Islamabad - The clerics and students of Lal Masjid were confronted with an improbable sight Thursday evening.
A large number of protesters, mostly young men and women, dressed in jeans, long coats and hoodies, stood outside and raised slogans against Maulana Abdul Aziz, the head cleric of the mosque, who in a recent television interview, refused to condemn the terror attack on the school in Peshawar.
Maulana Aziz is no strange to controversies and has often hogged headlines due to his statements that have caused revulsion in some sections of the society. But never before did he cause so much outrage that it forced the residents of the capital to stage a protest against him.
Islamabadites are used to witnessing the followers of Maulana protest often — and even take law into their hands. In 2007, the students of Lal Masjid went on a vigilante rampage in Islamabad, forcing females not to drive on the roads and kidnapping some after accusing them of moral turpitude. The females students of the adjacent Jamia Hafsa, wielding sticks and covered head to toe in black burqas, would also come out on the streets and demand to enforce their own version of religion in the country.
Thursday evening was unprecedented as a small but expressive group of protesters turned the tables on the Maulana.
The protest was organised by Jibran Nasir, a rights activist who hails from Karachi. The protesters started gathering outside Lal Masjid at 6 p.m. They shouted slogans against Maulana Aziz and lit up candles in memory of the school children, who were brutally murdered by the Taliban militants.
“Today we have reclaimed G-6 sector from the clutches of Red Mosque. This protest indicates that liberal forces too have the right to disagree with the ideology of Maulana Abdul Aziz,” said Kapil Dev, one of the protesters. “Let them (religious students) shoot me dead. Being a Hindu, I will continue my voice for the innocent students of Peshawar.”
“Abdul Aziz is still a sympathiser of Taliban,”Jibran Nasir, who had contested election in NA-250 Karachi as independent candidate against PTI leader Arif Alvi, said while addressing the charged crowd.
The protesters shouted in support and condemned the cleric. Soon, the students of the seminary emerged and both groups started exchanging hot words.
A heavy contingent of police and elite force reached the venue, followed by Rangers troops.
“We will not leave the venue until we register our protest. We will not let Islamabad taken hostage by students of orthodox religious seminaries,” Jibran said, undeterred.
“Lal Masjid should openly condemn Taliban otherwise the government should take action against it,” he demanded.
Temperature flared when protesters chanted slogans like ‘Down with Abdul Aziz’, ‘Hang him’, triggering Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Islamabad Asmatullah Junejo to personally request the participants to disperse as soon as possible.
But the angry activists refused to budge, arguing that if religious groups had the right to protest outside Lal Masjid then others should also be allowed to protest.
The protesters said they will remain outside the mosque until a resolution is passed that included reopening of cases against Maulana Abdul Aziz besides asking private televisions to stop interviews of radical Islamists as it was spreading religious intolerance and extremism in the society.
The protesters further said that they wanted to offer prayers inside Lal Masjid for the families of the victims but police and the mosque’s administration did not allow, fearing it could escalate into a clash with the religious students inside the mosque.
The protesters then exhorted Maulana Aziz to come out - even in burqa, some protesters shouted -and publicly condemn the Peshawar attack.
In response, there was no sign of the Maulana but his students, some of who were wielding sticks, threatened to come out of the mosque premises.
SSP Junejo ordered his men, who were in riot gear, to form two rows so that the competing groups would not get a chance to come closer.
Rights activists finished their speeches and started dispersing peacefully but vowed to return today (Friday).
Feeling the pressure, a statement was later issued from Shuhada Foundation of Lal Masjid that condemned the Peshawar attack as an attack on humanity and demanded a judicial inquiry.
However, not surprisingly, the group left a caveat. “The mastermind of the attack was either India or Israel as the weapons used in the terrorist incident were India-made,” the statement read.