LAHORE: Abdul Aziz, the hardline cleric habitually at loggerheads with the state, continues to defy the latter’s writ by exhibiting complete disregard for the guidelines issued by the government for congregational prayers amid the nationwide lockdowns in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak.
Last Friday, April 17, saw the third consecutive congregational prayer offered in Aziz’s Lal Masjid in the capital, where hundreds were crammed inside the mosque, without any regard for distance between the worshippers or arrangements for facemasks or sanitizers.
While there are many critics of the government’s policy of still allowing congregational prayers – over a month since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a pandemic, with mosques shut down across the Muslim world, including Saudi Arabia and Iran – for Aziz this is the latest act of disregard for the state’s orders.
For each of the past three Fridays, Aziz’s repudiation of the state’s instructions has resulted in cases being filed against him under Section 270 and Section 188, for ‘malignant act likely to spread infection’ and ‘disobedience to order’.
While the past month Abdul Aziz has been negating the state’s order with regards to congregational prayers, before that he regularly rubbished the commands barring him from delivering the Friday sermons in Lal Majid, or being recognised as its khateeb.
In February, the standoff came on the brink of volatility, during the government’s negotiations with Aziz with regards to vacating Lal Masjid in exchange for 20 kanals of land being allotted for the establishment of Aziz’s Jamia Hafsa.
Given that the government deems Aziz as having occupied Lal Masjid, that such a negotiation even took place, is interpreted by observers as evidence of the weakness that the state has displayed in dealing with the hardline cleric.
Even so, the negotiations themselves could not bring any fruit, given that Aziz has refused to compromise on his own demands, which include maintaining himself as the Lal Masjid khateeb.
Aziz considers Lal Masjid a property of his family. Set up in the 1960s by his father Muhammad Abdullah, the mosque became a hub for jihad during the martial law reign of General Ziaul Haq in the 1980s.
In the aftermath of Abdullah’s assassination in 1998, his sons Aziz and Abdul Rashid took up the mantle of maintaining Lal Masjid as a hub of radicalism. After multiple incidents of militancy being linked to Lal Majid, the year 2007 saw the state launch an operation on the mosque, bringing the capital to a standstill. Rashid was killed during the same operation.
The aftermath of the Lal Masjid operation saw an explosion of jihadist attacks across urban centres of the country, many of them being linked to the mosque. However, Aziz’s stranglehold of the mosque remained undeterred.
In November 2014, just as the Islamic State (ISIS) had distributed its pamphlets to announce its arrival in Pakistan, Aziz and his Jamia Hafsa students released a video in support of the global jihadist outfit.
Following the Army Public School (APS) attack in December 2014, Aziz refused to condemn the massacre of the Peshawar schoolchildren.
Over the past two decades, Aziz has spearheaded calls to ‘enforce Sharia’ in Pakistan. Some attempts have been in the shape of militancy, others through Islamist propaganda. And yet, he remains in place, at the helm of Lal Masjid.
“After the 2007 operation, cases [against Abdul Aziz] began in the courts. In 2012, Supreme Court (SC) said that since the Jamia Hafsa next to Lal Masjid was demolished [during the operation] they should be given land and compensation for the losses. In 2019, the SC asked that 205 square yards be allocated elsewhere instead of the not kanal land, which was state property. The plot was taken over in compliance with the SC order. In retaliation Maulana Abdul Aziz returned to Lal Masjid, while his Jamia Hafsa students were sent to the [original] plot in H-11,” said Deputy Commissioner Islamabad Hamza Shafqaat.
Now, while the standoff persists between Abdul Aziz and the government, the Lal Masjid cleric is looking to continue his defiance with Ramzan approaching.
“The government’s writ has been completely set aside and no precautionary measures are visible [inside Lal Masjid] … Imagine, one single person in [the] gathering has the potential to infect all. And the infected will further infect hundreds and perhaps thousands. We all know the disastrous consequences, but we are unfortunate to be citizens of a spineless state which cannot enforce its writ,” said noted social critic Wasim Altaf.