Confrontation at an Islamabad Mosque

Religious students stand outside the mosque, the city's oldest. The government recently massed riot police nearby but did not raid the site. A government minister said he did not rule out such an option. (By Anjum Naveed -- Associated Press)
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, May 22 -- 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."

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.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company