|An armed student of the mosque wears a gas mask and carries an automatic weapon during an exchange of fire between radical students and paramilitary troops in Islamabad on Tuesday and (below) veiled female students hold bamboo sticks and shout anti-government slogans outside their seminary in the mosque compound. (AFP)
July 3: The Lal Masjid operation may or may not match India’s Bluestar in its scale, but both standoffs have similar origins, analysts say.
The mosque that has been the face of Pakistani Islamic radicalism for the past six months is widely seen as a Frankenstein spawned by late President Zia-ul Haq’s attempts to build an Islamic society.
Many are ready to draw a parallel with Indira Gandhi’s alleged patronage of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in his early days to get back at the Akalis, her political enemies in Punjab.
Zia was still 12 years from seizing power when his close friend and cleric, Maulana Muhammad Abdullah, established the mosque in 1965.
After becoming dictator in 1977, the general introduced many provisions of Sharia into Pakistani law while Abdullah preached jihad, a concept whose appeal grew as the Afghan mujahideen fought the Soviet aggressors.
Yet, in contrast to its current status as the home of a Taliban-style students’ movement, the “Red Mosque” those days was a favourite with the city elite, including Presidents, Prime Ministers and army chiefs.
And, of course, the ISI. A large number of staff from Pakistan’s spy service, which helped train and arm the Afghan mujahideen as well as Kashmir militants, came to the mosque every day to say their prayers. After all, Lal Masjid was a stone’s throw from the ISI headquarters.
The mosque became more radicalised after Maulana Abdullah was assassinated in 1998 and his son Maulana Abdul Aziz took over as chief cleric.
As the war on terror began and Pakistan became a US ally, the mosque became one of the many Islamic centres that openly bad-mouthed Islamabad and Washington and praised the Taliban.
Aziz’s first big step into the limelight came in 2005 when the sprightly, middle-aged man issued a fatwa declaring Pakistani soldiers killed fighting militants in the northern tribal areas could not be accorded Muslim funeral rites.
The edict angered the government which, after the July 2005 London bombings, sent police to raid the mosque and the men’s madarsa in its compound to probe possible links with one of the bombers.
But baton-wielding women students from the Jamia Hafsa seminary — the second madarsa in the compound — held back the security forces.
Since then, the women have played a lead role in the movement, powered by the mosque’s clerics and the two madarsas’ 5,000 students, to inculcate the Taliban’s values in Pakistan.
The current standoff began in January when the women occupied a library next to their madarsa to protest the destruction of mosques built illegally on state land. The government buckled under the pressure.
An emboldened Aziz issued the government an ultimatum: stop all “immoral” activities in the country in a month. He announced plans to set up vigilante Islamic courts and exhorted followers to become suicide bombers if their movement was suppressed. That was his Big Step II.
The vigilantes began a spree of abductions. On March 27, burqa-clad female students abducted three women they accused of running a brothel and held them for three days till they “repented”. Four policemen were seized in May.
The government refrained from using force out of fear that it could provoke the threatened suicide attacks. There also were concerns over potential casualties among the female students, which could be a political disaster.
But on June 23, the women kidnapped nine people, including six Chinese women, accusing them of running a brothel. The hostages were freed after 17 hours but Chinese masseurs began fleeing Islamabad and Rawalpindi and Beijing complained.
Last Friday, when President Pervez Musharraf accused the mosque of sheltering suicide bombers from the Jaish-e-Mohammed, it was clear that a face-off was looming.