At Pakistan’s Red Mosque, a Return of Islamic Militancy

At Pakistans Red Mosque, a Return of Islamic Militancy

Nearly two years after the arrest of Abdul Aziz on multiple charges of inciting violence against the state of Pakistan, the firebrand cleric of Islamabad’s radical Red Mosque has returned to the pulpit with a promise that he will continue with his struggle to establish Shari’a, or Islamic law, throughout the country.

Just a day after he was released on bail, Aziz, wearing his trademark spectacles and graying beard, returned to the Red Mosque, the site of a weeklong siege in 2007 between the mosque’s seminary students and the Pakistani military, to deliver a sermon ahead of Friday prayers. Thousands of worshipers flocked to the centrally located mosque, spilling into the surrounding streets and kneeling on makeshift prayer rugs while Aziz’s voice boomed out over loudspeakers. He told the story of Moses’ struggle against the Pharaoh of Egypt to allow his people to practice their religion. Moses, considered by Muslims to be a prophet, is a common theme in Islamic sermons, but at the Red Mosque it took on a special significance. In early 2007 students at the Red Mosque’s two affiliated seminaries launched a campaign for Shari’a, occupying a nearby children’s library and embarking on vigilante raids through the capital to stop what they called “un-Islamic activities,” such as DVD vendors, barber shops and a Chinese-run massage parlor that they accused of being a brothel. The siege culminated in a terrifying shootout that the government says killed 102, including Aziz’s brother and son. Aziz was arrested as he tried to escape dressed in a burqa, the full body veil favored by female students of the conservative seminary.

The siege of the Red Mosque was a turning point in Pakistan’s inexorable slide toward religious extremism and violence. Lal Masjid, as it is locally known, became a rallying cry for the Pakistani Taliban who have declared war on the central government. It is their Alamo, and as such Aziz’s return to the pulpit after two years in jail marks an ominous victory for the forces that are determined to bring the secular government of this nuclear-armed nation to its knees. “This is the second coming of the Red Mosque,” says columnist and politician Ayaz Amir. “It will have an impact, like someone rising from the grave. The mosque has become a site of pilgrimage and followers are revivifying their faith in its waters.”

Aziz’s release comes on the heels of another Taliban victory: On April 13 Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari signed an ordinance imposing Shari’a in the Swat Valley and its surrounding district, effectively ceding administrative and judicial control to the Taliban insurgents who have turned the one-time vacation destination into a war zone. The Nizam-e-Adl regulations, as they are known, were part of a controversial peace deal negotiated in February between the provincial government and an influential religious leader affiliated with the Taliban movement. In addition, the agreement called for the withdrawal of the Pakistani military from the valley and the release of all Taliban prisoners. In return, the insurgents promised to put an end to their vicious campaign that included public beheadings of government officials and suicide attacks on Pakistani security forces. It is still unclear, however, if the Taliban insurgents will allow girls’ schools to reopen, women to leave their homes unescorted by male family members, or barber shops and DVD stores to reopen.

Governor Owais Ahmed Ghani defended the move to establish Shari’a, saying it was the only way to bring peace in the valley. “Islam is our religion and we are Muslims,” he told reporters in Peshawar, the provincial capital. “The state is responding to the aspirations of the people.” Yet more than 80,000 of the 1.5 million residents have fled the region. “The Taliban are taking Swat back to the Dark Ages and the Pakistani government is now complicit in their horrific abuses,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Tossing out the rights of the people in the tribal areas reflects abysmally on both the government and the Pakistani military’s ability to protect Pakistan’s citizens.”

In his sermon, Aziz took credit for the Taliban’s successes in Swat, comparing himself to another prophet. “I sacrificed my son, my mother and my brother for Islam, following in the path of Abraham. What we have seen in Swat and the tribal areas is the result of the sacrifices at the Red Mosque,” he told his rapt audience. “You too should be ready to make sacrifices. The day is not far away when Islam will be enforced in the whole of the country.” The crowd erupted with a chant for Jihad.

Aziz vowed to pursue a non-violent campaign to bring Shari’a to the rest of the country, yet in a press conference held Thursday he defended his actions, and those of his students, in the run-up to the siege, saying that they acted peaceably, and only turned to violence when the military moved in. When asked if he would allow his students to take up arms once again, he responded, “If we are pushed to the wall we would have no option but to defend ourselves.”

To columnist Amir, Aziz’s release is yet another addition to the devastating problems that plague Pakistan. Aziz, he says, has become an iconic figure far more threatening than the shadowy leaders of the Taliban movement. “When you talk of Baitullah Mehsud, Fazlullah or Mangal Bagh, these are guys whose aims are known, but they are just mysterious figures living far away in the mountains. Aziz is here, right in the capital. He will be an inspirational figure for all the jihadi elements.”

Many Pakistanis are losing faith that their government will ever be able to tackle what they see as a threat to their very identity. Even the country’s elites, usually well insulated from the trials of most of their countrymen, are starting to question their security. Dinner party conversations, which once centered on the latest socialite gossip, have become taut with fear and despair. It’s a malaise that has gripped the nation. “How can one be hopeful about the political future of a country where the will and the wisdom of politicians becomes hostage to the threats of barbarians” writes student Sehar Tariq, in an opinion piece in the English daily The News. “How can I feel secure in a country where the army, despite receiving the largest chunk of our resources, cannot defeat a bunch of thugs” It’s a question that nobody seems able to answer. With reporting by Ershad Mahmud/Islamabad