Abdul Aziz’s Re-emergence exposes Naya Pakistan’s Faux Crackdown on Extremists

Since taking over in July 2018 Prime Minister Imran Khan and his advisors promised this was a Naya Pakistan where things would be different. Every time there are terror attacks in Iran, India or Afghanistan, the government of Pakistan is extremely vocal about their determination to crack down on all forms of extremism and radicalism within Pakistan. If that is so then how does one explain that under this government there has actually been a resurgence of extremists and radical elements within Pakistan: from Hafiz Saeed’s ability to travel around the country, to Masood Azhar and Jaish e Muhammad’s resurgence through the Pulwama terror attacks and now the return of Abdul Aziz of the Lal Masjid fame.

A recent piece on Liberty South Asia looks at Aziz in detail. According to the author, “Maulana Abdul Aziz has the distinct notoriety of being one of the few Islamist clerics who is too radical for even the Pakistani state. As the head of Pakistan’s Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), Aziz waged an armed battle against Pakistani troops in 2007 – a battle the cleric famously tried to escape by dressing as a woman. His madrassah featured a library named after Osama bin Laden, and has unapologetically and publicly supported ISIS. Pakistani authorities have charged him with dozens of crimes, but they have consistently failed to convict him. Last year, authorities in Islamabad decided that he would no longer be allowed to lead prayers at Lal Masjid, one of the capital’s oldest state-owned mosques. Police and Rangers were assigned as security patrols to prevent Aziz from entering.”

However, “Last Friday, however, Abdul Aziz was back at the pulpit, delivering a fiery sermon denouncing democracy as “un-Islamic” and advocating the establishment of a radical Islamic theocracy. Abdul Aziz’s rhetoric and influence is worrying in any context, but particularly so given that he was able to walk into a state-owned mosque in the nation’s capital and deliver a sermon despite being specifically barred form doing so. The Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT), which administers the mosque, tried to downplay the incident by explaining that police and Rangers posted outside the mosque were “caught by surprise,” and that there were fewer security personnel than normal on that day. The ICT’s excuse, however, actually adds to concerns. Why didn’t the security personnel who were there not stop Aziz? Why did they allow him to deliver his sermon uninterrupted? And, perhaps most importantly, what was the response from those attending Jummah prayers at the mosque? An ICT official told reporters that Aziz would not be allowed to enter next week – but that avoids the more pressing questions of how he was able to enter in the first place, despite the presence of security personnel tasked with stopping him, and what was the popular reaction to the cleric’s return?”

Finally, “As Pakistan tries to convince the global Financial Action Task Force to remove it from a list of countries involved in providing monetary assistance to terrorism and related causes, authorities have been making an effort to finally appear serious about cracking down on violent extremism. Having a pro-terror cleric walk into a state-owned mosque in the capital and deliver a sermon raises a troubling question: If Pakistan in unable to stop anti-state extremists in Islamabad, how can they credibly claim to be decisively cracking down on extremists that have historically operated in league with the state?”

Why does Pakistani State not allow Internet in Balochistan?

The state of Pakistan has always sought to control access to information. There is censorship of the media – social media, print and electronic – and muzzling of civil society and academia. Nowhere is this more visible than in the province of Baluchistan. What is disturbing to note is that for the last two years mobile and internet services have been shut down in parts of Balochistan on grounds of ‘national security.’

In a recent piece for The Diplomat, Shah Meer Baloch, talks in detail about “Balochistan’s Great Internet Shutdown.” According to Baloch “In late February of 2017, before beginning to collect population census data, 3G/4G mobile internet services were suspended in Kech district. The sole reason given was “security reasons.” Over two years later, 3G/4G services remain suspended, and now the flood had ensured that even wired internet connections are no longer functioning.”

When in 2018, “a large group of students and a few lecturers from Balochistan took a trip to Punjab province and Islamabad, where they got the opportunity to meet the director general (DG) of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of the Pakistani armed forces. A curious student from Kech posed a question about the suspension of mobile internet services and told the DG that it was affecting their studies. The DG replied that anti-state elements use these services and disturb law and order in the region.”

When a local lawyer Zamurani challenged the shutdown of 3G/4G services in Turbat High Court he “could not see the case to its end. He had to withdraw the case from court after some people in plain clothes visited him in his chamber and told him he was challenging national security by questioning the mobile internet shutdown. “They — people from security agencies — told me that they have restored peace in some villages of Kech by closing these services,” Zamurani explains. “Challenging this was like I was questioning the national security. So, I had to withdraw the case without any questions.””

According to The Diplomat article “The suspension of mobile internet services is not limited to Balochistan province. The services are also suspended in what was formerly known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA, now part of Khyber Pakhthunkwa (KP) province In early June 2016, at Torkham, the border forces of Pakistan and Afghanistan clashed over the construction of a gate by the Pakistani authorities on the border. This clash led to the suspension of 3G/4G services in bordering towns and tribal areas. “Since then the former tribal areas have no internet services,” says Shahid Kazmi, a local from KP province. “The government had announced they would restore it, but they actually never did.””

The Lost Republic Day of Pakistan!

Sixty-one years ago, on March 23rd 1956, Pakistan inaugurated its first constitution that declared Pakistan as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Till then March 23rd used to commemorate the 1940 Lahore resolution. Within two years, however, Pakistan’s first military coup under Ayub Khan took place and since then March 23rd was celebrated as Pakistan Day.

Over time, instead of celebrating Pakistan’s democratic and republican credentials the day has become a military-dominated event due to a military parade that was started in 1973, to boost military’s morale after its ignominious defeat and surrender in 1971.

National Day Parade

In a recent piece Zulfiquar Rao traces the history of March 23rd and makes the argument that there is a need to restore March 23rd as Republic Day so that “as a people” Pakistanis can move forward “historically.” He argues that there is a need to “restore Republic Day to inculcate a passion, fondness and commitment towards a democratic Pakistan- it would add positive energy and a sense of festivity with a sort of PSTD effects for our painful memories of atrocious dictatorships in Pakistan and that of pre-independence servitude to the British.”

Rao argues that the reason why the military has chosen to celebrate March 23rd as Pakistan Day not Republic Day is that “Commemorating it with the 1940’s Lahore Resolution doesn’t allow us to imbibe nationalism without profusely invoking the memories of Hindu atrocities, both real and imagined, on our ancestors.”

Rao refers to the symbolism of the first Republic Day celebrated in 1956 “Indeed it was such a unique distinction as Pakistan ceased to be a dominion of the British Crown and became the first Islamic Republic in the world. It meant that Pakistan will be a democracy. It was also agreed by the then political leadership of the country to celebrate this day annually as Pakistan Republic Day. The same year a commemorative postal stamp was also issued which proudly sported ‘Republic Day’ in bold fonts.”

With the coup of 1958 “when Pakistan was neither a democracy nor did it have any constitution to declare it a republic- the rulers in country could not have certainly celebrated a Republic Day.

So Ayub Khan, who had removed Iskandar Mirza within just over a fortnight of his imposition of martial law, and his cronies found it so convenient to celebrate that day as Pakistan Day, linking it just to Lahore Resolution of 1940. Then onward and until August 1973, as the country was ruled either under dictatorship of Ayub Khan or under one form of interim Legal Framework Ordinances, only Pakistan Day could be celebrated.”

During the 1990s “The idea of celebrating a Republic Day would certainly have looked so remote then. At the end of the 90’s, the rise of another military dictator, General Musharraf, was hardly seen with a shred of surprise who then continued to rule Pakistan till 2008.”

 Rao argues that “the political history of Pakistan didn’t offer us the luxury of thriving under continuous democratic regimes or a democratic republic and celebrating it year after year. By extension, our sporadic democratic governments couldn’t enjoy the confidence to restore a fully pronounced Republic Day celebration ever since 1958. Nevertheless, today, we as a nation have moved forward. Pakistan saw for the first time a democratic political transition after a full term in 2013. Even the current government is heading towards the end of its elected term. The domestic outlook of the politics offers optimistic prospects of another round of general elections by early 2018.”

 Rao appeals to Pakistan’s political leadership to “spread the conviction in keeping this country a democratic republic and promote celebrating Republic Day pronouncedly instead of reticently murmuring that it is ‘also’ one.”

What do we really know about CPEC?

The Pakistani people are fed a constant refrain that CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) will transform Pakistan. However, the state consistently refuses to divulge details about the projects and work that form a part of CPEC.

What is also interesting is that while in opposition the PTI of Imran Khan regularly joined the “chorus of demands for greater transparency on CPEC” but now that is in power it seeks to “keep the country in the dark.”

Recently announcements were made by Planning Minister Khusro Bakhtiar that the cabinet committee on CPEC had made changes with respect to projects in agriculture, education, health, poverty alleviation, water supply and vocational training. While Chinese experts were consulted, apparently Pakistan’s National Assembly is unaware of what is being planned and how the projects will be paid for.

This led the Special Committee of the Senate on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor to demand greater transparency in the execution of work. According to the chairperson of the committee, Senator Sherry Rehman “her committee gets more information from the media than it does from the government, a state of affairs that is entirely unacceptable.”

As an editorial in Dawn noted, “The Senate committee is right to emphasise its stake in the enterprise, and the government should move to allay its concerns.”

HRCP: Dress code infringes right to choose

The notion that the state can impinge on citizens what they can eat, wear, and believe is old. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan has over the years sought to impose one identity on Pakistan – an Islamic identity whereby the state defines who is a Muslim, what they can or cannot eat, what they can believe and even what they can wear.

Pakistan’s human rights activists and civil society have fought a constant battle against these steady and consistent encroachment by the state.

It in this context that the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has criticised the notification issued by the University of Engineering and Technology (UET) in Lahore, “imposing a ‘dress code’ on its students that makes it compulsory, among other things, for women to wear a scarf or dupatta, and bars students from attending class if they do not conform to the dress code. In a statement issued today, HRCP has said that ‘Freedom of choice lies at the heart of human rights. Imposing a dress code that clearly projects a regressive notion of what women “should” wear in public is needless and absurd. ‘Universities are meant as institutions of higher learning and as places that enable students to think for themselves. The UET notification infringes on what is a fundamental democratic right – the right to choose. Moreover, to suggest – as the university’s administration is reported to have done – that students from remote areas do not know “how to dress” is patronising and does not justify the imposition of an archaic dress code for women or men. People’s right to receive an education must not be hampered by so small a consideration as what they choose to wear.”