Refit for Red Mosque amid growing fears in Pakistan
Islamabad – Islamabad's radical Red Mosque is getting a refit, two years after a deadly siege by government troops and as fears grows of an extremist resurgence against Pakistan's anti-Islamist crackdown.
Government forces surrounded the mosque on 3 July 2007, following a clash between police and Al-Qaeda-linked militants, who had been using it as a base for an Islamic vigilante campaign in the capital.
A week later, on 10 July, army commandos stormed the building and an adjacent girls’ school, in action that left more than 100 people dead.
The mosque operation unleashed a wave of revenge bombings across Pakistan that has since killed around 2,000 people. Attacks are now part of daily life.
The mosque was a flashpoint in the capital and fears were raised it could become so again when its hardline cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz, who was arrested fleeing in a female burka during the siege, was released on bail in April.
Inside the mosque, two big posters remind worshippers of the siege. One shows smoke rising from the burning girls’ school while the other is a reproduction of the will of one of those who died in the siege, showing the words: "Islamic revolution will be the destiny of this country, God willing."
The mosque is being renovated with red and brown brick and stone walls. Its hall is being refurbished and new windows are being installed.
The renovation is being done by a private company that also built Bahria Town, a well-to-do gated-community in neighbouring Rawalpindi.
"We are doing it free of cost," company official Israr Ahmed told AFP at his white container office in the mosque compound, as workers ferried bricks up to the mosque ceiling.
"The renovation work started in December and we expect it to end this month or early August," he said, declining to say how much the facelift was costing.
Worshippers come and go after offering afternoon prayers at the mosque, which reopened in October 2007.
"I like the new look the Red Mosque is getting," said Irshad Ahmed, who lives in a nearby middle-class neighbourhood. He "hopes and prays" nothing like the raid ever happens again.
"Those were really hellish days. We were confined to our homes due to a curfew. There was no electricity or water and little food for a week and all the time there was firing and children were scared and cried," Ahmed said.
In 2008, on the first anniversary of the raid, a suicide bomber targeting police at an Islamist rally killed 15 people and analysts believe the mosque still has the potential to become a focal point for chaos.
"There is a possibility of resurgence of radical elements associated with the Red Mosque," Zafarullah Khan, director of the independent Centre for Civic Education, told AFP.
"These elements continue to thrive because of the failures of the system to deliver justice and punish the culprits," Khan said.
"Even in Islamabad, several madrassas are being run by mullahs who are state employees. They have occupied government residences and converted them into mosques and seminaries, but no action is being taken against them," he added.
According to data obtained by Islamabad’s district administration, there are 128 registered madrassas in the leafy, purpose-built capital. Khan said there was almost an equal number of unregistered seminaries.
The government enjoys significant public support for a blistering offensive it is carrying out against Taliban militants in and around the Swat valley in the northwest. Military officials say they will soon open a second front against Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud in the tribal districts.
Commanders say public support is crucial if the operations, which have been welcomed by the United States, are to succeed.
"If the government is not vigilant, it (the Red Mosque) can become a trouble spot," Tariq Rahman, director of the National Institute of Pakistan Studies at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University, told AFP.
Security officials, however, play down the possibility of madrassas creating unrest in the capital.
"All madrassas in Islamabad are under our watch and there is no possibility that they can create unrest," a security official told AFP.
AFP / Expatica