is not credible because the writer has not mentined any details or list of even few mosques who were built illegally. Its actually an allegation levelled against CDA by a Shia cleric in 2007. Here is the link http://www.paktribune.com/news/print.php?id=182100
    It is one sided report as the writer has not included point of view of any of the incharges of ‘illegal’ structures. He deliberately deprived them off from there legal and moral right to respond to the allegations
    So far CDA has demolished many mosques who were built without permission. The writer of the story has not included this fact because it would have erased the entire base of his story.
    Just like McDonald the most of the ‘disputed mosques’ in Islamabad have either won cases in courts or they have obtained ‘stay orders’ from courts. So these mosques are by no mean illegal.
    Space on Ganda Nalla is useless and if it is used for construction of a Masjid it is indeed a good step and we should appriciate this instead of criticizing it for no good reason.
    We are well educated peoople and we should not believe every thing which is published or telecasted until we counter check the information.
    Christians in Islamabad have occupied a large portion of the city illegally. The wirter of the above mentioned story should have mentioned it too but he did not because in the west only ‘anti-Islam’ and ‘anti-Pakistan’ things can be sold. Anyone who will talk about this illegal occupation will be charged with the allegation of ‘discrimination’ against minorities.
    Express Tribune should not put its credibility on stake by publshing one sided reports.
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