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Abdul Aziz: Land Grabber or Religious Activist?
Firebrand cleric sits comfortably after a showdown with the government
Umer Farooq (umer)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2007-05-09 17:39 (KST)   
There is nothing exceptional about Maulana Abdul Aziz, the firebrand cleric of Islamabad's famous Lal Masjid (red mosque). Slim and slender Abdul Aziz looks more like a foot soldier rather than a leader of an extremist group which has decided to take on the might of the Pakistani state. Nor has he any outstanding educational qualifications. He is simply a graduate of a Pakistani Madrassah where he studied the customary Dars-e-Nizami, which is taught at the most elementary level of religious education in Pakistan.

However during the last two months he has eclipsed every other religious and political leader of the country. The way Pakistani and international media have been covering every word Abdul Aziz utters in public makes the most high profile figures in Pakistani politics envious.

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Tensions between the government and religious students led by Abdul Aziz have been ongoing for the last three months over the demolition of illegally constructed mosques. However, Islamabad was shaken out of its political
stupor by the female students and teachers of the seminary in the last week of March.

They announced the launch of a moral crusade against all "immoral activities" in the federal capital. Coming on the heels of these actions by the female students was the announcement by the cleric Abdul Aziz for the establishment of a parallel court system, which would punish perpetrators of moral crimes in the federal capital. He issued a one month ultimatum from his pulpit to the government to clean Islamabad of all "immoral activities."

He also warned the government in clear words that his students could resort to suicide attacks in the case of a violent police operation launched against the seminary. "If the government fails to eradicate all these moral evils from the society within the specified period of one month the students of the seminary would themselves take actions against all the people involved in such activities," said Maulana Abdul Aziz while addressing Friday Prayer congregation at Lal Masjid.

In his speech the cleric identified liquor, drugs, music, feature movies and photographs of women displayed in public places as the moral evils against which he has decided to launch a crusade.

The female students of the seminary assisted by the male students raided an alleged brothel, kidnapped three women from there and held them hostage for three days before releasing them after securing confessional statements saying that there were involved in "immoral activities." All this happened under the watchful eyes of Pakistani and international media. The extraordinary coverage given to the activities of religious students have made Abdul Aziz an instant celebrity not only within the country but in the world outside as well.

There are around 7,000 students studying in the male and female sections of the religious seminary, of which Abdul Aziz is the principal. "We know from the reports that 70 percent of the students are from tribal areas," senior officials of the Islamabad administration said. This makes the situation sensitive as Pakistani security forces are already engaged in bloody military operations against militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan close to its western border with Afghanistan.

Initially the religious students restricted their activities to protests against the government campaign to demolish illegally constructed mosques in Islamabad. The protests continued for a month and the students claimed victory when a federal government minister, Ijaz-ul-Haq, son of the last military ruler of Pakistan, General Zia-ul-Haq, participated in the foundation laying ceremony of one of the demolished mosques in Islamabad.

Since then the students feel more comfortable with their activities. Later the religious students -- both male and female -- along with their teachers started visiting video and music shops in Islamabad and threatening the owners to close down their businesses or face dire consequences.

Abdul Aziz remained in the background until the time he issued a warning to the government that any police operation against the religious seminary could compel the students to carry out suicide attacks in the country. Before this statement it was the female religious students of the seminary, attached to the mosque, who were spearheading the campaign to enforce Islamic law in the federal capital territory. However, the cleric's statement suddenly eclipsed all others. Now he seems to be giving the impression that he is in command. He is seen as someone who is taking the law into his hands and challenging the writ of the government.

However, he thinks that the strict observance of religious law is the only path to salvation for the people of Pakistan. Though he is full of appreciation for the Taliban of neighboring Afghanistan, he seems to be taking inspiration
from the Islamic movement of religious students of Indonesia, who, according to him, independently enforced Islamic law in the 53 districts of Indonesia and "banned music and dancing there."

Not surprisingly Abdul Aziz's acts created a scare among the residents of Islamabad, as the rumor started spreading in the city that religious students would attack women with uncovered faces. These fears were reinforced by the
groups of religious students visiting video and music shops in Islamabad threatening them with dire consequences if they didn't close down their businesses.

After coming face to face with this extraordinary situation the government and the local administration of Islamabad started sending religious scholars to Lal-Masjid to convince Abdul Aziz to back down. The government even managed to send one of the teachers of Abdul Aziz to meet and convince him to refrain from flouting the law. But he won't listen to anybody.

"We are striving to enforce Islamic law in the society. We say the state of Pakistan belongs to Allah. Sovereignty belongs to Allah," he said in Friday prayers

Abdul Aziz, 46, is barely recognized as a religious scholar by his contemporaries. Interestingly, the mainstream religious political parties are maintaining a distance from the action of Abdul Aziz and his followers.
One prominent religious political leader, Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehmen, termed the action of the fundamentalist group as "insanity."

Abdul Aziz served as officially designated prayer leader in government constructed and owned Lal-Masjid until 2005 when he was dismissed from service after he issued a "fatwa" (religious decree) against the army officers who were fighting against Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas close to the Afghan border. In the fatwa he declared that none of the army officers who got killed in the fighting in tribal area was a martyr and religious sanctions were not available for their funeral.

"His fatwa irked the government and he was dismissed from service since then he has been illegally occupying Lal-Masjid," said a government official.

Abdul Aziz's father, Maulana Abdullah was a much better known figure in the religious circles of Pakistan. Abdullah, who was killed during the sectarian strife in the 1990s, was the first prayer leader of Lal-Masjid.

"Pakistan's last military ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq, was said to be very close to Maulana Abdullah, who was famous for his speeches on jihad," said a senior journalist familiar with the political history of Pakistan.

According to family sources Abdul Aziz came to Islamabad as a six-year-old boy from his home town in Balochistan, when his father was appointed Khatib (prayer leader) of Lal-Masjid in 1966. "He has grown up in the liberal atmosphere of Islamabad but at a time when his father was a poor man. Later his family became affluent and he was sent to Karachi to study in the most renowned religious seminary after studying for few years in a public school," said a journalist who was a friend to Abdul Aziz's father.

The followers of Abdul Aziz like to compare him to the one-eyed supreme leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar. Just like Mullah Omar, Abdul Aziz is a recluse who can react violently at any attempt to photograph him. His followers said that Abdul Aziz was angry to see his photographs in the next day's newspapers after he announced the suicide bombings in Islamabad during the Friday prayers last week.

Senior citizens of Islamabad still vividly remember the strong speeches on jihad Abdu Aziz's father used to deliver from his pulpit in Lal-Masjid. This was during the 1980s when the mujahideen's fight against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was at its peak. This gave a chance to Abdul Aziz and his brother Abdul Rashid Ghazi to interact with the Afghan Mujahideen and their Pakistani partners in jihad.

Even now the government officials say that Abdul Aziz is surrounded by the activists of a banned extremist organization Jasiah-e-Muhammad (Army of Muhammad) who are acting as his main advisers. Lal Masjid was a regular meeting place for the leaders of banned militant organizations until recently. The two brothers claim to have close contact with the leadership of militant organizations that the Musharraf government banned as part of a crackdown on extremist organizations in the wake of Sept. 11.

"We have confirmed information that there are a number of wanted men inside the precincts of Lal Masjid and associated Madrassah of Jamia Hafsa and whatever
Abdul Aziz is doing he is taking advice from these people who are wanted for a number of terrorism related activities in the country," said a senior government official.

Abdul Aziz is himself a wanted man and was declared a proclaimed offender in a number of cases two years ago. "I have not been out of the precincts of Mosque during the last two years, I know they will arrest me if I go out of
the mosque," said Abdul Aziz.

Abdul Aziz was in the news headlines when in July 2005 Pakistani security forces tried to raid the mosque following the suicide bombings that month in London. At that time baton-wielding female students of the madrassah protected him from Pakistani security forces.

"We were met by baton wielding women who refused to let us enter the mosque or seminary when we went their search the precincts and arrest some of the wanted people," said a senior security official.

Lal Masjid is located near the headquarters of Pakistan's powerful ISI, military intelligence service, which helped train and fund the holy warriors, and a number of ISI staff are said to go there for prayers. Throughout most of its existence, the Lal Masjid has long been favored by the city elite, including prime ministers, army chiefs and presidents.

The impunity with which this new fundamentalist group is pursuing its agenda has led many observers to believe that Abdul Aziz and his baton-wielding female students have the support of some powerful segment of Pakistan's government. Abdul Aziz doesn't deny this. He always tells visiting journalists that a lot of people from the administration and police are coming to them and extending secret support.

"We have examples from history, for instance Prophet Moses grew up in the home of Pharaoh. So I think that God is directly using the religious students for a good cause. We don't have any connection with the influential people within the government. But the relatives of some of our students are influential people and they have conveyed to us that what we are doing is right," he said.

However this is not the only reason why people think that that the fundamentalist group enjoys the backing of powerful people from within the government. The precision and dexterity with which Abdul Aziz and his brigade
of female students have so far handled the so-called movement to enforce Islamic law in the country has compelled many analysts to believe that there is a mastermind pulling the strings from behind the scenes.

Most of the senior journalists agree that the group has managed the media very skillfully and has defeated the government on this front at least. However, Abdul Aziz is hardly a genius who could have supervised the media campaign of the movement. When this reporter reached Jamia Hafsa to interview Abdul Aziz, his media savvy younger brother, Abdul Rashid Ghazi asked that the interview be cleared by him before publication as Abdul Aziz was not familiar with the tricks of handling the media. "Kindly get it cleared from me before you publish it because Maulana Abdul Aziz sometimes says things which are not acceptable in the society, because he is too straightforward," Abdul Rashid Ghazi asked me.

Ghazi even clarified to the media that his brother had not vowed to launch suicide attacks and was misquoted by the media. "What happened was that some of the students approached Maulana Abdul Aziz for permission to launch suicide attacks against the government in case there is a police operation, he denied to grant permission to the students, though he warned the government that things could head in this direction if there is a use of force," Abdul Rashid Ghazi clarified in an interview with a television channel.

However, in an interview with this reporter Abdul Aziz insisted on his initial statement and repeated what he said while addressing the Friday prayers last week. "If there is a violent operation then we will consider suicide
attacks. We want a peaceful change in the society although I know that revolutions are always violent," he said. In his assertions the threats of suicide attacks in Islamabad are always followed by praises for Taliban and al-Qaida and other militant organizations. "We love the Taliban and al-Qaida, they are the one spreading the message of Jihad in the Muslim world, we love them," said Abdul Aziz.

However there are many in Islamabad who see Maulana Abdulaziz as a petty land grabber. After all, the ongoing tensions between the government and the Abdul Aziz-led seminary started three months back when the Islamabad
administration issued notices to Jamia Hafsa administration for illegally constructing the building of the seminary on a valuable government owned land. Again the baton-wielding female students of the seminary obstructed the Islamabad administration's attempt to demolish the building. The administration officials said that they had served more than 20 notices to the administration of Jamia Hafsa for illegal construction. "But [what] we get in return are threats and public display of force," said a senior official of the Islamabad administration.

For Abdul Aziz there is always a religious dimension to any issue that confronts him. "The land belongs to Allah and if government does nothing to facilitate the construction of religious educational institutions than it is the duty of religious scholars to come forward and build the seminary on government owned land," said Abdul Aziz.
This article first appeared on DesPardes.com last month.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Umer Farooq

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