[Reader-list] Another Lal Masjid

S. Jabbar sonia.jabbar at gmail.com
Mon Jun 16 10:38:53 IST 2008

Another Lal Masjid in the Making?
Ahmad Bilal 
>From Chowk, June 8.

In April, I had to make an emergency trip to Pakistan due to declining
health of my father. Since my last couple of trips had been very short, this
was after more than two years that I was visiting Pakistan for four weeks,
most of them to be spent in my hometown of Bahawalpur. When I had visited
back in 2005, it was a visit after 4 years, so new roads and cell phones in
every hand looked quite fresh. This time, at least on the surface, little
seemed to have changed since my last trip. On my way home from the airport,
it looked like the same old desert town of Bahawalpur. The date palms, the
early summer heat, the dust and the desert wind were all too familiar.

As the car stopped at the main gate of my parents¹ house, a poster pasted on
the gate caught my attention. The title of the poster was ³Azmat-e-Quran
Conference². And the key speaker was going to be someone named Masood Azhar.
Why did the name sound familiar? I thought about it for a moment, but then
as the car moved in, the happy feeling of meeting my parents again
overwhelmed me and I quite forgot about it all. The next few days were spent
making courtesy calls and getting over the jet lag.

Then came the day when I was fresh again to go out and meet relatives and
family friends in the city. As I went out, I saw the same poster pasted all
over the city with a lot of white flags hoisted on all major intersections.
I wondered what was going on, and the name Masood Azhar clicked with some
old memories of watching this man on the news a long time ago. Yes, he was
the same Masood Azhar who founded the Jaish-e-Muhammad organization and
served time in Indian jails before getting freed through hijacking of an
Indian Airlines jet.

Bahawalpur always used to be laid back small town where everyone knew
everyone. Masood Azhar was a neighbor of my cousins and used to have a small
low profile house which wasn¹t even visible from the road. I remember when
he was released, the BBC wanted to film his return from the terrace of my
cousins¹ house, but they refused due to privacy concerns. Since then, we
heard little about him in the news or local gossip. In general, the people
didn¹t give him much credibility.

While I was thinking about the past, my attention was drawn towards the wall
chalking around me. Gone were the usual slogans of old times, directing
people to visit miraculous witchdoctors for solutions of all their problems.
The walls were filled with anti-west hate slogans, with ³Al-Jihad Al-Qital²
(holy war, bloody battle) written everywhere around the central mosque. This
was not the Bahawalpur I knew when I was growing up.

As we got closer to the central mosque, I saw the adjacent ground filled
with bearded men in white robes, with more of them reaching the place in
buses, chanting the slogans which were written all over the city. A number
of men were uniformed, and they had closed the road to facilitate movement
of buses into the place. The purpose of the conference was to distribute a
new book of Masood Azhar which had supposedly substantiated that the jihad
these men thought they were preparing for was actually sanctioned by the
verses of Quran, based on their strict politically-motivated interpretation.

We reached the house of our family friends with mixed thoughts. Obviously
disturbed by these developments, I asked them what was going on in the city.
They said it had been silently going on for a long time. Over the years,
Masood Azhar had converted his small house into a multi-floor concrete
compound housing 700 armed men, who freely did target practice there. All
this was located in a very central part of the city, ironically called Model
Town. The police dared not touch these men, and instead of putting pressure
on them to stop their activities, the local politicians were actually hiring
these men as bodyguards during the elections.

After leaving their house, as we got closer to my cousins¹ house, a strange
tall building with the same white flags on top was visible from a distance.
This was Masood Azhar¹s compound. A few blocks away from my cousins¹ house,
our car got stuck in a crowd of the same bearded men in white robes who
flocked outside the compound and watched us suspiciously as we drove through
them. For a moment, I felt like a stranger in my own hometown. Everyone at
my cousins¹ house thought of all this as something normal and didn¹t seem to
be bothered.

While talking to people about this, I had some interesting conversations
with some of the people who were involved in local politics and the internal
politics of Islamabad. Their understanding was that Masood Azhar was like
Rasheed Ghazi of Lal Masjid. The way they explained it was that ISI gets
money channeled through CIA. Some of it goes to fund extremists, some of it
goes to eliminate them, and most of it goes in shady bank accounts. The
agencies get their money, the US benefits from the instability in the region
to maintain military presence here, Musharraf gets to stay in power by
showing his performance in war on terror, and the bearded men in white robes
think they are doing some great service to religion by dedicating their
lives to militancy. So this was a win-win situation for all parties, at the
expense of the fabric of Pakistani society.

Although I took their explanation with a grain of salt, I thought a lot of
it did make sense. On my way back home, a huge billboard at the heart of the
city grabbed my attention. It showed a passenger plane on fire with a slogan
on top: Another Victory for Muslims. I had a flight back to the US coming
up, and the plane on the billboard resembled the 777 I took to fly to
Pakistan. I wondered if the ones behind this billboard actually realized
what they were portraying. Beneath the billboard, the cityscape was filled
with common Pakistanis going about their everyday struggle for survival.

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