March Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 9 years ago

The government should not attack Lal Masjid. It will create thousands of Lal Masjids throughout the country,” Samiul Haq, dubbed by many as the ‘Father of the Taliban,’ famously said in July 2007 in the lead up to the now historic Lal Masjid siege.

Now, with protests against Abdul Aziz outside Lal Masjid, the current government seems to be paying heed to Haq’s warning from eight years ago, by dilly-dallying over the arrest of a cleric who has openly supported ISIS — the largest terrorist organisation in the world — and makes suicide bombing threats at the drop of a hat.

However, before delving into the present and the future of Lal Masjid, it is important to look at its past.

Lal Masjid was set up by Muhammad Abdullah, the father of Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi in the 1960s, at a time when the foundation of Islamabad was still under construction. Supported by the then president and army chief, General Zia-ul-Haq, Abdullah transformed the mosque into a jihad factory with the support of the US and Saudi Arabia, as the mujahideen fought the Soviets in the 1980s.

Following Abdullah’s assassination in 1998, the sons maintained the tradition of preaching radical Islam in the mosque, which is in close proximity to the diplomatic enclave. Following 9/11, jihadism was coupled with anti-US and anti-Musharraf rhetoric after Pakistan joined America’s War on Terror. CDs and literature promoting jihad in Afghanistan were openly sold outside the mosque in the early 2000s.

The jihadism that continued to brew inside the mosque culminated in 2003 with a fatwa against the army’s action against the Taliban, with certain sections of the intelligence network discreetly supporting the Lal Masjid clerics despite their hostility to the army.

Abdul Rashid Ghazi was accused of plotting against the presidency and the American Embassy in 2004, while the Lal Masjid was on the brink of a raid owing to its alleged links with the London bombings in 2005. In the same year, weapons were found in Ghazi’s vehicle, resulting in a terrorism case, which was eventually shelved after the intervention of Ejaz-ul-Haq, the then Minister of Religious Affairs.

In 2007, after students of Lal Masjid and the adjoining Jamia Hafsa started attacking libraries, markets and acupuncture clinics, protesting against the removal of illegally constructed mosques and accusing people of ‘immoral activities’ such as selling pornographic videos and prostitution, the jihadist indoctrination from inside the mosque spilled over the capital in the form of a Taliban-esque movement for ‘morality.’

Many believe that the abduction of seven Chinese workers from a massage parlour later that year was the final straw that compelled the then president, General Pervez Musharraf, to take action against Lal Masjid. Others believe that it was the mosque’s alleged involvement in attacks on Musharraf that instigated ‘Operation Silence,’ even though the government team — including the then Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain — had reached an agreement with Ghazi allowing him safe passage should he agree to hand over the mosque to the government.

“I think the Lal Masjid Operation was an honest attempt by Musharraf to counter religious extremism,” says Asad Munir, a retired brigadier from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). “An image was being created in Islamabad, that Musharraf was no longer effective and could not control the capital.”

But lawyer and human rights activist Mohammed Jibran Nasir, who has risen to prominence after orchestrating anti-extremism protests outside the Lal Masjid, disagrees. “Honesty gets corrupted when it is mixed with opportunity,” he says. “If it was an honest attempt then we must not forget that Musharraf had been ruling the state since 1999. Why only launch the operation in 2007?” he questions.

Munir claims that an operation was, in fact, scheduled five years earlier. “They were going for it in September 2002. Then somebody advised Musharraf to postpone the operation since elections were coming up in October,” Munir says.

Gul Bukhari, a human rights activist and columnist for the English daily, The Nation, says that the delay in the military action and not the operation itself was a major blunder on Musharraf’s part. “He let the thugs build a private weapons depot and centre of militancy in the heart of Islamabad,” she says, “and then after the operation, he didn’t finish the job. The criminals, including Abdul Aziz, went scot-free — but for that, elements in the media and the judiciary must share the blame.”


However, Nasir believes the real blame lies with the military and its authoritarian tendencies. “The militants have been born and bred in Pakistan thanks to military regimes from Zia to Musharraf. They were given space in a city that was constructed by the army under Ayub Khan, where everything from water-flow and gas-flow is monitored by the establishment,” he says. “As a knee-jerk reaction, they attacked Lal Masjid without taking public opinion into consideration. That’s the basic problem with dictatorships.”

While Ghazi was killed in the operation along with at least 58 other militants, Musharraf’s popularity took a nosedive at a time when he was already riding a wave of notoriety following his haphazard attempt to dislodge the then Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry in March 2007 and the ensuing lawyers’ movement. Abdul Aziz, who famously tried to escape disguised in a burqa in the aftermath of the Lal Masjid Operation, cashed in on the anti-Musharraf sentiment, and continued brewing jihadism in the mosque.

On July 6, 2008, a bomb was exploded outside Lal Masjid, allegedly to mark the first anniversary of the military operation. Nineteen people, of which 18 were policemen, were killed.

Last November, Abdul Aziz and Lal Masjid came into the spotlight once again, after Jamia Hafsa students made and circulated a pro-ISIS video. Aziz then had to face the wrath of civil society after refusing to condemn the December 16 Peshawar attack, resulting in protests outside Lal Masjid.

Considering its history and recent events, Lal Masjid has indeed become an emblem of terror in the country, but is the mosque a mere symbol or is it still a veritable security threat?

“It is both, certainly,” says Bukhari. “Lal Masjid is a powerful symbol of the on-going power struggle the militants and Islamist extremists have engaged the state and the people in. It is also representative of the thousands and thousands of mosques and madrassahs across the country that are poisoning minds and breaking down the fabric of a once cohesive society. However, Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa are also a real and physical threat to security because of the threats Aziz makes freely and frequently.”

While Ayesha Siddiqa, military analyst and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, recognises the symbolism, she warns against focusing on a single mosque.

“It is nice to get symbols right but if civil society spends too much time on one madrassa without getting results, it will be counter-productive,” she says. “In any case, by the time they are finished with this they will be so exhausted that everything will be lost in jubilation. Let’s be practical in our goals. What we need is not random actions but a policy framework. Madrassas and the rest of education should be regulated, and no one should be allowed to use religion to manipulate people. Islamabad is strewn with illegal madrassas led by obnoxious clerics.”

Political commentator and human rights activist, Marvi Sirmed agrees that too much attention on Aziz has shifted the focus from more pertinent issues. “The entire focus on Mulla Abdul Aziz, when we should have been demanding that a transparent inquiry commission be conducted on the APS attack to determine the negligence, incompetence or complicity of responsible officials and/or institutions, was I think misplaced and a mistake,” she says.

But if there is a cleric supporting ISIS and orchestrating suicide bombings sitting at the helm of Lal Masjid — a stone’s throw away from the ISI Headquarters and the Parliament — why is no one taking any action?

“[Interior Minister] Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said that the government believes that the moment they arrest Aziz, the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) and Sipah-e- Sahaba will take to the streets, with other people joining them. And the National Action Plan (NAP) will suffer because of the distraction. The clerics will claim that the government is conducting operations against Muslims and Islamic madrassas,” says Munir. “Abdul Aziz will be arrested. The government is just waiting for the right time,” he added.

Bukhari, however, isn’t quite sure.“I am confounded. I don’t know if it’s a lack of political will, or if it’s a lack of military will, or if it’s the ardent love of Aziz. Seems like the kind of love that makes legs turn to jelly,” she says.

Sirmed believes that the decrease in Aziz’s clout is due to the decrease in his utility for the powers that be. “Abdul Aziz is no longer useful to those who created him. This is why a couple of dozens of activists were able to lodge a weak FIR against him,” claims Sirmed. “Otherwise it was not even imaginable during the time when talks with the Taliban were being marketed as a ‘bid for peace.’ Back then I was told off by a TV anchor when I tried to dismiss the legitimacy of Aziz to appear on TV,” she says. “But it is difficult to take action at this point. No one wants to be on the wrong side of Lal Masjid. The establishment won’t suffer even a little scratch, while the civilian face would get the brunt of the bloody burden of this. So, I don’t see any action in the foreseeable future.”

Abdul Aziz

On February 23, Chaudhry Nisar claimed that Abdul Aziz had submitted a written apology for his statement on the Peshawar school attack. The next day, a Lal Masjid spokesperson refuted that claim. What are we to make of these mixed signals?

“Chaudhry Nisar’s appointment as the interior minister is an utter waste of my tax money,” says Nasir. “Let us take a look at his history. Isn’t he a fan of Abdul Aziz and his father?”

“Nisar is a good civil servant — he is probably trying to dress up his inability to arrest Abdul Aziz with some logical explanation. Aziz will be removed the day he becomes totally worthless for those who actually run the security policy — not Nisar,” says Siddiqa.

But Bukhari says that Aziz’s statements vis-à-vis the Peshawar school attack should not be the focus of our attention anyway. “Aziz’s statement with regard to the children is not the real issue. I don’t think not calling, or calling, someone a shaheed is a crime. There is no section in the penal code that deals with the shaheed question. So I think it’s important to find a way to re-open cases for his actual crimes and convict the man. He was acquitted in 22 or 23 sham trials after the 2007 operation. All his actions and statements and what happened are on record,” she says.

Sirmed believes Nisar is playing safety first. “Either he is trying to secure himself and his party from the wrath of this mullah who apparently has access to ‘hundreds of suicide bombers’ in his own words, or the minister is trying to oblige someone in the establishment who wants to save Aziz. In either case, civilians are creating a deep mess for themselves by succumbing to the trap,” she said.

A source within the SHO office, on condition of anonymity, revealed that Aziz has in fact submitted a written apology.

“I have seen the undertaking that Abdul Aziz has given to the SHO Aabpara,” the source claimed. “He has signed it and his seal is on it.”

It was in response to Abdul Aziz’s comments on the Peshawar attack that Jibran Nasir orchestrated the #ReclaimYourMosque movement. And he says the fact that the mosque is constructed on public property and run with taxpayers money, was a crucial factor behind the movement. “The reason behind the Reclaim Your Mosque movement is that the Lal Masjid is government property. It is being run by my tax money. Fire Abdul Aziz and appoint a new cleric. The government already has every legal authority to do it,” he asserts.

So can the mosque finally be reclaimed? Will we see a moderate voice at the helm of Lal Masjid any time soon?

“I don’t know. I really don’t know,” says Bukhari. “The state is giving mixed signals at best. There are declared and undeclared operations underway in different areas of the country. There is also said to be some activity with regard to curbing extremism in mosques.

“For example, the government has instituted hotlines for citizens to report hate speech, incitement to violence, or Takfiri ideology being proposed. In the Punjab, several khateebs were said to be arrested as well. But we have not heard of what happened thereafter. Were they released? Or are they being tried in military courts?” Bukhari asks.

“If it’s not possible in Lal Masjid, it’s not possible anywhere in Pakistan,” claims Nasir. “The masses realise that taking care of Lal Masjid is beyond the government’s capacity. But the masses also believe that when things get really bad, the Army can come and save them.

“I personally think this is beyond the capacity of the army as well. If it wasn’t, would Abdul Aziz still be roaming around freely? His freedom is living proof of the incompetence of both Sharifs,” he says.

But Ayesha Siddiqa disagrees. “Handling Aziz is not beyond the military’s capacity, but it is perhaps beyond its will,” she says. “As a part of civil society I would like to focus on the investigation of the Lal Masjid incident which is still shrouded in mystery.”

Sirmed is equally cynical. “Countering extremism is not possible when favouritism is being shown so openly,” she said. “The extremism conducted by the TTP we call extremism, but extremism by the LeJ, ASWJ, Sipah-e-Sahaba, is acceptable. Extremist attacks against the state are not acceptable, but those against Aasia Bibi and the couple that was burnt alive is not a problem. Any group that raises concerns against and criticises the wrong policies of the establishment is not acceptable but xenophobia is. This is not how counter-extremism strategies are made or implemented.”

However, Munir is optimistic about the future. “If the state starts taking action against other terrorists in the city, especially the sectarian ones, we will see a difference,” he says, adding that Abdul Aziz and Lal Masjid’s power has already decreased. “His power has already been diluted. Otherwise no one could have imagined girls wearing jeans protesting in front of Lal Masjid. But it has happened.

“The SHO has registered a case against Aziz. There was a time when even the Supreme Court was scared of him and nobody wanted to touch him,” he says. “I think within the next six months or so, if the state continues its operations against religious extremism all over the country, there is going to be a moderation in Lal Masjid’s power as well.”

This article was originally published in Newsline’s March 2015 issue.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a journalist and writer based in Lahore.