Saturday, July 10, 2010

Three years on, Pakistan's Red Mosque legacy bites

ISLAMABAD (AFP)— Three years after Pakistan forces stormed the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad and cleric Abdul Aziz escaped in a burqa, his call for Islamic revolution is as fiery as ever, but hard times have hit.

The government may have reached a kind of stalemate over what was once a militant bastion, but the bearded man with a black turban and soft voice says times are tight. Inflation is high and donors are not as generous as in the past.

"We are facing the worst financial crisis. We have 5,000 students to teach, educate and feed and we can't meet our expenses," he told AFP, after spooning mango into the mouth of a three-year-old adopted son.

The bombing of Islamabad's Marriott Hotel in September 2008 sparked an exodus of Westerners. Attacks turned Peshawar into a fortress and bomb attacks have become frequent in Lahore, the capital of the liberal elite.

On the eve of the third anniversary, bombers slaughtered 65 people near the Afghan border, targeting the local administration and peace efforts.

Although millions dispute his assessment, Aziz presents Islamic rule as the one-stop solution to Pakistan's social, economic, political and security woes.

"The Red Mosque changed the track of the nation towards revolution," he said. "After that, the whole nation took a turn towards Islamic rule of law and Islamic system."

According to government records, there are more than 15,000 seminaries in Pakistan, educating around five percent of the 34 million children who are in education.

Islamabad administrator Amir Ahmed Ali says there are 305 in the capital -- 140 of them registered, up from 128 registered last year.

Bomb attacks have become frequent in Lahore, the capital of the liberal elite

Zafarullah Khan, director of the independent Centre for Civic Education, acknowledged that donations had slowed.

"But I think these seminaries are otherwise flourishing and the government seems helpless to tackle the issue by either bringing them in the national mainstream or taking action against them," he said.

Jamia Hafsa says it educates around 650 girls in Islamic studies and the Koran, the majority of whom board. At their new, cramped quarters, classrooms double up as dormitories when bed rolls are shaken out at night.

Staff say the girls also study science, maths, English and computer studies, but few demonstrate fluency in English and two computers seen by AFP on a recent visit were not turned on.

Broken egg shells lie next to hobs and frying pans are thick with oil. Girls squat by ground-level taps to wash next to latrines.

A shop sells twigs for 10 rupees (12 cents) -- toothbrushes known as miswak that are believed to date back to the time of Prophet Mohammed.

"The biggest problem is that there is no Islamic system. Everyone has forgotten Islam. If the situation remains the same, Islamabad will become Baghdad. Pakistan will become Iraq," said teacher Roma.

US drone attacks targeting Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan's tribal belt are deeply controversial in Pakistan, as is the government's alliance with the United States in the war in Afghanistan.

"Everything has happened because our rulers were dictated to by the United States and England," said Ume Hassan, Aziz's wife.

The mosque was a flashpoint in the capital and there were fears it could become one again when Aziz was released on bail last year.

But he and his wife deny any link with jihad. When the roomful of girls dressed in the niqab were asked whether any of their relatives were fighting against government troops, there was silence.

Imtiaz Gul, an expert on the tribal belt, said the so-called Ghazi force, set up by Abdul Aziz's younger brother Abdul Rashid Ghazi, was still operating, and allied to Pakistan's Tehreek-e-Taliban and Afghanistan's Haqqani network.

"They are involved in many attacks. The army had found a lot of material about Ghazi force during Swat operation," he said.

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