Above the law

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Zahid Hus­sain

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.

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