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Lal Masjid on the path to a new controversy?

For the second time authorities remove Taliban flags from Jamia Hafsa

SAMAA | - Posted: Sep 18, 2021 | Last Updated: 1 month ago
Posted: Sep 18, 2021 | Last Updated: 1 month ago

This widely shared image shows Taliban flags at Jamia Hafsa, a madrasa associated with the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, as women students sit on the rooftop and in the courtyard. (Photo Twitter)

Clerics from Islamabad’s Lal Masjid have again hoisted the Afghan Taliban’s flags on a women madrasa they control. The district administration has again removed them after holding with the clerics a new round of negotiation that was a replay of the talks held last month and also the talks held nearly 15 years ago just before the notorious Lal Masjid siege and operation.

The flags were removed peacefully and no explicit threat of violence has been made from either side.

A video that surfaced on Saturday shows the white Taliban flags raised on makeshift poles on the rooftop of Jamia Syeda Hafsa, a women seminary located near the Lal Masjid. Dozens of burka-clad women students sit on the rooftop next to the flags. Several more sat in the front courtyard.

A heavy contingent of the police arrived soon after the news spread.

Jamia Syeda Hafsa Spokesman Shakeel Ghazi issued a statement from Lal Masjid cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz who said the flags would not be removed until the government delivered on the promise to enforce Sharia in the country.

“The government has always tricked us with promises which turned out to be just a word of mouth,” the statement added.

When SAMAA Digital contacted Federal Interior Minister Shaikh Rasheed Ahmed to ask what the government has to say about it, the minister said a police contingent had been deployed and an opinion would be formed after speaking to the people involved in the incident.

Chief Commissioner Islamabad Aamir Ahmed Ali and Deputy commissioner Hamza Shafqat did not respond to the requests for comments.

Superintendent Police (SP) Islamabad Wahab Rana said any comment on possible arrests or action would be too early and premature. If Maulana Abdul Aziz or the madrasa administration attempted to take the law into their own hands legal action would be taken, he said.

The flags will come back if the talks do not make headway

LAl Masjid spokesman

Maulana Abdul Aziz said in his statement that government officials had always lied to them in the past. “They come and always ask us to remove the flags, promising that they would make progress on the Islamic system and speak to senior officials. However, every time these people disappeared after getting the flags removed,” he said.

Aziz said the Lal Masjid clerics had decided that the flags would not be removed from Jamia Hafsa until some concrete progress was shown.

The video and the message led to a round of talks between the Islamabad district administration and Maulana Abdul Aziz.

Within hours, a new photograph appeared on social media showing the flags removed from the rooftop.

Shakeel Ghazi, the spokesman for Jamia Syeda Hafsa and Maulana Abdul Aziz, confirmed that the flags had been removed. He said the Taliban standard was removed only temporarily after officials promised to present Lal Masjid clerics’ demands before the senior officials.

The spokesman also said that they were assured of progress on their demands. “The flags would come back if talks did not make headway,” he said in a statement.

Another image shows the Taliban flags removed from the rooftop of Jamia Hafsa (Photo Twitter)
Another image shows the Taliban flags removed from the rooftop of Jamia Hafsa (Photo Twitter)

Taliban flags removed in August

This is not the first incident of the Lal Masjid cleric raising the Taliban flags at their rooftops.

They had unfurled a Taliban banner and several flags on Jamia Hafsa on August 19, 2021 – exactly a month ago.

However, they were asked to take down the flags and the banner by the local police. The cleric complied. No arrests were made.

Deputy Commissioner Islamabad then said the government cannot allow anyone to hoist such flags. They would be removed and the people behind putting them out would face legal action, he had said.

Negotiation and the siege 15 years ago

The Lal Masjid was once frequented by leaders supporting the US-backed Mujahideen in Afghanistan.

In 2006 and early 2007, students and clerics from the Lal Masjid began to challenge the government writ and called for Sharia laws. They attacked DVD vendors and massage shops. When the government demolished parts of a mosque it said was illegally constructed, there was an open confrontation. The situation was defused when the authorities negotiated with the protesting students.

In March 2004, women students from Jamia Hafsa began anti-vice raids including one against a Chinese massage centre. There were more negotiations and more confrontations.

The situation culminated in the July 2007 siege of the Lal Masjid and ensuing operation. On the eve of the operation, there were still more talks and the government reportedly accepted all demands put forth by Maulana Aziz and his fellows.

However, late at night, security forces were ordered in. The operation killed several people including Lieutenant Colonel Haroon Islam of the Pakistan Army.

Current situation at Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa

The Lal Masjid is located near Islamabad’s Aabpara Market in Sector G-6/4. The road in front of the mosque has been closed with barbed wires and concrete blocks for the past year. The namazis are allowed to pray at the mosque five times a day. Friday’s congregation is also allowed, but no other gathering is permitted.

The original Jamia Hafsa complex was located next to the Lal Masjid but it was demolished in 2007.  It was rebuilt several blocks away in a different sector, G-7/3. The building was constructed on a piece of land lying next to Al Falah Masjid. The two-storey building hosts hundreds of women students.

The new structure cropped up in a block populated by government employees. Hence, movement is not restricted. However, the security forces are prompt to block streets if they hear Jamia Hafsa students planning to take out a rally.

Maulana Abdul Aziz

Maulana Abdul Aziz was once an official prayer leader, called Khateeb, at the Lal Masjid. He is no longer a government employee and by that token could not be the official prayer leader, according to the government officials.

However, when the Supreme Court took up the Lal Masjid Operation case in 2012-13, the then Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry ordered that Aziz be appointed the khateeb at the Lal Masjid, according to a Voice of America report. Maulana Abdul Aziz cites the court order to justify his claim on the Lal Masjid.

Islamabad administration, on the other hand, says Aziz has already attained superannuation at the age of 60 and cannot be appointed khateeb which is a government position.

Deputy Commissioner Shafqat told VOA last year that the Islamabad administration would appoint the khateeb and the court order could not benefit Aziz who was already above 60.

Cases against Aziz and wife

Maulana Abdul Aziz held the position of official prayer leader at Lal Masjid from 1998 to 2004, though he continued to lead the congregation afterwards. He was arrested in 2007 during the security operation.

His nephew Aamir Siddiqui became the new prayer leader but was replaced by Maualan Abdul Ghafar, who left the position in favour of Maulana Abdul Aziz in 2009 when the latter was released.

Several cases were registered against Maulana Abdul Aziz and his wife Umme Hassan, principal of Jamia Hafsa. At one point, the number of cases against the duo totalled 27. However, most were quashed as the prosecution failed to bring evidence.

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