Above the law
MAULANA Abdul Aziz of the Lal Masjid is seldom away from controversy. In a video message posted on social media last month, the cleric accused a senior ISI official belonging to "the other sect" of playing the role of spoiler in what he described as positive negotiations with other officials of the agency. But the security agencies have not taken action against him for attempting to incite sectarian hatred again this time. Clearly, the long arm of the law does not reach a proclaimed offender even if he defies the country's Constitution and openly defends militant violence. The case of Maulana Aziz is yet another example of the selective use of the National Action Plan that has long lost its way. With no less than the federal interior minister often defending him one cannot blame the security agencies for their inaction.
In a rare gesture last week, the maulana announced his readiness to forgive former president Gen Musharraf and others involved in the 2007 military operation against Lal Masjid that killed his younger brother Abdul Rashid Ghazi. This sudden display of magnanimity is not hard to understand. Surely it must have come from the prodding by those who want the maulana "to turn the other cheek" so that his family can be absolved of their own transgressions.
In fact, the maulana and his deceased brother were accused of inciting violence against the state, and were held responsible for turning the mosque into a sanctuary for militants. It may be argued that the massive use of force by the state was avoidable, but the military action cannot be described as unprovoked. Who were the gunmen entrenched inside the mosque who engaged the elite special forces for over a week, killing some soldiers, including an officer? Why were sophisticated weapons stored in a place of worship? Those who have been defending the maulana must answer those questions.
In 2004, the maulana and other clerics of the mosque issued a fatwa calling for people to join the militant resistance against the army in Waziristan. They declared that those fighting the Pakistani forces were martyrs and urged the people not to give a Muslim burial to soldiers killed in the fighting. It is also a fact that the militants associated with Lal Masjid were linked to many of the terrorist attacks in the country, following the 2007 operation. After maintaining a low profile for a few years following his release from detention, the maulana was back in action reviving his extremist agenda. An intelligence report last year warned that the maulana's links with militant groups involved in terrorist activities presented a grave security threat. The report also cited a video message recorded by students of the madressah Hafsa pledging allegiance to the militant Islamic State group, even if the Lal Masjid administration tried to distance itself from the video.
Surely, the mosque's link with outlawed militant and sectarian groups is not a secret. But the allegiance of the maulana's disciples to IS is much more serious. Unsurprisingly, the intelligence warning and the open support for the global militant group by the Hafsa girls appears to have been ignored by the interior minister who is supposed to be leading the nation's counterterrorism and counter-extremism efforts.
Interestingly, a local court had issued a warrant of arrest, but he was not arrested. In a recent statement, the cleric justified his decision not to seek bail before arrest because of an istakhara that did not approve of it. But one can perceive the interior minister trying to cover up for him when he told the Senate that there was no case pending against the cleric. He finally appeared before a judge on Feb 2 to obtain pre-arrest bail in two cases.
Mostly invisible, the interior minister hardly seems to miss a chance to defend the maulana. It was not the first time the minister came out in defence of the maulana. He has made similar statements not only attempting to protect him, but also others of his ilk. In this context, how can one forget his going hoarse over the killing of Hakeemullah Mehsud in a US drone strike? It is not just about Maulana Abdul Aziz and his Lal Masjid brigade, but the way the National Action Plan is apparently being set aside to protect certain extremist elements. Most banned organisations have continued to operate under new banners, in Punjab particularly. The interior minister presented a long list of those arrested for being involved with banned organisations and those found violating anti-terrorism laws, but there is no information available on whether any of them have been tried and convicted by the courts.
This selective use of NAP has further divided the nation rendering our counterterrorism efforts almost ineffective. It is valid criticism that NAP is being enforced only in Karachi where it has been extended beyond its mandate. While Dr Asim Hussain is arrested for terror financing, people like Maulana Aziz are allowed to operate freely despite their open links with the militant and extremist groups.
While the interior minister vows to make Islamabad a safe city, the apparent revival of Lal Masjid as the citadel of extremism and the growth of new madressahs in the city defy the claim. The law-enforcement agencies appear helpless to deal with a cleric with extremist views. Until recently, mobile phone services were suspended during Friday prayers to block Maulana Aziz's telephonic sermons. But the administration dare not touch him.
Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan in a recent news conference lamented that while defeating militancy militarily, we are suffering from psychological defeat. There is no disagreement with the statement. But who is responsible for that psychological defeat? Certainly people like the interior minister himself who openly defend people like Maulana Aziz are responsible for this state of affairs.