Protesters have descended on a controversial mosque in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, vowing to reclaim the space after its Taliban-aligned cleric refused to condemn the attack on a school in Peshawar last week that left 148 people, including more than 100 children, dead.
“I came to Islamabad for a conference, but then the Peshawar tragedy struck and everything changed. The next day, Lal Masjid cleric issued a statement that I couldn’t stomach and I decided … we should protest,” Jibran Nasir, lawyer and rights activist, told Pakistani news website Dawn. “We want to reclaim our mosques, our communities, our cities, indeed our entire country from extremists.”
Abdul Aziz, head cleric of Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, refused to condemn the Peshawar massacre, calling it an understandable response to a six-month Pakistani military drive against armed groups associated with the Taliban.
In response, Pakistanis began protesting outside Lal Masjid on Thursday, which prompted protests against extremists in cities across Pakistan. Outside the mosque, protesters held a candlelit vigil for the victims and wrote the names of those killed on a white board while speaking against extremism.
“People like Abdul Aziz are acting like spokespersons (for the enemy) and openly telling the world that they support militancy and organizations like (ISIL),” Arieb Azhar, a musician who attended the protest, told Dawn. “We must stand up against them.”
The liberal political party Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) lodged a police complaint against Aziz for his statement after protesters called him a Taliban apologist, Pakistan media reported. On Sunday, Aziz gave into pressure and apologized for failing to unconditionally condemn the Peshawar attack by Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), Pakistan’s Taliban-aligned armed group.
Aziz and Lal Masjid enjoy iconic status among some Pakistanis, and the mosque's library was named after Osama bin Laden. In 2007, Aziz and his brother Abdul Rashir Ghazi, who helped run the mosque, launched an anti-vice campaign that saw their students take to the streets to violently enforce a hardline version of Sharia law. The campaign included abducting alleged prostitutes in an effort to reeducate them and forcing shopkeepers to burn CDs and videos deemed “evil” or immoral.
In the following months, tensions rose and the mosque’s leaders were charged with kidnapping, assault and abuse. Clashes broke out in July 2007 between security forces and the clerics’ supporters, with troops soon surrounding the mosque. After a weeklong siege, at least 100 people were killed. The crackdown prompted a wave of suicide bombings across the country that killed roughly 1,000 people.
While Ghazi was killed in the attack, Aziz escaped the siege disguised in a burqa — the traditional vestment that women wear that covers their bodies and faces. Afterward, more mosques were occupied in the name of the Taliban and Aziz was acquitted of all charges against him. He still heads Lal Masjid as well as a network of 27 seminaries across the Punjab province that oversees at least 5,000 students.
The TTP has been increasingly active since peace talks with the Pakistani government broke down in the spring after the Taliban demanded the release of all jailed fighters and withdrawal of troops from tribal areas as conditions for negotiations. Aziz was briefly part of the TTP’s negotiating team.
After talks dissolved, more pressure was put on the government to launch an all-out military campaign against the TTP. A recent six-month military crackdown on fighters in North Waziristan, the group’s stronghold, was supposed to have dealt a fatal blow to the TTP.
Analysts had warned the operation might lead to unintended consequences, including driving out fighters to other parts of the country where police are not prepared to stop them. With the military seemingly unable to stop the TTP, civil groups have stepped up in Islamabad by attempting to reclaim the mosque from Aziz and condemn extremism.
“Coming here to reclaim the mosque is taking concrete action, which is why I’ve decided to join in,” Zeeshan Mansoor, a Pakistani musician, told Dawn. “I’ve lived on the street next to the Lal Masjid all my life and it always disturbed me knowing that hatred and extremism is being preached right here in my neighborhood.”
Nasir, who attended the Lal Masjid protest, told Pakistan Today on Monday that he had received a call from a man claiming to be TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan warning him to end the protest after calling for people to join the demonstration. Nasir responded on Twitter saying, “We’ve told him we are standing firm.”
“We can no longer allow anyone to stand on a pulpit and preach hatred. We will no longer stand by and watch people like Abdul Aziz use the name of our Holy Prophet and our religion to perpetuate violence,” Nasir told Dawn on Saturday. “I call upon the people of Islamabad to come out of their homes and reclaim their city.”