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The Lal Masjid Assault on Islamabad

Posted on April 7, 2007
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Law & Justice, Politics, Religion, Society
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Adil Najam

Just over a week ago, I had written: "The pictures coming out of Islamabad are not good. Not good at all." Since then, they have only gotten worse.

The city that I spent so many of my formative years in is under siege from within. But more than that the capital of the country is under assault from self-righteous zealots who not only believe that they and only they can determine who is right and who is not but are bent to enforce their will on others.

And a military government that has otherwise not been shy of using force but whose legitimacy has been shattered by its recent misuse of force, sits on the sideline like a tamashai. Either the cynics are right in believing that it prefers the distraction, or it has actually realized that the fabric of society is now so torn and divided that mistimed action could wreck inimaginable – and uncontainable – havoc… not only on the government’s longevity but on the nation’s survival.

Following the kidnapping of an alleged ‘brothel’ by the women students of Jamia Hafsa – who still hold a children’s library hostage – the leaders have not only declared victory but have upped the ante by announcing the establishment of a ‘Shariat Court’ of their own and, according to Dawn, "vowed to enforce Islamic laws in the federal capital and threatened to unleash a wave of suicide bombers if the government took any action to counter it." The report in Dawn goes on to say:

“Our youth will commit suicide attacks, if the government impedes the enforcement of the Sharia and attacks Lal Masjid and its sister seminaries," Maulana Abdul Aziz, the in-charge of the mosque said in his Friday sermon. The fresh suicide bombing threat is stated to be the strongest given so far by the hard-line clerics of the Lal Masjid, intensifying fear among Islamabad residents.

President Gen Pervez Musharraf had recently stated that he knew that the Lal Masjid’s management wilfully harboured suicide bombers. He said that the suicide bomber who had attacked Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel in January 2007, had been seen near the mosque the same day.

Maulana Abdul Aziz announced the setting up of a Qazi court in his sermon that also marked the opening of a three-day Nifaz Sharia-o-Azmat Jihad Conference. A large number of supporters had reached the mosque. The government did nothing to stop the groups of people coming from different cities and nearby areas throughout the day to participate in the conference.

Religious activists, some of whom were wearing masks, also staged a demonstration before the Friday prayers. Burqa-clad girl students of Madressah Hafsa kept a vigil atop the seminary’s roof. The activists were chanting "Al Jihad, Al Jihad". Armed with sticks, a group of religious activists set on fire thousands of video and audio cassettes and computer compact discs, "given up" voluntarily by a shopowner who, according to them, had announced to abandon "this business".

Maulana Aziz reminded the shopkeepers that they had been given a 30-day deadline to close down their "evil" businesses and switch over to some other "decent" venture and said students of the seminary would punish the shopkeepers who did not do so. He asked traders to financially "support" the owners of video and CDs shops to enableg them to switch over to some other business. Maulana Aziz urged the authorities and the people concerned to stop dealing in video CDs, putting up billboards with womens photographs, selling liquor and running "brothels" and drug dens in Islamabad.

MARRIAGE PROPOSAL: Maulana Aziz said that a "special centre" had been set up in Madressah Hafsa titled "Taibaat Abidaat Centre" to provide shelter to women who would voluntarily give up their "immoral activities". He said these women would be provided "security and protection" through "marriages". Maulana Aziz announced that he would marry any woman who repented and gave up her immoral life. “I am now 46 years old and am ready to marry a woman who is between 35 to 40 years of age. If she promises to live a life of piety, I promise that I will never refer about her past life," Maulana Aziz announced.

Maulana Aziz said that they would enforce Sharia in areas which had been under their influence. The management of the mosque informed the media that "Qazi court" would comprise 10 Muftis. However, it declined to disclose their name.

A source told Dawn that no renowned scholar had been made the judge of the "Qazi court" and it consisted of teachers of the Madressah Faridia, a seminary which was also being run by Lal Masjid.

QAZI COURT: Maulana Ghazi Abdul Rasheed, deputy in-charge of the mosque and a younger brother of Maulana Abdul Aziz, told reporters if Jirga and Panchayat system were not considered parallel judicial systems why was Qazi court being called a parallel system. “We will see whether people will come to the Qazi court or prefer going to courts of the state for seeking justice," he said.

Describing the functions of the "Qazi court", Maulana Ghazi said it would be mandatory for rival parties to submit an affidavit that they would accept the court’s decision. “They will have to obey the court’s verdicts," he replied when some reporters asked him what action would the administration of Lal Masjid take against ‘disobedient people’. He said they would launch a campaign to ‘persuade’ people to bring their disputes and social problems to the "Qazi court".

While most political forces in the country have condemned these announcements, the MMA finds itself in a particular fix on this one. According to the separate Dawn report:

"We have nothing to do with the issue," said deputy chief of Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) Liaquat Baloch when contacted by Dawn for comments on the action taken by some clerics and students of Lal Masjid and its affiliated Madressah Hafsa. Opposition Leader in the National Assembly and head of his own faction of the Jamiat-i-Ulema-Islam (JUI-F) Maulana Fazlur Rehman refused to talk on the issue. His mobile phone was attended by a person named Abdul Sattar who said that the Maulana would not speak on the Madressah Hafsa issue. "If you want to talk on the Madressah Hafsa issue, the Maulana will not talk to you and he has said the same thing to several TV channels’ correspondents," he said.

Mr Liaquat Baloch said that the setting up of Qazi courts and enforcement of Sharia in a particular area was an "independent decision" of the Lal Masjid administration and a reaction to the government’s "foolish policy" of promoting obscenity by propagating Gen Musharraf’s so-called enlightened moderation. When asked if he condemned the decision of the Lal Masjid administration of setting up parallel courts, Mr Baloch said the MMA believed in the Constitution of Pakistan and was struggling for its enforcement. He said the government should avoid any action against Madressah Hafsa which might lead to bloodshed. He also advised the Lal Masjid administration to join the MMA’s larger struggle for the rule of constitution in the country.

Replying to a question on the presence of party MNA Mian Aslam in Lal Masjid on Friday, Mr Baloch said that he had been sent by the party after receiving a report that some Ulema were going to announce the stoning to death punishment for someone. The report, however, proved wrong when the Ulema told the MNA that they were planning to pelt the seized video CDs with stones.

Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) information secretary Ahsan Iqbal told Dawn that the Lal Masjid Ulema were only following Gen Musharraf’s doctrine that one could use the power of gun to impose a particular agenda on the society. "There is no difference between what Gen Musharraf is doing and what the Lal Masjid Ulema are doing," he said. He said the situation reflected the crisis of governance inflicted by the seven-year rule of Gen Musharraf. During the Musharraf era, he said, the nation had witnessed a rise in ethno-nationalist militancy and religious extremism.

It is true that this government – but also all the governments before it, going back to the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, have varying responsibilities in getting the situation to this dire stage. It is also true that this action by the Lal Masjid leadership might help the government in the very short term – by providing a distraction from the Chief Justice fiasco and also by reminding many Pakistanis who had once supported Gen. Musharraf but no longer do why they had done so in the first place.

But in the final analysis the drama that is playing out in Islamabad today is much bigger than this government or its health. This is about what Pakistan is and what it is going to be. To confuse what is happening in Islamabad today with the mere machinations of a few clerics or the survival tactics of government types is not only to miss the point, it could very well mean missing the boat on something that will influence the future of both the state and of society.

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