(c) 2009, The Washington Post
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan A firebrand Islamist cleric, released on bail after almost two years under house arrest, returned triumphantly Friday to his former mosque in Pakistan's capital, where he called on a crowd of chanting followers to spread the crusade for Islamic law nationwide.
Thousands of men and boys in turbans and tunics streamed toward the Red Mosque, the site of a bloody confrontation with Pakistani security forces in July 2007, to hear Maulana Abdul Aziz invoke the martyrdom of those who died in the military siege and urge others to sacrifice their lives for Islam.
The gray-bearded Aziz, who arrived under police escort, stopped short of calling for violence and described his cause as a "peaceful struggle." But there was an implicit threat in his message and a mood of barely suppressed eagerness for action in the crowd, which included many young Islamic seminary students.
"If the government wants peace and stability, it should adopt the Islamic system," Aziz said. "But if it chooses the path of aggression and force, it will further aggravate the situation."
The bombastic Aziz, who took over the Red Mosque after his father's assassination in 1998, is known for his hard-line religious views. In fiery speeches to followers over the years, he has advocated the strict separation of men and women in accordance with rules that he said are set forth in Islamic law. He once issued a fatwa, or religious edict, against a female government official for publicly hugging a man who was not her husband.
Aziz and his brother and deputy, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, had also supported the Taliban's rise to power in neighboring Afghanistan in the 1990s, according to Pakistani officials, and by 2007, they were committed to turning Pakistan into a Taliban-style Islamic state. In the months before the standoff, in which Ghazi was killed, the two clerics initiated a string of actions to provoke the government, including stockpiling weapons in their compound and sending students from the mosque's religious school out on moral vigilante missions.
On Friday, Aziz and other speakers hailed the imposition of sharia law in Pakistan's northwestern Swat region, which Parliament and President Asif Ali Zardari approved Tuesday in an effort to mollify extremist Taliban forces who have waged a terrorist campaign there for the past two years.
Pakistan is a Muslim nation but not a theocracy. Like Afghanistan, it is governed according to a democratic constitution and a modern legal code within an Islamic framework. Sharia courts and laws do exist, but they deal largely with religious and moral issues and do not supersede other courts.
A growing number of religious groups in Pakistan seek to make sharia the exclusive form of national law, asserting that it provides swifter justice than government courts and protects public morality from vulgar Western influences.
A few extremist Sunni Muslim groups, such as the Taliban in Swat, hold an even more extreme view of Islam and prescribe harsh physical punishments for offenses such as adultery or theft. Their thinking is similar to that of the Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, but it is not yet clear what form the sharia system will take in Swat.
Aziz's unexpected release Thursday, just two days after the government approved sharia rule in Swat, appeared to signal what analysts have called an alarming trend of official appeasement of radical Islamist forces as they flex their muscles in ever-widening regions of Pakistan.
Aziz, who still faces at least 26 charges, denied he had made a deal with the government, and it was not clear why the Supreme Court freed him on bail. But his return to public religious leadership seemed likely to inspire a new burst of fervor among his followers and associates, who include members of banned sectarian and extremist Islamic groups.
On Friday, Aziz and other speakers linked the Swat agreement directly to their crusade for nationwide sharia rule and to their suffering at the hands of government forces in the storming of the Red Mosque. More than 100 people were killed.
The raid ended a months-long standoff. But it also unleashed a wave of anti-government anger and helped provoke an upsurge in terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings, kidnappings and executions.
With the army unable or unwilling to stop the extremists, elected officials have increasingly resorted to offering peace deals such as the one in Swat, in which Taliban forces agreed to lay down their weapons if sharia courts were allowed to replace regular ones in the scenic district.
"Islam has been successfully brought to Swat because of the sacrifices of the students of the Red Mosque," Aziz said Friday. "The day will come, not long from now, when Islam will spread to the entire country."
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A sea of followers listened intently, their prayer rugs filling the streets and fields around the mosque. A bullet-riddled van and ambulance were placed outside as reminders of the 2007 siege. Inside, chants rose vowing that "the blood of martyrs will lead to Islamic revolution." A block away, about 50 black-veiled female worshipers sat in the grass. Police barricaded off the entire area with barbed wire.
Some men in the crowd said they believed in spreading Islam through peaceful means and thanked the government for its support. Mosque officials especially praised the Supreme Court chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who was fired by Pakistan's former military ruler in 2007 and reinstated last month after a protest campaign by thousands of Pakistani lawyers.
"The government has taken two very good steps this week," said Amir Saddique, Aziz's deputy. "They will go a long way to restoring peace in Pakistan. This will pacify the sentiments of the people, not ignite them," he added. "What we seek is what the people are demanding. It is not a threat to the world, it is a blessing."
Others, especially young seminary students, said they were awaiting instructions from Aziz on what actions to take, but they appeared ready for anything.
"Now that our leader is out of prison, he will lead us on a path to glory and the spreading of an Islamic way across the country," said Noor Mohammed, 15, a seminary student from the North Waziristan tribal area.
As older men prompted him, he added shyly, "I am ready to lay down every sacrifice for sharia, including martyrdom."