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Maulana Abdul Aziz on the Defensive…For Now

If you’ve been following the @chinahand twitter feed, you know I’ve been retweeting a stream of tweets from Pakistan civil society stalwarts trying, with some success, to put the focus on Abdul Maulana Aziz and the Lal Masjid mosque in the wake of the Peshawar student massacre on December 16. In that attack, Pakistan Taliban or TTP militants penetrated a military-run school and massacred 132, mostly young students who were the children of military officers.

The Pakistan army is apparently and understandably genuinely infuriated by the murder of the children of their own officers and has killed several dozen Pakistan Taliban in retaliation. It is unclear to me whether these operations are targeting Pakistani Taliban directly implicated in the attack, or if they are broad brush “price tag” attacks that draw a bright line for the TTP not to cross–and leave plenty of space behind the bright line for jihadi skullduggery.

For instance, the current head of the main faction of the TTP, Maulana Fazlullah, (we can’t talk of the TTP as a unified group anymore; it has fragmented, with some factions breaking away and declaring allegiance to IS) is apparently not particularly capable or popular and the ISI may have decided to use the furor to forcibly rejigger the leadership structure of his group.

At times like this I greatly miss the insights and knowledge of Saleem Shahzad, the intrepid Asia Times Online reporter who was murdered in May 2011 as he investigated an al Qaeda cell in the high levels of the Pakistan military.

The Afghan Taliban–which is trying to lay the foundation for its eventual domination of Afghan politics with the assistance of Pakistan’s security establishment and has little patience with its Pakistan cousin–immediately condemned the attack.

There is a broad and frustrated swath of educated Pakistani opinion that is horrified by what the nation has become, and is hoping the reaction to the Peshawar massacre will rally civil society in favor of an alternate future, in which the nation is not a plaything in the hands of extremists and their military and intelligence enablers.

The only effective anti-TTP political force in Pakistan, the MQM–a rather thuggish party that dominates Karachi through its championing of the interests of the “Mujahir” (immigrants from India at the time of partition) majority and treats the local presence of Pashtuns, extremists and otherwise, as an existential challenge–jumped on the bandwagon with its own vociferous condemnation of the attack, and of Maulana Aziz and the Lal Masjid mosque.

Adbul Maulana Aziz is an unrepentant and, until recently, unapologetic advocate of Islamic extremism. He refused to condemn the Peshawar horror at first, leading to a storm of criticism and a filing of a “First Information Report” or FIR in Pakistan’s courts–the first step in a criminal investigation–in Islamabad, and another FIR filed in Karachi by the MQM and accompanied by mass rallies in response to anti-MQM threats allegedly made by the cleric made in a recent sermon.

Maulana Aziz’s attention to these challenges was probably accentuated by reports that the Pakistan government was claiming adequate grounds had been found to re-open a clutch of cases against the cleric–cases that had apparently been ditched when the government was cultivating him as its outreach agent to the TTP.

With every appearance of insincerity, Maulana Aziz condemned the massacre on December 21, five days after the event, and, I would think, expects with some justification that he’ll be able to ride out the transitory storm of outrage and return to business as usual.

Islamabad: Submitting to a huge outcry from civil society, the chief cleric of Lal Masjid Maulana Abdul Aziz apologised for failing to unconditionally condemn the Peshawar massacre carried out by Taliban on December 16. “I condemn the killing of schoolchildren and apologise,” Aziz said while talking to The Express Tribune. The cleric admitted he realised his mistake only after his followers convinced him. He clarified that he did not threaten any member of civil society and police have registered FIR against him under social pressure which is not a good precedent. Aziz said his personal opinion was unnecessarily propagated in the media. “I forgave Musharraf for launching military operation against us, how it is possible that I was not saddened by the killing of innocent schoolchildren,” he added.

Update: An Islamabad court has issued an order for Aziz’ arrest. Judging from the Guardian report, characterize the police reaction as “gingerly”: “Police have received the court order and we are trying our best to implement it,” a police official in capital Islamabad said, requesting anonymity as he was not authorised to talk to media.