IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Confrontation at an Islamabad mosque

Religious students stockpile weapons, ask permission from parents to sacrifice their lives and abduct police in Pakistani capital.
Pakistani religious students stand outside the Red Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan on Sunday. Anjum Naveed / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Inside this city's oldest mosque, religious students readied for war this week by stockpiling weapons, digging bunkers and asking permission from parents to sacrifice their lives.

Outside, police prepared a raid. The aim: to rescue two colleagues held hostage within, and arrest the mosque's clerics, who want to topple the government in favor of a theocracy.

In a city that prides itself on moderation, the pro-Taliban Red Mosque has stood out in recent months for its radicalism. First, students from the mosque's religious school took over a children's library. Then they abducted three women alleged to be running a brothel and made them publicly confess. Later the students issued a fatwa, or edict, against a female government minister for hugging a man who was not her husband. (It was her parachuting instructor.)

Tensions between the government and Islamic radicals are not uncommon in Pakistan, but the standoff over the Red Mosque reflects just how widely religious extremism has expanded.

The mosque is far from the deeply conservative tribal areas that line Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, districts where the most direct impact of extremism has been felt. Instead it is virtually around the block from President Pervez Musharraf's house in the heart of Islamabad, Pakistan's modern, meticulously planned capital of tree-lined avenues, orderly traffic and finely manicured lawns.

In recent weeks, the mosque has made its presence felt in the local community. Music and video store owners at a nearby market say they have been visited by bands of students from the religious school, or madrassa, their faces masked and their hands gripping large batons.

"They said, 'Close your business, or we will do it for you,' " said Adeel Ahmed, whose shop has never been threatened in the 20 years his family has owned it. "They talked in a very angry manner. We are definitely worried."

The students of the Red Mosque have also turned their attention to the police, whom they view as spies, and have taken several officers hostage. The government reported that the final two captives had been released Tuesday afternoon, but mosque officials denied they were freed. Either way, few believe the confrontation is over.

"We want a revolution, a peaceful revolution. But if they try to suppress the peaceful revolution, it can go violent," Abdul Rashid Ghazi, one of two brothers who run the mosque, warned in an interview. "We will not give up."

Little government action
So far, the provocations by the mosque's leadership have elicited dire threats from the government but little action.

Tariq Azim Khan, the government's information minister, conceded that there are concerns about launching a raid. "If you attack a mosque, that might create a lot of public support for them," he said, though he noted that top Pakistani religious figures have spoken out against their fellow clerics at the Red Mosque. "We know that they're using the madrassa students as human shields."

Khan said the government hopes to rely on negotiation rather than force to resolve the problem. But he indicated that patience is wearing thin. One night this week, the government massed thousands of riot police, including specially trained commando forces, and shut down roads leading to the mosque as officials appeared to prepare for a raid. It never came, but Khan said it remains an option.

The controversy comes at a particularly sensitive time for Musharraf. Since suspending the nation's chief justice on March 9, the president has faced persistent calls for his resignation from pro-democracy activists who consider his tactics autocratic. Those activists also accuse Musharraf of fomenting extremism in Pakistan by sidelining mainstream political leaders and, through strategic partnerships, elevating the status of groups that had previously been on the fringe.

Musharraf, a general, has led the country since 1999, when he seized power in a bloodless, military-led coup. Over that time, and especially in the past few years, radical groups have gained greater acceptance for their views and have stepped up attacks -- in part because the anti-American insurgency in Afghanistan has spilled over the border.

But Musharraf's critics say the former army commando is also to blame because he plays both sides in the fight against terrorism: He allows radical groups enough room to operate and, in the process, guarantees a continuous flow of U.S. military aid.

"If extremism in Pakistan has a mother, it is military rule," said Ayaz Amir, a leading Pakistani political analyst.

Musharraf espouses a vision of what he calls "enlightened moderation" and has said he is trying his best to eliminate radicalism. Radical groups, for their part, have tried to eliminate him. He has been the target of several roadside bombings and suicide attacks.

'Turning point'
"This government is only trying to please America and the Bush administration, with the result that the hatred for the government and hatred for America is increasing in Pakistan," said Ghazi, the Red Mosque cleric.

Ghazi, a beefy man with a bushy black and white beard, spoke at length about his grievances in fluent English with a visitor to the mosque on Monday afternoon. Neither he nor the dozens of other employees and students who were present appeared particularly concerned about a police assault, with several insisting they were prepared, come what may.

"We are not afraid of dying because death has to come. Why should we be afraid?" said Pervaiz Khan, 42, a mosque office assistant whose two daughters attend the madrassa.

As in the rest of Pakistan, the degree of extremism at the Red Mosque is a relatively recent phenomenon. The mosque is Islamabad's oldest, built and owned by the government as a place for public officials and other members of the nation's elite to worship.

For decades it was overseen by Ghazi's father, a cleric who was known for fiery oratory but who generally shunned violence.

In 1998, however, he was killed while walking outside his home. Ghazi and his brother, who took over at the mosque, became frustrated by the government's inability, or unwillingness, to track down the killer, said Misbah Saboohi, a family friend who grew up with the brothers.

"This is the real reason for their bitterness," said Saboohi, now a law professor at the International Islamic University in Islamabad. "They asked that a proper investigation be carried out, and nothing happened. That was the turning point."

The brothers soon began to distance themselves from the government, and established ties with the Taliban. In 2004, the government became suspicious that the brothers had links with al-Qaeda as well. It stopped paying their salaries, and prohibited them from leaving the mosque's grounds.

"They are hostages, too," Saboohi said.

Saboohi said she has tried to talk the brothers into giving up their fight with the government, to no avail. But she ultimately blames Musharraf for allowing extremist elements to thrive, even in Islamabad.

"This is a Frankenstein's monster that our military dictatorship has built," she said. "And now we are all suffering from it."