June 24, 2007Foreign Affairs

Massages for the powerful

The small, but important, Chinese establishment in Islamabad

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

By all accounts, the zealous promoters of virtue from Islamabad’s Lal Masjid went too far when they abducted nine Chinese nationals for running a brothel under the familiar guise of a massage parlour. For several reasons: China is an all weather’ friend that Pakistan just cannot afford to annoy. But also because Islamabad’s powerful—including Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, leader of Pakistan’s ruling party—used to patronise that establishment to relax their weary muscles.

So it was that the hostages were released rather promptly. Why? Well, the situation escalated rather rapidly. In almost no time (on the diplomatic time-scale) ambassadors of each country were talking to the top leaders of the other. The leaders of Lal Masjid were told that they had gone too far this time. And coincidentally, Khalid Khawaja, a former ISI official and a key supporter of the Lal Masjid brigade, was released from official custody.

Ultimately, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, Lal Masjid’s leader, announced that he had released the hostages in the interests of Pakistan-China friendship, on the government’s word that Islamabad’s massage parlours would be closed down.

The targeting of massage parlours and brothels is actually a political masterstroke. Not only does it have a form of religious sanction and public sympathy, but it also makes the capital city’s powerful elite a little weak in the knees. Extracting concessions becomes easy, but just like in any game of blackmail, there is a tenuous balance. Upsetting that balance—though overreach or under-protection—can be very counterproductive.

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