Pakistan’s contradictory crackdown on ‘Red Mosque’ extremism

This photograph taken on July 7, 2017, shows Pakistani faithful offering Friday prayers at the Red Mosque in Islamabad commemorating the 10th anniversary of a military operation and the siege of the Red Mosque by Islamic extremists. Despite public humiliation and a stint in jail, the former leader of Pakistan's notorious Red Mosque is inspiring a new generation of extremists with his old rhetoric -- highlighting Islamabad's ambivalent attempts to bring religious hardliners to heel. (AFP)
Updated 28 September 2017
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Pakistan’s contradictory crackdown on ‘Red Mosque’ extremism

ISLAMABAD: Despite public humiliation and periods of house arrest, the former leader of Pakistan’s notorious Red Mosque is inspiring a new generation of extremists with his old rhetoric — highlighting Islamabad’s ambivalent attempts to bring religious hard-liners to heel.
Ten years after the military raid on his mosque made international headlines and shocked his country, Abdul Aziz remains influential, overseeing a network of seminaries as he calls for a “caliphate” to be established in Pakistan.
During his time at the helm of the Red Mosque, Aziz shot to prominence for his inflammatory sermons, advocating jihad against the West and a hard-line interpretation of Islam.
He spread this message among his thousands of students, mostly poor children from rural areas who are educated for free at madrassas affiliated with the mosque, sparking accusations of brainwashing from critics.
By 2007 things had reached a tipping point.
His armed followers had begun taking his message to the streets of the capital, vandalising CD and DVD stalls and kidnapping Chinese masseuses, with tensions quickly degenerating into murderous clashes.
When the regime of then-President Pervez Musharraf launched an assault on the mosque on July 10, 2007, the army found itself facing heavily armed jihadists.
The controversial operation was followed minute-by-minute on live television, with more than 100 people killed in the week-long effort to pacify the mosque and arrest its leaders.
The attack on the religious site sparked ferocious blowback from extremists across the country, marking the emergence of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) — an umbrella organization for homegrown militant groups targeting the Pakistani state.
In the following years Islamist violence increased dramatically, with thousands of Pakistanis killed, maimed, or forced to flee their homes as security deteriorated.
Aziz himself was arrested as he tried to flee the besieged mosque in a burqa, taken straight to a television studio and paraded in the garment — earning the nickname “Mullah Burqa.”
He faced two dozen indictments, including incitement to hatred, murder and kidnapping. But Aziz was released on bail in 2009.
“He was acquitted in all these cases, and the government has chosen not to file appeals,” said lawyer and civil rights activist Jibran Nasir.
“There is no willingness for prosecution against him.”
Despite brief stints under house arrest, Aziz now appears to be galvanizing the next generation with his fiery preaching — apparently without fear of repercussions.
“The curious thing is that the army has gone after the TTP but not Aziz,” said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a leading anti-extremist activist.
“There’s sympathy for his cause that’s greater than the fear of being attacked again.”
Aziz is known to boast of his relations with well known jihadists like Osama Bin Laden and has spoken sympathetically about the Daesh group. He has also condoned high-profile extremist attacks, like the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris.
“The impunity enjoyed by Abdul Aziz and other radical clerics raises fear of the capital returning to a 2007-like situation,” said political commentator Zahid Hussain.
In 2014, a video of students from his madrassa voicing their support for Daesh did not earn him any condemnation.
“There should be a caliphate in the world including in Pakistan,” said Aziz in a televised interview around that time.
Aziz “is tolerated... because it would be like touching a hornet’s nest,” explains former general Talat Masood.
Given the sensitivity of the population to religious questions, intervening “would risk attracting sympathies.”
Authorities, however, appear to be keeping him on a tight leash for now.
Aziz is no longer welcome at the Red Mosque, which theoretically belongs to the state, and he has been placed on the Pakistan’s anti-terrorist list.
A rally planned by his supporters to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Red Mosque siege was banned by the courts.
In recent months, the authorities have blocked roads surrounding the mosque to prevent Aziz from holding rallies and have taken measures to stop him from preaching on Friday, even remotely by phone.
The Red Mosque’s new imam Maulana Aamir Sadeeq, an affable 30-year-old, said it was time to “forget the past” and “the extreme positions” of a decade ago.
“We must put a distance between terrorism and us,” said Sadeeq — who happens to be Aziz’s nephew.


Version of PM May’s deal can get through parliament: Hunt

Updated 15 December 2018
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Version of PM May’s deal can get through parliament: Hunt

  • May pulled a vote on her deal this week after acknowledging it would be heavily defeated over concerns about the divorce agreement’s “backstop”

LONDON: Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Saturday that the British parliament could back Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal if lawmakers received assurances from the European Union, but warned that a no deal Brexit was still on the table.
May pulled a vote on her deal this week after acknowledging it would be heavily defeated over concerns about the divorce agreement’s “backstop,” an insurance policy designed to avoid any hard land border for Ireland but which critics say could bind Britain to EU rules indefinitely.
“When the dust has settled, the only way we’re going to get this through the House of Commons ... is to have a version of the deal that the government has negotiated,” Hunt told BBC radio.
Following a summit in Brussels on Friday, May said it was possible that the EU could give further guarantees that the backstop would be temporary although the bloc’s other 27 leaders told her they would not renegotiate the treaty.
Hunt said the EU was likely to make concessions to avoid Britain leaving without any deal, a scenario that both sides say would be highly damaging for business and their economies.
“The EU cannot be sure that if they choose not to be helpful and flexible ... that we would not end up with no deal,” Hunt said. “We cannot in these negotiations take no deal off the table. I don’t think the EU could be remotely sure that if we don’t find a way through this we wouldn’t end up with no deal.”
The Times newspaper reported on Saturday that most of May’s senior ministerial team thought her deal was dead and were discussing a range of options including a second referendum.
“Brexit is in danger of getting stuck – and that is something that should worry us all,” pensions minister Amber Rudd wrote in the Daily Mail newspaper.
“If MPs (lawmakers) dig in against the Prime Minister’s deal and then hunker down in their different corners, none with a majority, the country will face serious trouble.”