December Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 4 years ago

On Friday, October 13, the Lal Masjid cleric, Abdul Aziz, threw down yet another menacing gauntlet to the Interior Ministry. Aziz along with his wife Umm-e-Hassan, head of Jamia Hafsa, led a rally to “enforce Shariah” in Pakistan. The Interior Ministry, which had prior knowledge of Aziz’s plans, decided to forestall any potential violent surge by allocating a heavy contingent of police and Rangers around the mosque at the time of the Friday prayers.

Aziz’s sermon made his intentions perfectly clear. In an uncanny throwback to 2007, the Lal Masjid cleric urged his students and followers to take to the streets to “implement the Shariah law in Pakistan.” He used jihadist rhetoric and anti-government propaganda to implicitly push the madrassah students towards violence, as he had done eight years ago.

In the lead-up to the now notorious Lal Masjid siege, Aziz’s religious moral police had started targeting libraries, markets and acupuncture clinics, accusing people of ‘immoral activities’ like selling pornographic videos and prostitution. However, the government’s stance in 2015 vis-à-vis Islamist militancy, when the state plunged deeper and deeper into the quagmire of religious radicalism is significantly different to what it was back in 2007 — on paper at least.

Post the Army Public School (APS)attack, Pakistan is said to be gradually emerging from it, with the help of the much-touted National Action Plan (NAP). This makes the state’s acquiescence to Aziz’s religious thuggery a self-defeating exercise.

Is the Interior Ministry waiting for another Lal Masjid-sponsored abduction of Chinese citizens in the capital to spring into action? Incidentally, there has been a precipitous fall in the number of Chinese workers since the siege. Attacks on government officials, reminiscent of the ones allegedly orchestrated inside the mosque to target the then president, General Pervez Musharraf, are more likely.

On November 13, Aziz and Umm-e-Hassan led their protest march from Lal Masjid in Islamabad’s G-6 sector to Jamia Hafsa in G-7. Locals describe the march as daunting and say that Aziz’s followers shouted slogans against the government and clamoured for the imposition of Shariah law in Pakistan.

Under the Fourth Schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), Aziz’s name had been included in a watch list in August this year. Last month’s rally violated Section 11EEE of the ATA, which reads: “[The] Government if satisfied that with a view to prevent any person whose name is included in the list referred to section 11EE, it is necessary so to do, may, by order in writing, direct to arrest and detain, in such custody as may be specified, such person for such period as may be specified in the order, and [the] Government if satisfied that for the aforesaid reasons it is necessary so to do, may extend from time to time the period of such detention for a total period not exceeding 12 months.”

A couple of days prior to the November rally, the capital administration had warned the Lal Masjid cleric against taking out any rallies “without informing and seeking permission from the authorities” and stated that this could jeopardise the city’s law and order situation. Addressing Aziz, the administration’s letter said, “You have submitted a surety bond with the IGP Islamabad that you will respect the law of the land and will cooperate with the capital administration, and that you are neither an activist of any banned organisation, nor do you have any links with the same.”

“But for the regard [sake] of decency, I would have torn to pieces the deputy commissioner’s note,” was Abdul Aziz’s reply in a statement that he issued on November 15. “You shed your uniforms for the sake of [the] dirty democracy of Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan. But when I invite people to [the] Holy Quran and Sunnah, you send [a] threatening letter to me,” he further asserted in a separate message on social media.

This typically audacious disregard for the law, and open mockery of state institutions, is Abdul Aziz’s latest demonstration of blatant terror-mongering, while he remains ensconced comfortably inside the state capital. Even so, what makes Aziz’s threats even more alarming this time round is that it accompanies his followers open allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) — known variously as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and Daesh.

Pro-IS graffiti started popping up in Pakistan in September 2014, two months after the IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced a “global caliphate,” and Maulana Aziz began advocating the caliphate dream emanating from the Levant. A few days before the APS attack, Jamia Hafsa students released a video on social media, not only pledging allegiance to IS but also advocating a forcible enforcement of Shariah law in Pakistan.

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It’s not hard to imagine the path Lal Masjid adherents would have taken had the APS attack — and the unprecedented backlash against Islamist militancy — not put the brakes on. The civil society-led protests against Lal Masjid after Abdul Aziz refused to condemn the Peshawar attack, not only brought the mosque and its radical cleric into the spotlight once again, the growing pressure on the government to curb militancy, and on the clergy to denounce jihadism, became an obstacle in propagating an IS-led caliphate for Pakistan. It’s evident that Lal Masjid and Aziz are continuing from where they left off around 12 months ago.

Even so, a lot has changed on the terror front, both domestically and in the Levant, in the last year. While the government’s continued inaction over Aziz’s vocal threats is in blatant contravention of NAP, it would be injudicious to state that there has been no change in the state’s counter-terrorism policy in the past year or so.

Around 251 people were arrested for hate speech in the first month alone following the Peshawar attack, with action being taken against 1,100 people for misusing loudspeakers. Both numbers grew as the year went on, with the likes of JUI leader Mufti Kifayat Ullah being arrested for hate speech, that included condemning Operation Zarb-e-Azb and glorifying Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) leader Malik Ishaq, who was killed in an ‘encounter’ in July. Punjab Home Mininister Shuja Khanzada’s assassination was also a reaction to Ishaq’s execution and the growing clampdown on mosques and madrassas that were spewing hatred in the province.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court has passed some defining judgements such as overturning Asia Bibi’s death sentence and upholding Mumtaz Qadri’s. The Qadri verdict was made further significant not just by the apex court reaffirming the ‘terrorism’ charges against him, but more crucially through Justice Asif Saeed Khosa’s assertion that critiquing blasphemy law doesn’t amount to sacrilege, which may very well open doors for a much-needed reform in the law.

Meanwhile, IS has grown by leaps and bounds. From being centred around Iraq and Levant, it has penetrated South Asia, North Africa, and certain parts of the Middle East, and even infiltrated the European Union in the past 12 months. Boko Haram announced its allegiance to IS in March, which means that IS now has a presence in Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Earlier in January, IS announced the creation of the Islamic state of Khorasan, through a statement released by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani from its media wing, which said: “We bring the mujahideen the good news of the Islamic State’s expansion to Khorasan (a region encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other nearby lands).”

With militants affiliated to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) from Bajaur, Khyber, Kurram and other tribal agencies formally pledging allegiance to IS, the group’s presence in Pakistan has been established. While the Interior Ministry and the Foreign Office, collectively and categorically, deny the IS presence in Pakistan, the group claimed responsibility for the Safoora Chowrangi massacre in May, and its pamphlets were found in the targeted Ismaili bus as well.

Last month’s IS-orchestrated attacks in Paris — and Beirut — coupled with the Ankara bombings in October, have further pushed the world towards uniting against the Islamic State, which has clearly taken over as the biggest jihadist threat in the world right now. With western allies and Russia, all pummeling IS militants in Iraq and Levant through airstrikes, the geostrategic expansion of the IS core has halted. This has been facilitated by Turkey seemingly sorting out its counter-terrorism priorities, after Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP fended off the Kurdish challenge in November’s elections to regain a parliamentary majority. Amidst the growing anti-IS coalition, and increased military action against the Islamic State, the only way the latter can expand its caliphate delusion is through militant factions, Islamic organisations and madrassas pledging their allegiance around the globe.

Abdul Aziz’s support for IS and his return to a violent movement for the imposition of Shariah, is detrimental not only for Pakistan’s progress, but for the global movement against jihadism, which needs to be spearheaded by Muslim states, and not the West. Multiple reasons have been cited for the government dilly-dallying over taking action against Aziz, from the threat of a nationwide surge in violence to the state laying the groundwork for comprehensive and decisive action against Lal Masjid. With the backlash inevitable whenever the move is made, and as Pakistani and global interests converge on a clampdown against jihadism, now is as good a time as any to do away with the terror-monger, who claims allegiance to IS, once and for all.

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

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