Burning sofas in Islamabad By Pervez Hoodbhoy

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A BAD joke or fake news? A report I had just read said Maulana Abdul Aziz (of Lal Masjid fame) had deliberately set fire to sofas inside one of the madressahs he heads in Islamabad. There had been no denial and a quick Google search settled my doubts.

Filmed at close quarters a video clip shows the visibly irritated maulana entering the visitor hall of Jamia Faridia, a large seminary complex in the posh E-7 sector of Islamabad. He is accompanied by students and their teachers. Before setting fire to the first couch, he scolds all for disobeying his long-standing instructions. This, he said, had made his personal visit necessary.

The maulana put his logic squarely up front: Islam forbids sitting on a couch, particularly for those training to be mujahids. Never, he said, had the Holy Prophet (PBUH) or his companions sat on sofas. He rubbished excuses that the sofas were for disabled persons. Like his martyred father (who was the earlier chancellor of Jamia Faridia), the maulana said he too prefers the floor. Students wanting sofas and an easy life should either quit or do physical workouts. Thereafter the maulana called for a knife, slit the couch cushion, lighted a match and put it to the exposed foam. As one couch burned, he called for the next to be brought in.

While provisionally accepting the maulana’s logical framework, I can see three problems with his actions.

Setting sofas on fire brings back memories of the time when Islamabad was set ablaze in 2007.

First, burning a sofa indoors is not safe. Foam or plastic, when burned, releases dense smoke containing carcinogenic material. In fact, as the fumes spread, those in the crowd around him can be heard coughing. Exposing strapping young jihadists to such substances endangers their health needlessly and could reduce their lifespan below what a hazardous occupation normally entails.

Second, while indeed there were no sofas in the previous millennium, the lack of historical precedence was taken a tad too far. The maulana must justify his use of a cellphone, travelling in an SUV with padded seats, equipping his bodyguards and others with AK-47s, as well as using amenities — electricity, gas, piped water — that had not existed in the seventh century. He must also explain his once-frequent presence on television which depicts human lifeforms and was condemned by almost every religious authority until lately. One notes the maulana’s lead role in the award-winning documentary film, Among the Believers, available on Netflix.

Third, with the decision on Pakistan’s possible removal from FATF’s grey list just three months away, now was scarcely the time to remind the world of a large complex in the heart of the nation’s capital which aims to produce what the world fears. Those trying to put Pakistan on the blacklist must feel encouraged by the additional evidence that the maulana has made available to them.

Although setting sofas on fire left the city’s peace unaffected, other actions inspired and encouraged by the maulana have not. Last year, hundreds of his students from the female madressah Jamia Hafsa launched projectiles at participants of the Aurat March near the Islamabad Press Club. While walking along with others, my wife and I were fortunate to have avoided a largish brick by a few inches.

This year, as per the maulana’s orders, the Shuhada Foundation of Lal Masjid has filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court seeking a ban on all marches by ‘Westernised’ women and their supporters. Doctored videos originating from some mysterious source were circulated and used to slap blasphemy allegations on participants. While countless foundations and NGOs have been banned, the kindness of Islamabad’s authorities allows the Shuhada Foundation not just to exist but to thrive.

This kindness is not easy to understand. In 2007, led by Maulana Aziz and his brother Abdur Rashid Ghazi (later killed), Lal Masjid clerics had set out to create their version of an Islamic state in the city. On April 12, 2007, in an FM broadcast from an illegal transmitter on the mosque’s premises, they issued a chilling threat to the government: “There will be suicide blasts in every nook and cranny of the country. We have weapons, grenades and we are expert in manufacturing bombs. We are not afraid of death.”

The mosque’s clerics had attracted around them a core of banned militant organisations including Al Qaeda and Jaish-e-Mohammad. A state within a state, Lal Masjid was a magnet for fighters from Central Asian Republics. Inside the mosque’s premises the maulana brothers — Ghazi and Aziz — ran their own Islamic court. Here they received the Saudi Arabian ambassador and negotiated with the Chinese ambassador for the release of Chinese nationals who had been kidnapped.

For many months, Gen Musharraf’s government looked the other way. Even as arms and fuel were being stockpiled inside the mosque and Jamia Hafsa students rampaged across Islamabad, the government rejected suggestions to cut off the mosque-madressah complex’s electricity and gas supply, block its website, or shut down its illegal FM radio station. To this day, we do not know if this was cowardice or complicity.

The rest became history. In July 2007, Islamabad shook to the sound of rockets and bombs and carnage followed. Ten SSG crack commandos were martyred by the heavily fortified defenders and scores were wounded. Days earlier a suicide attack on a checkpoint near the mosque had wiped out a dozen policemen. On the side of Lal Masjid defenders, the death count ran into hundreds. A massive cache of weapons was seized after the defenders were eliminated and placed in police custody. Weeks later, it disappeared mysteriously.

COAS Gen Qamar Bajwa recently suggested that Pakistan needs to put its house in order. He did not, of course, ask for the house’s sofas to be set on fire. But this particular episode has brought back to memory the deaths of our soldiers and policemen. Yet to this day no FIR has been lodged by the authorities against the maulana and his companions. Normal states do not let those who kill its citizens go scot-free, or allow them to head institutions that will create more killers. Fourteen years later, the great mystery of Islamabad remains unresolved.