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

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.


Japan weighing visit by Iran’s President Rouhani

Updated 09 December 2019

Japan weighing visit by Iran’s President Rouhani

  • Japan has been trying to forge a possible mediator role as tensions rise between its ally US and Iran
  • If the trip is confirmed, Rouhani would become the first Iranian president to visit Japan since 2000

TOKYO: Japan is weighing inviting Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani for a state visit, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday, as local media reported the trip was likely to happen this month.
Japan has been trying to forge a possible mediator role as tensions rise between its ally Washington and Tehran.
Local media has reported in recent days that Rouhani is likely to visit Tokyo around December 20, with some reports saying Washington has green-lighted the trip.
“A visit by President Rouhani to Japan is now under consideration,” Abe said at a press conference marking the end of the year’s parliamentary session.
“Japan, which has an alliance with the US and at the same time has maintained favorable relations with Iran for a long time, must forge its own path,” he said.
“I want to make diplomatic efforts as much as possible to help ease tensions and stabilize the situation in the region by continuing dialogue patiently,” he added.
If the trip is confirmed, Rouhani would become the first Iranian president to visit Japan since 2000.
Japan and Iran have maintained a good relationship despite recent regional turmoil, with resource-poor Japan heavily reliant on imports of oil from the Middle East.
Abe traveled to Iran in June and met Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well as Rouhani. He met Rouhani again in New York during this year’s UN General Assembly.
The proposed visit comes as tensions remain high between Tehran and Washington, despite a prisoner swap last week.
On Sunday, Rouhani announced a “budget of resistance” against US sanctions targeting the country’s vital oil sector.
US President Donald Trump began imposing punitive measures in May 2018, after unilaterally withdrawing from an accord that gave Iran relief from sanctions in return for limits on its nuclear program.