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Lal Masjid Power

by Newsweek Pakistan

File Photo. Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Can the government successfully prevent Maulana Abdul Aziz from commemorating ‘Martyrs’ Day’?

The powerful head cleric at Islamabad’s Lal Masjid has posed another challenge to the government of Nawaz Sharif. Maulana Abdul Aziz says he will gather the most powerful religious leaders of the country on July 7 to observe Martyrs’ Day for the madrassa students killed in a Pakistan Army commando operation in 2007. His claim, contested by the government, is that Operation Silence under then president Pervez Musharraf had killed “900 innocent girl seminarians.”

Operation Silence was launched after militant students stationed inside Lal Masjid killed a Pakistan Rangers soldier posted outside the mosque on July 3, 2007. The siege attracted a lot of high-profile religious leaders who tried to reason with the Lal Masjid clerics to eschew confrontation. Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman “mistakenly” condemned the Lal Masjid for its defiance and was roundly condemned by a congregation of fellow-clerics in Multan till he retracted. According to reports, Lal Masjid was sheltering Chinese Uighur Muslim terrorists in addition to other elements connected with Al Qaeda. The commando unit that carried out Operation Silence was later attacked by a suicide-bomber on Sept. 14, 2007 at their Haripur headquarters killing 15 soldiers. Al Qaeda declared the foundation of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in response to Operation Silence.

Islamabad says Maulana Abdul Aziz can’t hold his Martyrs’ Day because he is a “proscribed” person and the government owns the mosque’s land. Yet he was chosen by the Taliban to be its vakil (negotiator) in “peace talks” with Islamabad in 2014. Clerics have demonstrated their street power against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for going “liberal” and their Barelvi brand has showcased its street power after the hanging of “blasphemy martyr” Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer.

Pakistan is wilting under the ongoing challenge of the fundamental Islamists, punishing blasphemy on social media and enforcing compulsory study of the Quran. The Compulsory Teaching of the Holy Quran Bill 2017 now applies to all school and colleges in Islamabad. Lal Masjid always got its signals from Al Qaeda and Taliban. It is still getting its signals from the empowered madrasas while the government is faced with a hostile opposition bent upon getting rid of it.

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