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The Red Mosque and the Talibanisation of Pakistan

July 10, 2007

Red Mosque: a link in the talibanisation of Pakistan

By Suzanna Koster in Islamabad*


Dozens of people have been killed or injured in the storming by government troops of the Red Mosque in the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad. The authorities say that resistance leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi was among the victims. Hundreds of women and children were in the mosque and the two adjacent religious schools.

Red Mosque (photo: ANP) The mosque had been taken over by militant Muslims demanding that Sharia law be implemented in the capital. The takeover appears to be part of the talibanisation of Pakistan, a country that is one of the United States' partners in the war on terror.

The kidnapping of alleged prostitutes and threats against owners of music and video shops by radical students attending the Red Mosque calls to mind scenes from the early days of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Campaign of talibanisation
In the tribal regions, the Pakistani equivalent of the Taliban has been conducting a talibanisation campaign. Girls schools have been set on fire, barbers have been banned from shaving beards and people have been stopped from listening to music and watching videos.

Initially, the campaign was restricted to the semi-autonomous tribal areas but the campaign spread to the North West Frontier Province, NWFP, one of Pakistan's four provinces. Six months ago, the campaign hit parts of Islamabad.

Allies of the general
Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, bears a great deal of responsibility for the talibanisation. After he came to power in a bloodless coup in 1998, he sidelined the moderate, secular opposition parties. The popularity of the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Moslem League-Nawaz were a threat to his regime. The religious parties, who are generally sympathetic to militant groups and the Taliban, became the general's allies.

Jamia Hafsa, the religious girls school attached to the Red Mosque, added an unauthorised extra storey to the building in January. The city government protested against the building work. In reaction, militant students occupied an adjacent public children's library. The authorities did not evict the students, instead several ministers started negotiations with them.

These negotiations dramatically improved the stature of the leaders of the radical mosque and Abdul Aziz Ghazi, head of the mosque and his younger brother Abdul Rashid Ghazi, head of Jamia Hafsa, issued more demands. They called for the implementation of Sharia law, strict Islamic law, throughout Pakistan.

Most Pakistanis want nothing to do with Sharia law and are crazy about music, especially Indian music, and breathed a sigh of relief when the government finally tackled the radical leaders. The Pakistani media also reacted positively, though most of them said that General Musharraf should have taken action earlier.

However, militants in other parts of the country came out in support of the Red Mosque radicals. In Swat, in NWFP, where the radio broadcasts by religious leader Maulana Fazlullah persuaded dozens of girls to stop going to school, there have been regular battles between security troops and Mr Fazlullah's followers. He had earlier publicly announced his support for the Ghazi Brothers.

In the tribal regions, there were several demonstrations in support of the leaders of Islamabad's Red Mosque. There was an attack on General Musharraf's aircraft and unknown assailants murdered three Chinese citizens and seriously injured a fourth in Peshawar, capital of NWFP.

Some analysts say the murder of the Chinese citizens was in revenge for Beijing demanding that Chinese workers in Pakistan be better protected. Beijing's demand was in response to the kidnapping of six Chinese women by radical students, who claimed that the women were prostitutes. The women were later released.

Army of Mohammed
General Musharraf claims that members of the al-Qaeda-linked Army of Mohammed, Jaish-e-Mohammad, were also in the mosque. The group is alleged to have close links with the Ghazi Brothers. The Army of Mohammad is fighting against what it calls the Indian occupation of Jammu and Kashmir and has carried out dozens of attacks. The groups financing is alleged to come mainly from Pakistani living in Great Britain.

Pakistani newspapers have warned that the general's attack on the Red Mosque, named Operation Silence, must not be repeated in the tribal regions as resistance to the security forces will be greater and far more professional.


Pakistan faces the Taleban's tentacles
By Barbara Plett
BBC News, Bannu, northern Pakistan

Pakistani Taleban on a truck The Taleban say they are enforcing Islamic law
In a remote Pakistani town, a singer lives in fear.

Zaher Uddin used to perform at weddings, now he sings only in the privacy of his home. The white walls are draped with festive garlands, tools of his newly defunct trade. Music has been banned by local religious militants, or Taleban.

Mr Uddin talks about the hardship of his job, but he won't talk about the Taleban, he's too afraid.

Vigilante vice squads have recently begun to patrol the streets of Surai Norang, located near the city of Bannu in north-western Pakistan.

Wheat field rendezvous

Armed Pakistani tribesmen had been imposing their own hardline version of Islam in the lawless border region near Afghanistan. But their influence is spreading, and the state seems powerless to stop it.

Pakistan Taleban leader Qari Sarfraz We believe that you are justified in carrying out suicide bombings against the enemies of Islam
Pakistan Taleban commander Qari Sarfraz
Qari Sarfraz interview

One music shop owner in Surai Norang has learned that the hard way. He switched to selling Islamic cassettes after his store was bombed. In the two months since he's made less than $4.

"The police are not helping or protecting us," he says. "In fact they called us and told us not to sell these music cassettes, otherwise we'd be in trouble."

The members of this radical religious movement are Pakistani, but they're inspired by the Afghan Taleban. They support its leader Mullah Omar, rather than Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf.

A Taleban commander, Qari Sarfraz, agrees to meet us.

He and his men drive across a riverbed in their pick-up trucks for a rendezvous in a wheat field. They have Kalashnikov rifles thrown over their shoulders, and pistols stuck into holsters slung across their chests.

'Not involved'

The commander tells us he's the head of a mobile unit sent from the tribal region of North Waziristan to the Bannu area. He says the Taleban have a duty to enforce Islamic law wherever they can because the government has failed to do so.

He supports those who've tried to assassinate the president in the past - they were "doing the right thing", he says.

"We don't have the power or capacity to remove this government. We cannot bring down the Musharraf regime, so we don't intend to do that. What we are trying to do is that in our area, if we see something un-Islamic happening, we try to stop it, because we are responsible for our own area."


The Pakistani Taleban are also blamed for a recent wave of suicide bombings. Qari Sarfraz says his men haven't been involved.

"We believe that you are justified in carrying out suicide bombings against the enemies of Islam," he says. "But if you do it the way they are doing it in Pakistan, killing their own people and civilians... I don't know. Those who are doing it, sponsoring it, they have to answer Allah and justify it."

After extending an invitation to lunch the men clamber into their trucks and speed away.

All this seems a world away from the capital city, Islamabad. It's a liberal, secular place by Pakistani standards: men and women mingle freely, they're able to buy the latest Western music, DVDs and fashion.

But in the centre of town the radical Red Mosque, or Lal Masjid, has also been challenging the government to enforce Islamic law.

Its religious students have occupied a public building to put pressure on the authorities. And they've launched their own self-styled anti vice campaign: the women abducting alleged prostitutes, the men torching a pile of videos and DVDs in the middle of town.

Sign of weakness

Among their targets was the tourism minister, denounced by the mosque for an innocent hug while paragliding in France. It was reacting to newspaper pictures of Nilofar Bakhtiar embracing her elderly instructor.

But Mrs Bakhtiar says the government can't fight fire with fire.

DVDs and CDs being burnt 'UnIslamic' DVDs, CDs and videos have been publicly burnt

"Now [the Taleban] are showing up in the capital and they're trying to show their strength," she says. "So we want to negotiate and convince them they're wrong; if we just start shooting tomorrow, then we will also be Taleban, and we don't want to do that."

The government's failure to enforce its authority in the heart of the capital has infuriated Pakistan's Westernised elite. Some accuse it of cultivating the Lal Masjid crisis to distract attention from growing domestic problems.

But others say the Lal Masjid shows just how far Talebanisation has reached. They say the government's refusal to act is a sign of weakness, and in the vacuum, Talebanisation grows stronger.


Red Mosque offensive 'nears end'
Pakistani soldiers near the Red Mosque - 10/7/2007 The military say their operation is still not fully completed
Pakistan's army says an operation to flush out militants from a mosque in Islamabad is in its final stages - 24 hours after troops stormed the complex.

Several loud explosions and gunfire were heard on Wednesday morning.

During heavy fighting on Tuesday, the Red Mosque's militant cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi and some 50 of his supporters were killed, the army said.

Students at the mosque and its attached religious schools have waged a campaign for months pressing for Sharia law.

On Tuesday, eight soldiers also died, and some 50 women and children were freed, the army says.

Pakistan's military spokesman Gen Waheed Arshad said the battle had progressed slowly because the army was anxious to avoid casualties among the unknown number of women and children in the basement.

Red Mosque siege area

A local ambulance driver said he had seen many bodies.

The army says it now controls 95% of the complex. The few remaining militants are believed to be holed up in the private quarters of Mr Ghazi.

Abdul Rashid Ghazi This is naked aggression - my martyrdom is certain now
Abdul Rashid Ghazi
Press asks attack questions In pictures: Mosque assault Obituary: Abdul Rashid Ghazi From joy to despair

Public anger in the capital had been mounting after they kidnapped policemen as well as people they considered to be involved in immoral, un-Islamic activities.

But there is also the danger of a violent reaction from members of other radical mosques, the BBC's Barbara Plett in Islamabad says.

They will almost certainly see Mr Ghazi as a martyr and his death may become a rallying point for Islamic extremists opposed to President Pervez Musharraf's rule, our correspondent says.

Islamabad, the country's capital, remains on high alert.

In recent days the army has redeployed thousands of troops in north-western Pakistan where pro-Taleban militants opposed to President Musharraf have been carrying out a string of attacks said to be linked to the mosque siege.

'Killed in cross-fire'

The troops attacked the mosque on Tuesday morning and took control of most of the complex during heavy fighting which raged as they went from room to room throughout the day.

Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said Mr Ghazi was killed as troops were flushing out militants still inside a madrassa (religious school) for women and girls inside the mosque compound.

RED MOSQUE STAND-OFF 3 July: Clashes erupt at mosque, 16 killed, after long student campaign for Islamic Sharia law 4 July: About 700 students leave mosque, now besieged by security forces; mosque leader caught trying to flee wearing woman's burka 5 July: More than 1,000 students surrender to security forces 6 July: Women are allowed to leave the mosque; students' deputy leader says he would rather die than surrender 8 July: Ministers say wanted militants are holding women and children inside the mosque 9 July: Negotiators talk to mosque leader via loudspeaker without progress; three Chinese workers are killed in Peshawar over siege 10 July: Pakistani troops storm mosque after failure of talks
Eyewitness: Mosque siege Profile: Red Mosque

"He was spotted in the basement and asked to come out. He came out with four or five militants who kept on firing at security forces," Mr Cheema told AFP news agency.

"The troops responded and in the cross-fire he was killed."

Brig Cheema said Mr Ghazi had used a number of women and children as "human shields", although the cleric always denied taking anyone hostage.

Mr Ghazi was deputy leader of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque). His brother, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who was head, was arrested trying to escape last week dressed in a burka.

Hours before his death, Mr Ghazi accused the authorities of "naked aggression".

"My martyrdom is certain now," he told Pakistan's Geo television station.


It is not clear how many people were inside the complex when it was stormed.

In addition to those killed, about 70 militants had been captured or surrendered, the army said earlier.

Security forces began a full-scale siege of the Lal Masjid last Tuesday, not long after mosque students abducted seven Chinese workers they accused of running a brothel.

The government had said it wanted to detain a number of people on a wanted list, and also a number of foreigners whom it said were inside.

Talks reportedly broke down over the militants' demand for an amnesty for all in the mosque.

The authorities said "hardcore terrorists" were inside the mosque, some belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammad, an outlawed radical Muslim organisation which has been linked to al-Qaeda.

Mr Ghazi had denied the presence of any banned extremist groups. He had said those inside were students of his religious school.

THE RED MOSQUE SIEGE map 1 Special forces attack compound from three sides and breach mosque walls 2 Fierce fighting between military and militants on mosque roof 3 Military take control of mosque and clear building 4 Militants fire from mosque minarets as action switches to madrassa 5 Remaining militants holed up in its basement, with women and children


The Abdul Rashid Ghazi I knew

By David Blair
Last Updated: 7:25pm BST 10/07/2007

Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the radical preacher who died today when Pakistani forces stormed the Red Mosque, did not fit the popular image of a fundamentalist ideologue.

When I was based in Pakistan for the "Daily Telegraph" in 2002, I met Ghazi several times and spoke to him on the phone quite frequently. As radical Islamists go, he was affable, pleasant and engaging.

Ghazi spoke good English and enjoyed showing off this fact. On two or three occasions, he invited me to visit him in the Red Mosque in Islamabad, where he was the leading preacher along with his elder brother, Abdul Aziz.

I remember sitting cross legged on a thick carpet beneath the dome of the mosque, drinking endless cups of tea as Ghazi regaled me with his views.

  • He was scornful about Gen Pervez Musharraf, who he considered no better than an American puppet, a view shared by plenty of Pakistanis.

    Ghazi was also quite open about his admiration for Osama bin Laden, who he claimed to have met in Afghanistan before the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001. "He is a very good Muslim", Ghazi would say of the al-Qa'eda leader. Terrorism, he would swiftly add, was contrary to the peaceful nature of Islam.

    Warming to his theme, Ghazi would say that any good Muslim who took up arms should not only refrain from harming civilians but also avoid "blowing the leaves from the trees".

    I would occasionally point out to Ghazi the obvious contradictions in his view of the world. How could a man of peace support bin Laden? How could he call for the violent overthrow of Musharraf while claiming to be in favour of democracy?

    "But bin Laden is not a terrorist," he would reply.

    Ghazi was convinced that bin Laden was innocent of responsibility for 9/11. I never managed to pin him down on who he thought was responsible for the attacks.

    He would drop dark hints about the powerful people who really ran the world. Many Pakistanis blame 9/11 on Mossad or the CIA or, occasionally, both. I strongly suspect that Ghazi shared this view.

    When he took me round his Madrassa in Islamabad, his teenage pupils brought me up to date with their favourite conspiracy theories, which held that 9/11 had been organised by the mysterious circle of Jews who run the entire world.

    Given that they lived in Ghazi's Madrassa, it is hard to see who else these boys could have got their odd ideas from.

    In the end, I never knew what to make of Ghazi. On occasion, he gave every impression of being an intelligent and likeable human being.

    Then the conversation would turn to bin Laden and 9/11 and I would idly wonder whether he might actually be insane.

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