Outside Islamabad’s notorious Red Mosque, police and paramilitaries were setting up barbed wire fences and being dispatched on patrol. Inside, the mosque’s senior officials were explaining why they had been dispatching their own troops – groups of young baton-wielding, burqa-clad women who have launched a crackdown against the city’s perceived immorality.
Their latest target were six Chinese masseuses, alleged to be working as prostitutes, who were kidnapped and “re-educated” last weekend.
Amid great embarrassment for President Pervez Musharraf and complaints from the Chinese government, the women were later released – albeit wearing burqas and having been told in no uncertain terms that the mosque did not approve of them handling male flesh, whether in the course of a massage or otherwise.
“The thing is that we are convinced the system in Pakistan is a total failure,” said Abdul Rashid Ghazi, from the Red Mosque. “It’s not giving justice, it’s not giving the basic necessities. It’s not giving the basic education for the people of Pakistan.”
Mr Ghazi and his elder brother, Maulana Abdul Aziz, have run Red Mosque, or Lal Masjid, since their father, Maulana Abdullah, an outspoken imam who often delivered fiery sermons on jihad, was assassinated within the compound’s walls in the 1990s. The ultimate ambition of the mosque – which has long admitted supporting the Taliban and al-Qa’ida – is Sharia law for Pakistan.
In recent weeks, students from the mosque’s two seminaries or madrassas – one for young women and one for young men – have been threatening shopkeepers and stores selling DVDs and videos. Previously, a group of covered female students, many armed with Kalashnikov rifles, took over a public library in protest against the government of General Musharraf.
When The Independent visited the mosque, there was no sign of any masseuses, though there were plenty of young men, some thickly bearded and some with just the softest buzz of wispy facial hair. Plenty were carrying semi-automatic rifles. Most were very friendly.
Mr Ghazi admitted the seizure of the Chinese women had been something of a publicity stunt, “a wake-up call”. But he claimed it underlined a serious point and people in Pakistan wanted change. “It is not just us – everybody is speaking against the system. But we are a little more forceful. We are speaking loudly,” he said.
The code of the Red Mosque – whose seminaries contain upwards of 8,000 students – is strict. Officials readily admit they do not permit music or games and they denounce activities such as kite-flying. They explain that by saying they believe an individual’s time on earth is limited and should therefore not be wasted on such pursuits. A poster showing paint colour samples attached to the wall of Mr Ghazi’s office did, however, suggest that while music and play was banned, interior design was not considered ungodly.
Yet while the mosque usually makes headlines for its apparent extremism – its defence of suicide-bombing, its alleged link to one of the 7/7 bombers or else the exploits of its baton-wielding morality brigades – the mosque also campaigns vociferously for rights of individuals who have been locked up in Pakistani jails or else simply “disappeared”.
“We want a just system. We ask that laws should prevail in this country,” said Khalid Khawaja, who heads the Defence of Human Rights group, which operates from the mosque. “Our politicians are corrupt.”
For General Musharraf – who is confronting considerable political problems ahead of elections scheduled for later this year – the mosque, located close to the shining parliament building and within walking distance of the country’s murky ISI intelligence service, presents a serious challenge.
While he is embarrassed by its recent actions, its backing by the country’s religious political parties – whose support he also courts – means his options are limited. It is far easier for him to rail against “foreign fighters”, as he did in a speech this week, than it is to take action against extremists living barely a mile from where he sleeps.