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Radical Sheik

Abdul Rashid Ghazi comes across a little like Jerry Garcia. He wears oval-shaped, wire-rimmed glasses, has a grey, fist-length beard, and sports curly hair that flips wildly around his ears and neckline. He even has the former Grateful Dead frontman's easy smile and chill demeanor. University educated, he talks in idiomatic English, and, during one recent conversation, we even swapped stories about hanging out on the beaches in Thailand.

This is a bit surprising, considering that Ghazi and his brother, Maulana Abdul Aziz, are leading an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. His mosque, Lal Masjid or "Red Mosque," has long been considered one of the most anti-American and pro-Taliban mosques in the country, dedicated to enforcing sharia law in matters of vice and virtue. Over the past three months, however, Ghazi and his followers have become more assertive, overrunning a public library, kidnapping a brothel owner, and organizing a public burning of un-Islamic albums and DVDs.

Located on a quiet, leafy street in one of Islamabad's most expensive neighborhoods, Lal Masjid, too, seems an unlikely center for an Islamic revolution. The compound is walking distance from the National Assembly building, the U.S. Embassy, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) headquarters, and, incidentally, my house. But, since a brigade of talibat, the feminine form of Taliban, forcibly occupied a children's library adjacent to Lal Masjid in late January, the mosque has become a fortress. Thousands of jihadis have descended on Islamabad to defend it, taking up positions along the compound's pink walls and parapets, clutching wooden staffs, their faces hidden by checkered scarves. Massive, homemade posters drape from the walls, praising jihad. Dozens of black flags, showing two crossed swords and inscribed with Islam's profession of faith, La illaha illa Allah ("There is no God but God"), fly over the mosque and on lampposts at nearby intersections. When I asked Ghazi what the flags stood for, he smirked. "It is our own and not from anywhere in particular," he said. "But some are saying it is like the Al Qaeda flag."

Ghazi affectionately refers to the women as his "female commandos" and says the takeover of the library was a long time coming. President Pervez Musharraf's government "challenged the writ of Allah" by destroying a number of mosques in Islamabad; his girls responded by "challenging the writ of the state. Whose writ is greater?" he asked rhetorically.

The army has threatened to remove the women with force, but it hasn't yet. Musharraf reportedly wanted to launch an air strike, but some of his top generals convinced him otherwise. The establishment of a mini-Taliban state in Islamabad has caught Musharraf at a bad time. Since early March, lawyers in black suits have been leading frequent protests against Musharraf for his suspension of the chief justice of Pakistan on flimsy charges of nepotism. In Karachi on May 12, more than 40 people died when the chief justice arrived in the port city and gun battles broke out between pro- and anti-government political parties. In March, the police stormed the offices of a private television channel in Islamabad for broadcasting footage of rioters clashing with police right outside the studio's windows. That afternoon, while I stood in front of the ransacked office, my eyes and nostrils stinging from the tear gas lingering in the air, a man approached me, shaking his head in disbelief. "In only a week, Musharraf has alienated two pillars of society--first the lawyers and now the media," he said. "What is he thinking?"

Meanwhile, the Taliban continue to make trouble in the border areas. On April 28, a suicide bomber reached within ten feet of the interior minister before blowing himself up, killing 28 people. (The minister escaped with light injuries.) Just two weeks later, another suicide bomber struck a restaurant in Peshawar, killing two dozen more. All the distractions have left even the staunchest Musharraf supporters wondering if he has the ability--or the will--to keep Ghazi and his kind at bay.

Lal Masjid has been a hub of jihadi activity since the early 1980s, when scores of mujahideen passed through on their way to and from Afghanistan. Around his twenty-second birthday, Ghazi made his first of many trips to Afghanistan, where he buddied-up with some of the jihadists who later signed Osama bin Laden's declaration of a "World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders." In 1998, bin Laden invited Ghazi and his father to Kandahar for a one-day meeting. Three months after they returned to Islamabad, the father was assassinated in the Lal Masjid courtyard. Ghazi blames the Pakistani intelligence agencies. Bin Laden sent a condolence letter.

Ghazi and his brother took over after that. Aziz, a madrassa graduate, delivers the Friday sermons, while Ghazi handles the media and the administration of the mosque and seminaries. Ghazi, the more worldly of the two, also plays the strategist. His vision? "The ideal form of governance is Islamic governance and it was in Afghanistan under Mullah Omar," he explained. "I don't like democracy. Islam is not about counting people. In democracy, the weight of one vote is the same for a man who is taking drugs and doesn't care about his country as it is for the man with a vision for the future. The majority of people are ignorant people. This doesn't bring us a good system."

Although Ghazi's ideas about the supremacy of Sharia are shared by most of the leading ulema, or religious scholars, in Pakistan, many are uncomfortable with his methods. For instance, the MMA, a hard-line coalition of several religious parties that sits in the National Assembly and governs two of Pakistan's four provinces, has distanced itself from Lal Masjid's violent tactics. Similarly, the examination board responsible for most madrassas in Pakistan recently cancelled the registration of Ghazi's two seminaries. And Mufti Taqi Usmani, a scholar of immense repute who acted as pir, or spiritual guide, to Ghazi's brother, disowned his former disciple when the latter refused to order his students to vacate the children's library.

Ghazi doesn't seem to care that the old guard is speaking against him. "Everywhere you look, you can see youngsters rejecting the old ones because old people do not like change," he said. "They are rigid." In fact, Ghazi's power grab may represent a significant shift in the leadership of madrassa-based politics. As resentment builds against Musharraf and the West, more Pakistani youth are running to embrace those with the most radical and revolutionary message. So far, the majority of Ghazi's support has come from Pashtuns, the ethnic group found in the Pakistani border areas and in southern Afghanistan. Two pro-Taliban mullahs from the lawless mountain region near the Afghan border, both of whom made recent news lambasting female education and a campaign to vaccinate children for polio (they claimed the vaccine was an "impotency serum," part of an effort to wipe out Muslims), have sent letters of approval.

Ghazi is not one to refuse support, but he insists that his vision of an Islamic society is more sophisticated and tolerant than theirs. "We don't want to go backwards," he said. "Why would I give up my computer, my mobile phone, my walkie-talkie, my fax machine?" How can we be against female education while running the largest women's madrassa in the world, he asked. "Women are part of this movement." He shared an aphorism: "They say if you teach a man, you teach a person. But if you teach a female, you teach a whole family." I asked him about rumors in Islamabad that his students were stopping women at intersections and demanding that they stop driving. "My wife drives a car; she goes to the market and takes the children there and there and there," he said. "How is it possible that I will ask my students to stop other women driving?"

 Ghazi's wife might go to the market, but Ghazi himself has been holed up inside Lal Masjid since August 2005, when the government charged him with inciting a riot and then failing to show up in court. (Ghazi and his brother were declared "absconders" and threatened with arrest.) The isolation has taken a certain toll. Each time I have visited Ghazi over the past year, his paunch grows bigger and bigger.

But while it may have contributed to Ghazi's weight gain, the Pakistani government has seemingly done little to stifle his political activism. In April, we walked down a dirt alley tucked behind Lal Masjid's pink walls and stepped into an office equipped with three brand-new computers--the mosque's nerve center. Despite their stand-off with the government, the electricity was still working. A microphone stand, used by Ghazi's brother during his weekly radio addresses, craned in the corner. Beside one of the computers was a black tower featuring seven slots for the mass-production of propaganda CDs. Four young men, none of them older than 25 or 26, manned ringing phones while a printer spat out an op-ed to which Ghazi was making final edits.

I asked Ghazi how he imagined his Islamic revolution playing out. "Either the government does it or the people do it themselves. If the government does it, it will be peaceful. If the people have to do, it will be bloody," he said. A young bodyguard with a wispy beard and a Kalashnikov entered the room and whispered something into Ghazi's ear, who relayed the message on his walkie-talkie. "We are demanding a peaceful revolution, but it depends on the government's attitude. Time and again they have threatened to launch a military operation on Lal Masjid. We are ready for this," he said. "We are armed." According to Ghazi, everyone is fed up with Musharraf, the army, and the entire existing system. "If we are killed, it will only give more momentum to our movement. The government knows this. And that's why they aren't coming."

Nicholas Schmidle is a freelance journalist and Pakistan-based fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs.