Islamabad protesters demand mosque leader condemn school massacre
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One hundred and thirty-two children were killed by the Pakistani Taliban in their earlier this week. But this was not enough to get the leader of one of the country’s biggest public mosques, the Red Mosque in Islamabad, to condemn the Taliban. In a brave move, hundreds of protesters showed up in front of the mosque Thursday night to demand he do so.
Photo posted by Shahid Khan on the protest's Facebook page.
One hundred and thirty-two children were killed by the Pakistani Taliban in their attack on a school in Peshawar earlier this week. But this was not enough to get the leader of one of the country’s biggest public mosques, the Red Mosque in Islamabad, to condemn the Taliban. In a brave move, hundreds of protesters showed up in front of the mosque Thursday night to demand he do so.
The Red Mosque’s chief cleric, Malauna Abdul Aziz – who, as the leader of a public mosque, is paid with public funds – is a highly controversial character. In 2007, he rose to fame when his radical followers went on a campaign to impose sharia law in the streets of Islamabad, vigilante-style. This ended with a bloody, two-day face-off against government forces, in which he and his armed followers barricaded themselves inside the mosque. He tried to flee disguised in a burqa, but was caught. At least 100 people died during the fighting, which angered radicals across Pakistan.
Despite all this, Aziz was released on bail in 2009, and soon reinstated as the mosque’s leader. Most of the charges against him have since been dropped, and he’s continued to court controversy. In April, he named one of the mosque’s libraries after Osama Bin Laden, who he claimed to have met. Last week, he expressed sympathy for the Islamic State organisation’s agenda. And this week, during a television interview, he refused to condemn the Peshawar school attack.
“The time has finally come where Pakistanis can no longer stay silent and accept such hatred”Safeer Ullah Khan is a theatre director who took part in the Red Mosque protest on Thursday night.
I’ve been to lots of protests in Islamabad before, and they’re usually 15 to 20 people; 50 or 60 is considered a large turnout. But last night, there were hundreds of us! I didn’t expect this, and it really heartened me. It seems the time has finally come where Pakistanis can no longer stay silent and accept such hatred. Especially not from the leader of a public mosque, whose salary comes from our taxes! It’s crazy that he is still in place, but clearly he has friends in high places.
The crowd gathering in front of the mosque. Photo posted by Shahid Khan on the protest's Facebook page.
During the protest, the police kept us separated from the mosque students; at one point, a mullah came out to see us. But he didn’t want to dialogue; he just wanted to give a speech, like he does at the mosque, expecting us all to stay silent and listen as mullahs are accustomed to. But we shouted slogans and refused to listen. Aziz did not come talk to us.
Our demands are twofold: first, we want Aziz to apologise and condem the terrorists who killed our children. Secondly, we want the authorities to arrest him for treason, since he’s openly said he is on the side of terrorist s and against our country’s constitution.
Instead of calling him Malauna (or Mulana) Abdul Aziz, some mockingly call him Mulana Burqa, in reference to the burqa he donned to try to flee the siege on his mosque in 2007. Photo posted by Shahid Khan on the protest's Facebook page.
“We will go to the mosque every evening until we get a reaction”
Of course, given his track record, we do not expect our protest to change his mind. But the hope is that this will show clerics across the country that the people will not stay silent, and that they had better think twice about excusing terrorist acts. Aziz is not the only mosque leader like this – there are clerics across Pakistan who not only defend terrorists’ actions, some actually hide them in their mosques.
Protesters lit candles in honour of the Peshawar school attack's victims. Photo posted by Shahid Khan on the protest's Facebook page.
We plan to go to the mosque every evening until we get a reaction, and I hope this protest will spread to other cities in Pakistan. It will be interesting to see how the authorities react, to see if they shut down our protests – so far, they’ve already charged several protesters with violating public assembly laws...
Post written by France 24 journalist Gaelle Faure (@gjfaure).