Islamabad, Pakistan – Maulana Mohammad Abdul Aziz may be the most hated man in Pakistan. Political commentators cannot stop talking about him. Neither can the opposition.
Both use his example to shame the ruling party for its supposed nonchalant attitude towards extremism. “It seems the government is afraid of him,” said Senator Tahir Hussain Mashhadi during a session of the upper house. Maybe it is. Last month, for two hours each Friday, the authorities choked Islamabad’s mobile signals to prevent the cleric from delivering his weekly sermon through his phone.
“There is a police station right here,” says Aziz, pointing behind him. “Ask them. Is there any proof that I am a criminal, a terrorist or even a killer? All I speak for is an Islamic system. Is that a crime?” he asks.
The police station he is referring to reportedly has two First Information Reports registered against him for provocation and threatening the civil society. The police refused Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
Even the interior minister insists that Aziz cannot be detained, owing to a lack of charges.
Today, the 55-year-old’s movements are restricted. He spends most of his time at a sprawling madrassa in the heart of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, that is still under construction.
Policemen guard his premises. Agencies raid his madrassas and cart off his employees for questioning, he claims. Recently, his two sons-in-law were picked up. They returned only after he threatened to take to the streets.
‘The silent majority is with us’
Aziz is a tall, slightly hunched man. When he speaks, he moves back and forth in a rhythmic motion, occasionally touching his scraggly white beard. “The silent majority is with us,” he says peering through his round spectacles.
“There are people who love us, not just in Pakistan but around the world. It is not a small group,” he adds.
He may be right. Seminaries run by his family in and around Islamabad house up to 5,000 male and female students and 550 teachers.
Most hail from Kashmir and the Khyber Pakhtunwa province. Their monthly expenses, if Aziz is to be believed, can run up to Rs 15 million ($143,000), an amount bankrolled by local donations.
Still, it is a small set-up when compared with his days as the head cleric of Islamabad’s oldest and second-largest mosque, the Lal Masjid (the Red Mosque).
During the 1960s and 1970s, the crimson-coloured structure enjoyed iconic status and was often included in the itinerary of visiting foreign dignitaries. Then it fell from grace after the opening of the even larger Faisal Mosque in 1980.
And again, in 2007, under the leadership of Aziz.
The summer of 2007: a siege at the Red Mosque
The bespectacled father of three does not inspire much fear if you meet him today. But he did, back in the summer of 2007 when he and his family roused an uprising that rattled Islamabad and changed Pakistan for the next decade.
It began with his students. Under his guidance, they launched a violent and disruptive campaign to enforce a hardline version of sharia.
Baton-wielding men and women took to the streets, forcing video stores they deemed immoral to shut. His brother threatened to throw acid on female students at the Quaid-i-Azam University. The government’s muted response further emboldened the youngsters, who then abducted seven Chinese citizens from an upscale massage parlour that they insisted was a brothel.
That final act jolted the establishment into action. China and Pakistan share a border and strong diplomatic ties. For Pakistan this was a matter of serious embarrassment and for China a matter of serious concern. Andrew Small writes in his book, The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics that “China’s President, Hu Jintao, would receive regular briefings from his diplomats in Pakistan as the drama of the next 17 hours unfolded.”
Clashes finally erupted in July. The bloody 10-day siege ended with troops storming the Lal Masjid. At least 103 people were killed. Among the dead was Aziz’s firebrand brother, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, his mother and son.
Small adds that the dead also included 12 Uighurs – a Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic group from China.
After the crackdown, Aziz was caught trying to escape disguised as a woman.
But during the siege, he was defiant. He claimed to have prepared 10,000 suicide bombers to strike.
The 300-page report commissioned to investigate the Lal Masjid siege notes that he crowed about his victory. “We have spoken to our brothers in the tribal areas,” he told his students, “and a host of other warriors, including Baitullah Mehsud, who would soon be coming to Islamabad for our support.” Mehsud then went on to form the notorious Pakistan Taliban.
San Bernardino, ISIL and sectarianism
Even today, controversy seems to be drawn to Aziz.
One of the gunmen in the San Bernardino massacre, Tashfeen Malik, had allegedly visited the Lal Masjid and taken a photograph with him.
To these allegations, Aziz retorts: “This news is absolutely false. She didn’t take any pictures with me.” He momentarily loses his cool. “I don’t even have a picture with my family,” he says.
In 2014, some girls from his madrassa uploaded a video in Arabic pledging allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Aziz seems to choose his words carefully. “These girls did it on their own. They did it for the love of their religion, so I cannot condemn it,” he says.
He pauses, then continues: “Our leaders have fooled us for 64 years. They told us that they will bring an Islamic system. No one was honest about it. If you are not going to do it and someone else will, then of course it will catch attention.”
“You are seeing videos of violent acts committed by the Islamic State but not the videos of violence committed by the other side.”
By the “other side”, Aziz means the US, the Syrian government and Shia Muslims – a group towards which he holds particular animosity. Aziz believes a Shia Muslim shot his father.
The Mullah and his students
Shortly after the siege, Ayman al-Zawahiri, then al-Qaeda’s number two to Osama bin Laden, released a video titled “The Aggression against Lal Masjid”.
In it, he targeted Pakistan’s then president, Pervez Musharraf. “The crime can only be washed away by repentance or blood,” Zawahiri said.
The reason al-Qaeda came to Aziz’s defence, says senior journalist Khaled Ahmed, is because Lal Masjid “was an early link-up of sectarian clerics with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda”.
“With time, it also represented the interface with the Pakistan security agencies, with the non-state actors being used in Afghanistan. The Taliban were officially created as Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan by al-Qaeda after the Musharraf government decided to attack the Red Mosque with a commando unit.”
The same commando unit, Ahmed adds, was later blown up by a suicide bomber sent by al-Qaeda.
Last year, Sabeen Mahmud, the Pakistani human rights activist, was shot dead. The alleged culprit, who also confessed to being involved in the killing of 45 members of the Shia Ismaili community in Karachi, told police that Mahmud had been targeted for her campaign against Aziz.
“Aziz is hanging on because of the strong presence of favourable factors in Islamabad,” explains Ahmed. “Including illegal madrassas, middle and lower-middle-class civil servants, slum dwellers and shopkeepers.”
There is another group that endorses and supports his views – his students.
“What is the harm in trying the Islamic system?” asks Ayesha, a 26-year-old graduate of one of Aziz’s seminaries. “The media raise all kinds of propaganda against us, but they never ask us for our or the Maulana’s point of view.”
As the interview comes to a close, the cleric collects a few copies of his self-published books from a small, rectangular office to hand out. One of them is entitled “Is Pakistan’s Constitution Islamic?”
Outside, teenagers sit on straw mats revising their lessons for the day. Aziz checks the time on his Samsung mobile phone and begins to talk again. He is now citing examples from political talk shows, which, he says vilify him and “his kind”.
“TV anchors calls me ‘Mullah’. They say ‘Mullah Abdul Aziz.’
“It’s not a bad thing, to be called a ‘Mullah’,” he explains, smirking at the idea of being a Grinch to the rest of Pakistan.
Does that make him angry? How do his 5,000 students feel, when civil society activists, political parties and the media call for his arrest?
“It makes the students angry,” he says, looking contemplative, “which is pretty natural.”