Red Mosque in Islamabad ‘Their business is jihad'
Declan Walsh visits Islamabad's Red Mosque, a hotbed of Islamic militancy at the heart of Pakistan's capital
A student at Islamabad's Red Mosque madrasa stands guard following a police raid aimed at closing the institution down. Photograph: Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images "Have you seen Best of Baghdad?" enquires Abdul Rashid Ghazi, proffering a fresh cup of tea.
It is Friday morning, just before prayers, and we are sitting in a cramped room at Lal Masjid, a radical mosque in central Islamabad. Beside us a wispy-bearded young man is hunched over a computer, copying movies. Best of Baghdad, it turns out, is one of them.
A slick piece of jihadist propaganda, the 15-minute video shows numerous US soldiers in Iraq being shot by a sniper called Juba. Every sequence is similar. The camera follows the GI from a distance, watching him stand near a vehicle or chat to a friend. There is a bang. The picture jolts and the wounded soldier crumbles to the ground.
His panicked comrades swarm around. Iraqi civilians sprint for cover. "It's wonderful," says Ghazi. Lal Masjid, or the Red Mosque, has become a potent symbol of the power of Pakistan's radical Islamists.
It sits incongruously but defiantly among the tree-lined streets and neatly pressed bureaucrats of the capital.
The supreme court, parliament and prime minister's office are maybe a mile away.
Lal Masjid is run by the university educated Ghazi and his brother Abdul Aziz, the firebrand preacher - and their business is jihad."
I met Osama bin Laden once, in Afghanistan," muses Ghazi, recounting a trip to the al-Qaida leader's headquarters on a farm near Kandahar in 1998. "Then he was very much against the American presence in Saudi Arabia.
He is still a hero to us all." Ghazi is quick to add that he does not agree with the slaughter of innocent civilians, such as at the World Trade Centre in New York, which is against Islam. But, September 11 is just an "allegation" against bin Laden, he says, and his admiration for the militant leader remains strong.
When their father was killed some years ago - shot as he crossed the mosque courtyard - Bin Laden sent a letter of condolence.
Still today, Abdul Aziz compares the al-Qaida leader to the biblical figure of Abraham in his Friday sermons. In some Muslim countries, such as Egypt or Jordan, such unabashed support for Bin Laden might land a cleric in jail. Not in Pakistan.
Instead Lal Masjid enjoys a large following. There are the faithful who crowd into the mosque for five-times daily prayers, but also the thousands of young men and women who fill the two madrasas the two brothers have built next door. Ghazi is the public face of Lal Masjid.
Speaking in soft tones and fluent English, he outlines his unbending view of the world. He supports the killing of US soldiers in Afghanistan, Iraq or anywhere else and he calls for the imposition of strict Sharia law, a sort of Taliban-like state, in Pakistan.
Saudi Arabia, the country that currently comes closest to this vision, "is not complete" he says. "Only Islam can bring peace and harmony. Only Islam can give you justice.
Pakistan was established on the basis of an Islamic system, and we should have one." I point out that most Pakistanis may not agree - the religious parties have never scored over 13% in general elections. But Ghazi does not believe in democracy.
"Democracy is about elections. Islam is about selection," he says. "For example a drug addict doesn't know what is good for himself or his family. But he has the same vote as a person who is intellectually strong, who understands what is good.
That is where the problem is." Western diplomats working in the high-security embassy quarter less than a mile away are worried about Lal Masjid.
It's partly to do with the reports of AK-47s and other weapons stashed inside - Ghazi insists they are licenced - but mostly the diplomats wonder why President Pervez Musharraf cannot shut down this obvious incubator of radicalism at the heart of his capital.
In truth, the Pakistani government has tried. But so far its best efforts have conspicuously failed. In January the city authorities tried to close Lal Masjid, pointing out that, like many mosques in Islamabad, it had been illegally constructed on public land.
Ghazi responded with an iron fist. Hundreds of young women from Jamia Hafsa, his female madrasa, rushed to occupy a public children's library next door.
Newspaper readers were alarmed to see a picture of several hundred burka-clad figures sitting in the library. One image showed a small boy amongst them, dressed in military fatigues and brandishing a toy rifle.
The government then tried to end the occupation by surrounding the library with hundreds of police and threatening to storm the building. In response Ghazi dispatched young men armed with sticks onto the street. A few tense weeks later the police backed down.
Today an uneasy truce has been negotiated. The library is controlled by a "students sction committee" while Ghazi negotiates with the government.
In the meantime, the library is open. "Other children are free to come. All are welcome," he says. To end the humiliating siege, Ghazi and his brother are demanding the immediate reconstruction of seven previously-destroyed mosques, and the imposition of an Islamic state.
"The library is not important. But a mosque is a most sacred place," he says. I ask to speak to some of the protesting students. Sadly, he says, that would not be possible.
Once an over-zealous student told a visiting journalist that he wanted to kill George Bush, which was a little embarrassing, he explained: "They are just young people. They don't mean it." Prayer time nears and, slurping the last of his tea, Ghazi rises from the floor and excuses himself.
I pocket my newly minted Best of Baghdad CD and leave. In the street outside worshippers are filtering into the mosque, watched by ranks of wary-eyed police.
A black flag flutters over the library. And at the mosque gates clutches of menacing young men with masked faces stand guard, bamboo staves tightly gripped in their hands.