Pakistan: Lal Masjid 2.0 ?
Tilak Devasher, Consultant, VIF

Lal Masjid in Islamabad and Maulana Abdul Aziz, also known as ‘Mullah Burqa’, are back in the news. Like in 2007, the authorities are again negotiating with him on a set of demands that no self-respecting government could concede. Almost 13 years after the events of July 2007 concerns have been expressed that Islamabad could well return to a similar situation if Aziz is not stopped at this stage.

Lal Masjid is located in the heart of Islamabad, quite close to the ISI HQs. It attracts the faithful from several parts of the federal capital.

In 1970, the Capital Development Authority (CDA) had allotted a plot for the Lal Masjid and for the Jamia Hafsa (a seminary for women). One Maulana Abdullah was appointed the Khateeb (prayer leader). He openly advocated jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and was reported to be quite close to Gen Zia ul Haq. His sons, Maulanas Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid succeeded him after his assassination in 1998. Aziz remained khateeb of Lal Masjid from 1998 to 2004. Though suspended in 2004 he continued to control the mosque.

The two brothers instigated their students, largely from the then FATA and the NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), into radical Islamic ideology and became a magnet for banned militant organisations, including the Al Qaeda and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and foreign terrorists. Under their watch in April 2007 they warned the government of Pervez Musharraf: ‘There will be suicide blasts in every nook and cranny of the country. We have weapons, grenades and we are expert in manufacturing bombs. We are not afraid of death.’1 In July 2007, many baton-wielding male and female students took to the streets. They forcibly closed video stores; abducted Chinese women from a massage parlour that was dubbed a brothel; threatened to throw acid on nearby female university students and torched a government ministry building. They even attacked a Rangers post that was guarding the mosque. Such was their influence that the Chinese ambassador negotiated with them for the release of kidnapped Chinese nationals.

With escalating tensions, and pressure from the Chinese, in early July 2007 the army laid siege to the Lal Masjid that escalated into a pitched battle that lasted several hours on 11 July. The fighting left at least a 100 insurgents dead, including Abdul Rashid and 11 SSG commandos. The military also ended up demolishing the Jamia Hafsa seminary adjacent to mosque. Aziz was arrested as he tried to flee in a burqa. He was taken to a television studio and paraded in the garment - earning the moniker "Mullah Burqa".2

At the time Musharraf claimed the operation- named Sunrise - to be a big triumph. However, it was soon realised that it was only a fleeting victory. The siege in full view of TV cameras became a propaganda coup for the militants and led to the coalescing of violent extremists under the umbrella of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). There was a marked spike in terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings, in which thousands of Pakistanis were killed or injured.

Aziz faced two-dozen indictments, including incitement to hatred, murder and kidnapping. Despite his direct involvement in the violent siege, he was released on bail in 2009 and subsequently acquitted in all the cases. The government chose not to file appeals. All that happened was that he was barred from the Lal Masjid.

Following Aziz’s arrest, Maulana Abdul Ghaffar was appointed as the khateeb and Amir Siddiqui the naib khateeb on temporary basis. In 2009, Ghaffar left the mosque after the release of Aziz on bail and the latter started leading prayers again. He was again barred from leading prayers from 24 December 2014 after his inflammatory speech supporting the perpetrators of the terrorist attack on the Army Public School, Peshawar that killed over 150 people, mostly school children. During that sermon, he also targeted Shia political leaders. Amir Siddiqui – considered a political opponent of Aziz – then led prayers and was subsequently appointed the mosque’s khateeb.

Since his ouster from Lal Masjid, Aziz was running a small mosque in sector G-7 in Islamabad. On several occasions he tried to get back to the Lal Masjid and lead Friday prayers but the authorities prevented him from doing so.

In early 2020, the authorities transferred the Lal Masjid khateeb Amir Siddique without immediately appointing a successor. This created an opportunity for Aziz to enter the mosque with a group of female students, lead prayers and give the Friday sermon for two weeks without the administration having any inkling. 3 When they found out, Aziz refused to leave until his demands were met. These included: possession of the old children’s library plot near the Lal Masjid, a large piece of land for Jamia Hafsa – alongside Rs 250 million for construction– and being reinstated as the khateeb of Lal Masjid.4 The demands themselves were just the tip of the iceberg and the real issue was testing the government and challenging the writ of the state.

The government ultimately succumbed to his demands and agreed to give a 20-kanal piece of land for the construction of Jamia Hafsa in Islamabad. Pursuant to this, Aziz supposedly agreed to vacate Lal Masjid. When he failed to do so after the expiry of three days, the police once again cordoned the mosque.

In a final act of defiance at the time of writing, while most religious organisations have limited their gatherings and congregations in order to follow government guidelines in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the Lal Masjid administration has provocatively announced new study classes.

Aziz has long been known for his inflammatory discourses openly advocating armed jihad especially against the West and in order to enforce an Islamic Shariah-based system. He has also termed democracy un-Islamic. In 2014, he named the library the “Martyr Usama Bin Laden Library” to honour OBL because ‘he was an Islamist warrior.’5 In a telephone interview to Fox News in February 2018, Aziz said ‘We don’t see Pakistan anymore our destination, we will come out as a force to establish Islamic rule over the entire world.’6 He is a strong supporter of the Taliban since according to him Afghanistan was the only country in accordance with Sharia when the Taliban established its control. 7 In 2014, students of his madrassa circulated a video voicing their support for ISIS.

The moot question is why is Lal Masjid so important to Aziz? As he put it in an interview: ‘Lal Masjid has become the symbol of our mission and ideology. When we say something from here, the whole world listens. The government can tolerate me anywhere in Islamabad, but not this mosque. When I give sermons in a small mosque in G-7, nobody cares but when I speak from here, everyone listens.’ 8

One reason for the government inaction is the fear that like in 2007 action could provoke another eruption of terrorism in the country. The dilemma for the government, however, is that laxity shown towards Aziz now would further embolden him and encourage other radical religious elements in the country. The challenge for the Imran Khan government, as it was for Musharraf a decade ago, is how to deal with an extremist cleric who incites his supporters against the state but where the state itself is complicit in promoting such elements for distant foreign policy goals.

The conclusion is inescapable that the only reason Abdul Aziz has managed to resurface periodically is because the state has a use for him. This is confirmed by the fact that he has never been punished for hate speeches or for violating the law. The only punishment he received for keeping militants in Lal Masjid was to get banned from leading the Friday prayers for a short while. Commentators in Pakistan have also noted that while the state is quick to pounce on human rights activists and political workers whom it accuses of being anti-state, its response to violent religious extremists who openly challenge the state is tepid at best.

Where Aziz is especially dangerous is his open challenge of the state, promotion of extremist ideologies, hatred of others and religious fundamentalism across Pakistan. This has long-term consequences for society since he is instigating a new generation of extremists and his followers cock a snook at the law with impunity. With the government’s attention focussed on the Carona Virus pandemic, it is quite likely that Aziz will be able to consolidate his position in the Lal Masjid.

Tilak Devasher is the author of three acclaimed books on Pakistan: ‘Pakistan: Courting the Abyss’; ‘Pakistan: At the Helm’ and ‘Pakistan: The Balochistan Conundrum’. He is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. He is currently Member, National Security Advisory Board and Consultant, Vivekananda International Foundation. He tweets as @tilakdevasher1. Views expressed are personal.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

References
  1. Pervez Hoodbhoy, ‘Islamabad succumbs’, The Guardian, 07 May 2007, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2007/may/17/islamabadsuccumbs
  2. Red Mosque’s Abdul Aziz active again, The Nation, 29 September 2017, http://nation.com.pk/national/29-Sep-2017/red-mosque-s-abdul-aziz-active-again
  3. Waqar Gillani , ‘Extremist threat returns to Lal Masjid’, The News, 16 February 2020 https://www.thenews.com.pk/tns/detail/613865-extremist-threat-returns-to-lal-masjid
  4. ‘Intolerable Action’, edit in The Nation, 09 February 2020, https://nation.com.pk/09-Feb-2020/intolerable-action
  5. Maulana Abdul Aziz keeps ‘martyr’ Bin Laden library, vows worldwide Sharia report in Pakistan Today, Mar 1, 2018, https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2018/03/01/maulana-abdul-aziz-keeps-martyr-bin-laden-library-vows-worldwide-sharia/
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8. Waqar Gillani , ‘Extremist threat returns to Lal Masjid’

Image Source: https://tribune.com.pk/story/1518337/pakistans-contradictory-crackdown-red-mosque-extremism/

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