The Road to Lal Masjid and its Aftermath

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 14

It is clear that most Pakistanis wanted Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) leader Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi to be held accountable for his vigilantism and for trying to enforce his extremist version of Islam on society. The public’s views have changed, however, now that it has become obvious that the government used indiscriminate force during the operation and since its claims about the presence of foreign militants inside the mosque complex have not been independently verified. The following important questions remain unanswered: why did the government act so benignly for the past six months and allow a problem to augment into a major crisis; who was Abdul Rashid Ghazi and how did he manage to smuggle a huge cache of weapons into the mosque complex; was intelligence flawed or were intelligence agencies involved in the plot; and why did President Pervez Musharraf choose a time for the crackdown that coincided with the meeting scheduled for all of Pakistan’s opposition parties in London.

While people search for answers to these critical questions, Pakistan is witnessing an unabated terrorism cycle—having experienced a suicide bombing or a bomb blast each day since the July 10 military operation against the mosque. Tragically, those who died in the Red Mosque operation are now being proclaimed as shaheed (martyrs), and a debate has ensued in Pakistan between what the media are calling “religious extremists” and “liberal fascists.” A week before the operation, ordinary Pakistanis were stunned that the government was not acting to resolve the crisis; today, a week after the deadly operation, Pakistanis still have few clues as to the new crisis that is unfolding. Furthermore, Musharraf’s legacy seems frozen between these two weeks.

History of the Red Mosque and its Former Caretakers

The foundational stone of the Red Mosque was laid in 1965 by Maulana Abdullah—the father of the militant clerics Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi—a year after the birth of Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad. Maulana Abdullah, a Deobandi Muslim, was appointed as the mosque’s imam by Pakistani President Ayub Khan (The News, July 8). The mosque was called “Lal” after Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a revered Sufi saint buried in Pakistan’s Sindh province.

During agitation led by religious parties against Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977, Abdullah successfully mobilized the masses in support of the protests. By virtue of this contribution, he gained the favor of General Zia ul-Haq, the military dictator who dislodged Bhutto. Zia’s tenure was a key time for religious groups to expand, and Abdullah earned additional gratitude for volunteering in the Afghan war of 1979-1989. As a reward, he was allocated land in the prized and posh E-7 sector of Islamabad to establish Jamia Faridia, a seminary. Arab financing also helped Abdullah build an institution where many orphans and poor children received religious education (The News, July 17). Abdullah’s agenda changed, however, as he became involved in sectarian politics and started to support the newly emerged Anjuman Sipah-e-Sahaba (Soldiers of the Prophet’s Companions)—an anti-Shiite terror outfit. General Zia was hardly perturbed, as he was focused on the Afghan jihad and could not see how these fissures would destabilize Pakistan in the future.

In the process, Abdullah motivated thousands of people for jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and in collaboration with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) he continued to provide fodder for the Afghan theater. In 1989, he attracted the limelight when at the time of Benazir Bhutto’s electoral success, he issued a fatwa declaring women’s role in politics as un-Islamic. Around 1992, he established Jamia Hafsa, a seminary for women, adjacent to the Red Mosque. Funds were not an issue because the ISI was gracious toward him due to the role he had played in Afghanistan. His warm feelings toward Arab-Afghans also became obvious when, in response to the U.S. missile attack on a suspected Osama bin Laden hideout in Afghanistan, he said, “America is like a thief who attacked the unarmed civilians…[those] who make friends with Christians and Jews will become like them” (The Nation, August 22, 1998). Abdullah had just returned from Afghanistan and had started to campaign for the enforcement of Sharia in Pakistan. In his attempts, he crossed a few lines, resulting in his assassination at the Red Mosque in 1998.

This was a moment of transformation for his son Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who had been uninterested in all radical issues up to that point. Ghazi had an interesting background. He had earlier refused to enroll himself in Jamia Faridia and completed his masters in history in 1988 from the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, a reputable academic center. Afterwards, he joined the Ministry of Education in Islamabad as an officer, and later he served in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as an assistant director. At no stage in his career did he show any signs of extremism (Daily Times, July 8). Rather, he married into a modern family and was comfortable in his relatively secular lifestyle. In fact, his father was so angry with his lifestyle that he handed over all his property to his other son, Abdul Aziz. At the time of Abdullah’s assassination, this same elder brother became the imam of the Red Mosque.

Developments, however, changed drastically after Abdullah’s assassination. Ghazi decided to join his brother as his deputy in the Red Mosque. In about a year, he became a hard line cleric, vowing to impose a Talibanized Sharia in Pakistan. Pakistani intelligence agencies had also found a new agent who was willing to offer cooperation (Daily Times, July 8). Within walking distance of ISI headquarters, the Red Mosque complex attracted many heroes from the Afghan theater of conflict. It was understandable when the two brothers took a strong pro-Taliban stance and called Musharraf a traitor for his policy of cooperation with the United States in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Intriguingly, the state also overlooked the Red Mosque’s potential threat when it showed its street power for the first time in 2003, by organizing riots in the capital city after the killing of Azam Tariq, the leader of the now banned Sipah-e-Sahaba. The seminary students of Jamia Faridia ransacked cinemas, restaurants and gas stations in the capital, yet Musharraf’s government remained silent.

Encouraged by this response, the Red Mosque issued a controversial edict in 2004, declaring that Pakistani Army soldiers who died fighting tribal militants were not martyrs. News about Ghazi’s links with al-Qaeda was flashed in the media at the time of the arrest of Osama bin Laden’s driver (Dawn, July 6). The government was unmoved even by this development.

The final episode of the drama began earlier this year, when female students of Jamia Hafsa forcefully took control of a children’s library adjacent to the Red Mosque complex and started vigilante actions in the city, trying to enforce their version of religious morality. Music shops were attacked, police were kidnapped and fatwas were issued to coerce the media. The government finally reacted and started negotiating with the Red Mosque administration, but to no avail. Abdul Aziz meanwhile threatened the government with a spate of suicide bombings around the country in the case of a military operation (Terrorism Focus, June 5).

Finally, both brothers forced the government’s hand when they mishandled the soldiers of a paramilitary force surrounding the complex, leading to the deaths of 21 people on July 3. Abdul Aziz was caught fleeing the scene in a burqa and Ghazi took over the command of the complex. Around 1,200 students of the mosque and seminary surrendered, and those inside took up positions with their arms. Even then, the government procrastinated. People were upset at this turn of events while newspapers, electronic media and civil society groups all encouraged the government to enforce its writ. One could understand why it would be difficult to do the same in the tribal belt, but failing to do so in the heart of Islamabad was incomprehensible. Leading columnist Ayaz Amir aptly called it “a drama to beat all dramas” (Dawn, July 6).

Delay in effectively tackling the defiant stance of the Red Mosque not only complicated the crisis, but gave ample opportunity to Ghazi to entrench his forces militarily, start an effective media campaign and draw sympathy from segments of society by claiming that he and his comrades were merely asking for the enforcement of religious laws in the country.

Meanwhile, the government began claiming that Ghazi had many militants from various banned outfits holed up inside the complex who had taken hundreds of women and children hostage. Public opinion started to change, and demands for ensuring the safety of women and children were heightened. In the midst of this, Pakistani security forces suddenly began the operation, which lasted for the next 15 hours. Ghazi, with an ample supply of cell phones, gave last minute interviews to all major news channels, telling millions of people on live television that he bravely decided to lay down his life for the cause of Islam rather than bow to the dictates of the state. He called Musharraf a tool in the hands of the United States.

On the other hand, the government blocked the media from showing footage in the hospitals where casualties were taken. Journalists were only allowed to show ambulances rushing to the scene. Apparently, very few came out alive and it is unclear how many were killed inside the mosque complex. The government’s figure of 100 dead (including 10 soldiers) leaves a few hundred unaccounted for. Graves were hastily dug around Islamabad, and people were buried at night, which encouraged rumors of a massacre and a cover up.

At the end of the day, Ghazi’s stature rose in the eyes of the people, and the government’s credibility collapsed further due to the way that they handled the issue—first with delay, then in getting bogged down in unnecessary negotiations, and finally in the inability to explain why its intelligence agencies failed to monitor what was transpiring inside the mosque complex for so long. The government has not explained its actions regarding why Ghazi and his brother were not stopped previously when they had challenged the government’s policies so persistently. Critics believe that the two brothers were, in fact, being supported in their endeavors by elements within the intelligence agencies.

The Consequences

Since the July 10 operation, more than 100 people have lost their lives in bombings and suicide attacks in various parts of the country, including in Islamabad. Clearly, these strikes are revenge attacks—a deadly response from the sympathizers of the Red Mosque. Few in Islamabad realize that there are 88 more seminaries in Islamabad where 16,000 students are enrolled (Daily Times, July 7).

If developments in the last two weeks are any indicator, Pakistan is increasingly becoming an ungovernable state. Divisions within society about the direction of the state are becoming intense and if this confusion and cycle of violence continues, then cracks might appear within the military establishment as well. As before, Musharraf is making all the right statements, but implementation of his policies remains an acute issue. He is becoming increasingly unable to arrest developments inside Pakistan.