Con­tra­dic­tory crack­down on mosque ‘ex­trem­ism’

US airstrike hurts civil­ians


IS­LAM­ABAD, Sept 28, (Agen­cies): De­spite pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion and pe­ri­ods of house arrest, the for­mer leader of Pak­istan’s no­to­ri­ous Red Mosque is in­spir­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of ex­trem­ists with his old rhetoric — high­light­ing Is­lam­abad’s am­biva­lent at­tempts to bring re­li­gious hard­lin­ers to heel.

Ten years af­ter the mil­i­tary raid on his mosque made in­ter­na­tional head­lines and shocked his coun­try,

Ab­dul Aziz re­mains in­flu­en­tial, over­see­ing a net­work of sem­i­nar­ies as he calls for a “caliphate” to be es­tab­lished in Pak­istan.

Dur­ing his time at the helm of the Red Mosque, Aziz shot to promi­nence for his in­flam­ma­tory ser­mons, ad­vo­cat­ing ji­had against the West and a hard­line in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lam.

He spread this mes­sage among his thou­sands of stu­dents, mostly poor chil­dren from ru­ral ar­eas who are ed­u­cated for free at madras­sas af­fil­i­ated with the mosque, spark­ing ac­cu­sa­tions of brain­wash­ing from crit­ics.

By 2007 things had reached a tip­ping point.

His armed fol­low­ers had be­gun tak­ing his mes­sage to the streets of the cap­i­tal, van­dal­is­ing CD and DVD stalls and kid­nap­ping Chi­nese masseuses, with ten­sions quickly de­gen­er­at­ing into mur­der­ous clashes. When the regime of then-Pres­i­dent Pervez Mushar­raf launched an as­sault on the mosque on July 10, 2007, the army found it­self fac­ing heav­ily armed ji­hadists.

The con­tro­ver­sial oper­a­tion was fol­lowed minute-by-minute on live tele­vi­sion, with more than 100 peo­ple killed in the week-long ef­fort to pacify the mosque and arrest its lead­ers.

The at­tack on the re­li­gious site sparked fe­ro­cious blow­back from ex­trem­ists across the coun­try, mark­ing the emer­gence of the Pak­istani Tale­ban (TTP) — an um­brella or­gan­i­sa­tion for home­grown mil­i­tant groups tar­get­ing the Pak­istani state.

In the fol­low­ing years Is­lamist vi­o­lence in­creased dra­mat­i­cally, with thou­sands of Pak­ista­nis killed, maimed, or forced to flee their homes as se­cu­rity de­te­ri­o­rated.

Aziz him­self was ar­rested as he tried to flee the be­sieged mosque in a burqa, taken straight to a tele­vi­sion stu­dio and pa­raded in the gar­ment — earn­ing the nick­name “Mul­lah Burqa”.

He faced two dozen in­dict­ments, in­clud­ing in­cite­ment to ha­tred, murder and kid­nap­ping. But Aziz was re­leased on bail in 2009.

“He was ac­quit­ted in all these cases, and the gov­ern­ment has cho­sen not to file ap­peals,” said lawyer and civil rights ac­tivist Ji­bran Nasir.

“There is no will­ing­ness for pros­e­cu­tion against him.”

De­spite brief stints un­der house arrest, Aziz now ap­pears to be gal­vanis­ing the next gen­er­a­tion with his fiery preach­ing — ap­par­ently with­out fear of reper­cus­sions.

“The cu­ri­ous thing is that the army has gone af­ter the TTP but not Aziz,” said Pervez Hoodb­hoy, a lead­ing anti-ex­trem­ist ac­tivist.

“There’s sym­pa­thy for his cause that’s greater than the fear of be­ing at­tacked again.”

Aziz is known to boast of his re­la­tions with well known ji­hadists like Osama Bin Laden and has spo­ken sym­pa­thet­i­cally about the Is­lamic State group. He has also con­doned high-pro­file ex­trem­ist at­tacks, like the mas­sacre at the Char­lie Hebdo of­fices in Paris.

“The im­punity enjoyed by Ab­dul Aziz and other rad­i­cal cler­ics raises fear of the cap­i­tal re­turn­ing to a 2007-like sit­u­a­tion,” said po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor Zahid Hus­sain.

In 2014, a video of stu­dents from his madrassa voic­ing their sup­port for IS did not earn him any con­dem­na­tion.

“There should be a caliphate in the world in­clud­ing in Pak­istan,” said Aziz in a tele­vised in­ter­view around that time.


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