Ex­trem­ist cleric tar­gets new breed

Khaleej Times - - PAKISTAN -

is­lam­abad — De­spite pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion and pe­ri­ods of house ar­rest, the for­mer leader of the Lal Masjid (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, Mul­lah 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 Lal Masjid, 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 mil­i­tants.

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 Tehreeki-Tale­ban Pak­istani (TTP) — an um­brella or­gan­i­sa­tion for sev­eral ter­ror­ist groups tar­get­ing the Pak­istani state.

In the fol­low­ing years ter­ror­ist 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 mil­i­tants like Osama bin Laden and has spo­ken sym­pa­thet­i­cally about the ter­ror­ist group Daesh. He has also con­doned high-pro­file ex­trem­ist at­tacks, like the mas­sacre at the blas­phe­mer 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 Daesh 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.

Aziz “is tol­er­ated be­cause it would be like touch­ing a hor­net’s nest”, ex­plains for­mer gen­eral Talat Ma­sood. Given the sen­si­tiv­ity of the pop­u­la­tion to re­li­gious ques­tions, in­ter­ven­ing “would risk at­tract­ing sym­pa­thies”.

Au­thor­i­ties, how­ever, ap­pear to be keep­ing him on a tight leash for now. Aziz is no longer wel­come at the Lal Masjid, which the­o­ret­i­cally be­longs to the state, and he has been placed on the Pak­istan’s anti-ter­ror­ist list.

A rally planned by his sup­port­ers to com­mem­o­rate the 10th an­niver­sary of the Lal Masjid siege was banned by the courts. In re­cent months, the au­thor­i­ties have blocked roads sur­round­ing the mosque to pre­vent Aziz from hold­ing ral­lies and have taken mea­sures to stop him from preach­ing on Fri­day, even re­motely by phone.

The Lal Masjid’s new imam Maulana Amir Sidiqi, an af­fa­ble 30-yearold, said it was time to “for­get the past” and “the ex­treme po­si­tions” of a decade ago. “We must put a dis­tance be­tween ter­ror­ism and us,” said Sidiq — who hap­pens to be Aziz’s nephew. —

It is time to for­get the past and the ex­treme po­si­tions of a decade ago. We must put a dis­tance be­tween ter­ror­ism and us Maulana Amir Sidiqi, new imam of Lal Masjid


Faith­ful leav­ing af­ter of­fer­ing Fri­day prayers at the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Is­lam­abad. De­spite pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion and a stint in jail, the for­mer leader of the mosque is in­spir­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of ex­trem­ists with his old rhetoric — high­light­ing Is­lam­abad’s am­biva­lent at­tempts to bring re­li­gious hard­lin­ers to heel. —


Chief cleric Amir Sid­diqi de­liv­er­ing a ser­mon dur­ing Fri­day prayers at the Red Mosque in Is­lam­abad. —

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