KARACHI - Following the military storming of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in
Islamabad, considered a hotbed for support of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, US
President George W Bush has praised Pakistani President General Pervez
Musharraf's role in checking extremism.
"Musharraf is a strong ally in the war against these extremists. I like him and
I appreciate him," Bush said.
Times Online, July 11), within the country not everyone is convinced the
government did the right thing.
"Whether they were security forces personnel or Lal Masjid militants, both were
Muslims and both were martyrs," said Maulana Hanif Jalandari, the secretary
general of the Federal Board of Islamic Seminaries, during a television debate.
Jalandari was part of the negotiating team that failed to prevent the troops
from being sent into the mosque after their bid to grant the occupants a safe
passage out was rejected.
At least 60 people died in fighting after the troops went in on Tuesday,
according to military reports, while about the same number of women and
children who had been held hostage were rescued. On Wednesday morning there was
still sporadic fighting in a seminary adjacent to the mosque.
The deputy chief cleric of Lal Masjid, Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, was among the dead,
apparently caught in crossfire. The chief cleric, Ghazi's brother, Maulana
Abdul Aziz, was earlier apprehended outside the mosque. He was dressed in a
woman's burqa and is widely believed to have been tricked by
intelligence agencies into leaving the mosque, ostensibly for negotiations.
During the debate on television, which also included Shah Abdul Aziz, a member
of the National Assembly from the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, a six-party
religious alliance, and Minister of Religious Affairs Ejaz ul-Haq, passions ran
high and tears flowed. Both men were a part of the unsuccessful negotiating
"We did not want this operation to happen. Till our last we aimed to save
lives. It is you who prompted Ghazi on the phone to be steadfast and not to lay
down his weapons," ul-Haq accused Aziz. Aziz responded by calling ul-Haq and
Musharraf the "biggest hypocrites", but he did admit that he had told Ghazi not
to accept any humiliating terms of surrender.
Soon after the military operation began on Tuesday, Ghazi spoke to the media
for the last time. "The room is full of smoke and I am having difficulty in
talking. I appeal to the nation to stand up against this system of exploitation
and work for an Islamic system of life ... the government blames us for using
heavy weapons. I ask the media to come and question where those weapons are,
and if we are using such weapons, where is the damage caused by such arms? We
have only 14 AK-47 guns, most of them are licensed.
"I know my martyrdom is certain and I tell you that the government was never
sincere in talking to us. After every sentence [while negotiating] they
threatened us. They don't want talks. They just want to break us and humiliate
us, so we prefer death.
"There were religious and political leaders who did not play any [positive]
role and instead rang me only to try to terrify us with the wrath of the
government and ask us to surrender. God will make them accountable on the day
of judgment. I thank my friends in the media with whom I have spent a lot of
good times and who have passed on my message," Ghazi's message concluded.
The 43-year-old Ghazi enjoyed widespread popularity in Pakistan, although he
was not a mullah - he had a master's degree in international affairs from
Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, as well as a master's in political
science. He worked as an assistant director in the United Nations Children's
Fund but after the murder of his father in 1998 he chose to become deputy
prayer leader at the mosque. His father, Abdullah Aziz, founded the Red Mosque
and his death had a profound effect on both brothers. Ghazi had fought briefly
against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
In conversations with Pakistani militants over the years this correspondent
frequently heard words to the effect that they never had the chance to see
Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri or Taliban leader Mullah Omar,
but they did have the chance to meet Ghazi.
The Pakistani media interviewed a number of the girls who were released from
the mosque and the neighboring seminary, and many of them said that they
regretted not having been able to become martyrs alongside their teacher,
Ghazi was certainly more restrained than his brother Aziz - even ul-Haq termed
him a moderate - and Aziz is blamed for most of the mosque's hardline image.
Charges and counter-charges
Musharraf prepared the background for the raid by getting ul-Haq to inform the
media that the government had information that several internationally wanted
terrorists were holed up inside the Lal Masjid complex, which includes
seminaries for male and female Islamic scholars, writes Zofeen Ebrahim of
Inter Press Service.
"Nine suspected terrorists, said to be far more dangerous and harmful than
al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives, were hiding inside the mosque compound,"
ul-Haq said at a Sunday press conference, though he refused to reveal their
According to ul-Haq, the "high value terrorists" were in control of the mosque
and not the chief cleric, who, he claimed, was being held hostage along with
women and children.
Trouble began brewing at Lal Masjid early this year when its affiliated
seminary for women, Jamia Hafsa, occupied a children's library demanding
reconstruction of six mosques that had been demolished because they stood on
encroached land. They further demanded strict enforcement of sharia law, and
kidnapped an alleged brothel owner in a bid to chastise her.
By early April, the mosque had set up a sharia court and Aziz announced that
any attempt to close it down would be avenged by thousands of suicide attacks.
"Moral squads" of girls and boys from the seminary were then allowed to rampage
through the streets to "prevent vices and promote virtue", following the
example of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Things came to a head when nine Chinese citizens, six of them women working in
a massage parlour, were abducted last month. They were released a day later
after diplomatic intervention.
As the Lal Masjid standoff began to take new twists and turns with each passing
day, many critics viewed it as a stage-managed affair.
"There is a pervasive feeling in Islamabad that the chief cleric and his
brother played into the hands of intelligence agencies. The tragedy is that
whoever planned it failed to see that so many lives would be lost, and the
people living in the G-6 area in Islamabad would become prisoners in their own
homes," an Islamabad-based journalist said, requesting anonymity.
The timing of the military operation itself also raises doubts about the real
motives of Pakistan's military government.
According to Ishtiaq Ali Mehkri, news editor at Geo TV, the Lal Masjid standoff
was a "masterpiece of intelligence agencies" and an "eyewash" to deflect
attention from issues of national importance, especially the Supreme Court
hearing of the petition of Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, whom Musharraf summarily
suspended as chief justice.
Mekhri's views were endorsed by Hamid Mir, senior political analyst at the same
TV channel. "Musharraf wanted to diffuse the multi-parties conference in London
[a meeting of dozens of Pakistani politicians]. Before that he was using Lal
Mosque to distract [from] the judicial crisis."
According to Mir, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, head of the ruling Pakistan Muslim
League, who was sent to negotiate with the mosque administration, and who was
about to resolve the issue in April, was "asked by someone very important to
However, Mehkri believes there could be a longer-term scheme on the part of the
Musharraf government in all this. "This could be a motive to seek US blessings
for President Musharraf to remain in uniform."
In a statement the chairman of the Communist Party of Pakistan, Jameel Ahmad
Malik, said: "The religious fundamentalist forces in Pakistan are the
brainchild of the ISI [Inter Services Intelligence], the military intelligences
and American imperialism."
The reference was to Pakistan-based mujahideen or Islamist militants who
successfully fought the Soviets in Afghanistan through the 1980s with support
After the Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, Pakistan is also known
to have diverted the mujahideen to Kashmir to help with its protracted dispute
with India over possession of the Muslim-majority territory of Kashmir.
Opposition parties in Pakistan have been accusing Musharraf of secretly
encouraging Islamist radicalism to counter to growing demands by secular
political groups for restoration of the democratic process and the calling of