I welcomed an Arab journalist friend in town in the final days of June 2007. The first thing he said to me was that he wanted to interview Maulana Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid, who was making headlines in the national and international media in those days.
I arranged a meeting and both of us went to the heavily cordoned off Lal Masjid for an encounter with the Maulana.
For more than an hour, my Arab journalist friend kept asking questions (Abdul Rashid Ghazi acted as an interpreter in English as Maulana’s spoken Arabic was not that fluent). I observed all this silently from the sidelines but kept my guard up higher than usual, and journalistic radars functional. After we left the mosque, my friend asked me my opinion on the Maulana we had just interviewed. I said to him I would make three very brief comments, “First, either the Maulana is extremely naïve or insane, second, he is in contact with Pakistani militant groups, and he is surely definitely in contact with someone in the state machinery who is pushing him for a showdown with the military government.”
He asked me how I could be so sure of the maulana’s contact with someone in the state machinery. I told him that during the interview the maulana kept referring to an anonymous person of authority who was constantly sending him messages that he should keep on cleaning the city of immorality.
In those days, Maulana Abdul Aziz’s campaign against “immorality” was causing quite a stir in the city and created an impression of a crisis—which was serving the purpose of anyone who was bent on dislodging the politically and intellectually handicapped military ruler General Pervez Musharraf. There was general consensus among political analysts in those days that the military top brass had decided to get rid of General Musharraf after he shot himself in the foot by colliding head-on with the judiciary and lawyers’ community.
Lal Masjid, in such a situation, provided an ideal opportunity to the forces from within the military to create a spectacle of crisis in the country and thus, in the process weakening the already precariously held legitimacy of the military government.
General Musharraf ordered the army troops to enter the mosque and the adjacent seminary in July 2007, where there was a massacre—more than 150 students, both male and female—were killed in the operation. I remember doing a story for a political magazine for which I interviewed Chaudhry Shujaat Hussein, PMLQ President and close confidante of General Pervez Musharraf, and a senior military official who planned and executed the Lal Masjid operation and the subsequent public reaction in the north of the country.
Chaudhry Shujaat told me that General Musharraf started using abusive language when he took a delegation of religious scholars to the president a night before the military operation for a final attempt to salvage the situation. “He was not in control of his senses and he told the religious scholars that they have 24 hours to vacate the mosque after which army will enter,” Shujaat Hussein told me.
My second encounter was with a senior military official who was the key figure in the north of the country in those days. He was full of lament that army should not have been used in the Lal Masjid operation. “There was not a single town in North of the country where there was not a violent protest against Lal Masjid operation,” he said. “The army operation and the electronic media coverage of it clearly led to drawing of battle lines in the society between militants and army and the Pakistani state was not prepared for that…we were not prepared for this fight,” he said.
Chaudhry Shujaat told me that General Musharraf started using abusive language when he took a delegation of religious scholars to the president a night before the military operation for a final attempt to salvage the situation
Now Islamabad is at the brink of another encounter between religious seminary students (mostly female) and the city administration and police, with the mosque is located less than a half kilometer away from Islamabad’s Red Zone where government offices, prime minister house and President and parliament buildings are located.
At present, it is surrounded by riot police and the district administration has put barbed wires around it. Residents of Islamabad have been advised to keep away from the mosque. A showdown could take place as early as next Friday when lots of local residents come to the mosque for Friday prayers.
Red Mosque is the oldest mosque of Islamabad which was constructed in early 1960s when the city was developed in 1964. In the 1980s, the Red Mosque became the transit point for those young men who were going from the south of the country towards the country’s western border on their way to Afghanistan to participate in the Afghan Jihad. At that time Maulana Abdul Aziz’s father Maulana Abdullah was the imam of the mosque. In July 2007, when the army besieged the mosque, Maulana Abdul Aziz tried to escape from the mosque wearing a burka (veil) when he was arrested by the suspecting police officers on duty. His video wearing a burka is still available on YouTube channel. Afterwards, he became a source of jokes around the country. Recently, another video of Maulana Abdul Aziz has gone viral on social media, in which he could be seen using abusive language against a group of police officers who were standing on the gates of Red Mosque and were there to remove the Taliban flag from the mosque’s rooftop.
In the video, the maulana could be heard telling the police officers to quit the government job as it was haram (unlawful) to serve this government. “Fear God, otherwise soon Taliban will come and make an example out of you,” he says in the video while addressing the police officers.
Two things are important as far as Lal Masjid’s threat to civic life in the city is concerned—it provides an ideal site for a spectacle for national and international media. If someone from within the power corridors wants to create a spectacle and the impression of the crisis in the country, Lal Masjid is his place.
Secondly, Lal Masjid hardly posed an unmanageable security threat as the newly launched channels and their amateur reporters wanted us to believe in 2007. There were around less than two dozen activists of militant groups inside the mosque when army entered it in July 2007—hardly a match for Pakistan Army’s SSG commando.
“By disconnecting the water and gas and electricity and by a simple police operation we could have saved hundreds of lives,” said the senior military official whom I interviewed immediately after army operation against Lal Masjid.