Despite public humiliation and periods of house arrest, the former leader of Pakistan’s notorious Lal Masjid is inspiring a new generation of extremists with his old rhetoric—highlighting Islamabad’s ambivalent attempts to bring religious hardliners to heel.
Ten years after the military raid on his mosque made international headlines and shocked his country, Abdul Aziz remains influential, overseeing a network of seminaries as he calls for a “caliphate” to be established in Pakistan. During his time at the helm of the Lal Masjid, Aziz shot to prominence for his inflammatory sermons, advocating jihad against the West and a hardline interpretation of Islam. He spread this message among his thousands of students, mostly poor children from rural areas who are educated for free at madrassas affiliated with the mosque, sparking accusations of brainwashing from critics.
By 2007 things had reached a tipping point.
His armed followers had begun taking his message to the streets of the capital, vandalizing CD and DVD stalls and kidnapping Chinese masseuses, with tensions quickly degenerating into murderous clashes.
When the regime of then-president Pervez Musharraf launched an assault on the mosque on July 10, 2007, the army found itself facing heavily armed jihadists.
The controversial operation was followed minute-by-minute on live television, with more than 100 people killed in the weeklong effort to pacify the mosque and arrest its leaders. The attack on the religious site sparked ferocious blowback from extremists across the country, marking the emergence of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP)—an umbrella organization for homegrown militant groups targeting the Pakistani state.
In the following years Islamist violence increased dramatically, with thousands of Pakistanis killed, maimed, or forced to flee their homes as security deteriorated. Aziz himself was arrested as he tried to flee the besieged mosque in a burqa, taken straight to a television studio and paraded in the garment—earning the nickname “Mullah Burqa.”
He faced two-dozen indictments, including incitement to hatred, murder and kidnapping. But Aziz was released on bail in 2009. “He was acquitted in all these cases, and the government has chosen not to file appeals,” said lawyer and civil rights activist Jibran Nasir. “There is no willingness for prosecution against him.”
Despite brief stints under house arrest, Aziz now appears to be galvanizing the next generation with his fiery preaching—apparently without fear of repercussions.
“The curious thing is that the army has gone after the TTP but not Aziz,” said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a leading anti-extremist activist. “There’s sympathy for his cause that’s greater than the fear of being attacked again.”
Aziz is known to boast of his relations with well-known jihadists like Osama bin Laden and has spoken sympathetically about the Islamic State group. He has also condoned high-profile extremist attacks, like the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris.
“The impunity enjoyed by Abdul Aziz and other radical clerics raises fear of the capital returning to a 2007-like situation,” said political commentator Zahid Hussain.
In 2014, a video of students from his madrassa voicing their support for I.S. did not earn him any condemnation. “There should be a caliphate in the world including in Pakistan,” said Aziz in a televised interview around that time.
Aziz “is tolerated… because it would be like touching a hornet’s nest,” explains former general Talat Masood. Given the sensitivity of the population to religious questions, intervening “would risk attracting sympathies.”
Authorities, however, appear to be keeping him on a tight leash for now. Aziz is no longer welcome at the Lal Masjid, which theoretically belongs to the state, and he has been placed on Pakistan’s anti-terrorist list.
A rally planned by his supporters to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Lal Masjid siege was banned by the courts.
In recent months, the authorities have blocked roads surrounding the mosque to prevent Aziz from holding rallies and have taken measures to stop him from preaching on Friday, even remotely by phone.
The Lal Masjid’s new imam Maulana Aamir Sadeeq, an affable 30-year-old, said it was time to “forget the past” and “the extreme positions” of a decade ago. “We must put a distance between terrorism and us,” said Sadeeq—who happens to be Aziz’s nephew.