ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A radical cleric, just freed from detention on bail, returned in triumph Thursday night to the Red Mosque in the Pakistani capital and raised the slogan of Islamic revolution before thousands of excited supporters.
Bearded men packed the mosque, long associated with extremist Islam and with links to al Qaida, while outside on the sidewalk rows of women sat clad in all-enveloping black burkas, only their eyes showing. Many were young adults who had come from Islamic seminaries.
"We will continue our struggle until Islamic law is spread across the country, not just in Swat," said Abdul Aziz, who'd been chief cleric at the mosque, told the fired-up congregation. Dressed in white flowing traditional clothes, with a white turban and his long white beard, he looked a messianic figure.
Aziz was carried in on the shoulders of supporters after arriving in a motorcade from the nearby city of Rawalpindi. He had been under house arrest since 2007 over terrorism-related charges until a court granted him bail earlier this week.
Earlier this week, Pakistan's president bowed to pressure from extremists and agreed to impose Islamic law in Swat, a valley northwest of Islamabad, in a bid to end a two-year insurgency there by Pakistani Taliban. Now with Aziz's release, Islamists have an ideologue to rally around.
The Pakistani government jailed Aziz after he and hundreds of armed followers in the mosque sent out vigilante squads to enforce Islamic stricture and then barricaded themselves inside the building. Aziz claimed that he was being guided directly by the prophet Mohammed, whom he had seen in his dreams.
After a standoff lasting months, security forces stormed the mosque, killing about 100 of those holed up there, including Aziz's brother Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, also a cleric at the mosque.
The court's decision to grant bail to Aziz, coming on the heels of the government's concession in Swat, added to the momentum with which militant Islam is sweeping across Pakistan, a key U.S. ally that has nuclear weapons. Those gathered at the Red Mosque sensed that the tide was with them.
"He (Aziz) has raised his voice for Islam," said Tayab, a seminary student who gave only his first name. "There must be Islamic law here, it's not enough to be a country of Muslims."
Aziz appeared at the Red Mosque in the company of Ahmed Ludhianvi, the reputed leader of a banned militant organization, Sipah-e-Sahaba, which has close links with al Qaida. Ludhianvi, at Aziz's side, attempted to control the excited crowd. Sipah-e-Sahaba and its even more extreme offshoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, have a long association with the Red Mosque.
"Islam requires sacrifice and after sacrifice, it spreads more vigorously," Aziz told those gathered. "That's the case here at the Red Mosque. The deadly (military) operation killed old people and children, but the government failed to suppress the voice of Islam. Today, we are a bigger number of people than ever before."
Aziz and his younger brother Ghazi turned into heroic figures for hardliners, especially the "martyr" Ghazi. It was after the storming of the Red Mosque in July 2007 — in which supporters insist that thousands died — that the Islamist insurrection in Pakistan started.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy leader of al Qaida, had issued a recording calling for jihad, or holy war, to avenge the bloodshed. A violent backlash started, first in the wild tribal area along the Afghan border, which then spread into mainstream Pakistan.
Supporters gathered at the mosque Thursday night chanted the slogan: "The voices are coming out of every house, with Ghazi's blood, there will come revolution."
At a press conference after giving his sermon at the mosque, Aziz said that he still believed in peaceful struggle, though the state's resistance to Islam had meant that some had been forced to take up arms, as in Swat valley.
"Many died at the Red Mosque. Today the whole country resounds to cries for the implementation of Islamic law," Aziz said.
Aziz faces 27 criminal charges, including several cases of abetting terrorist acts, but in the nearly two years since his capture, he has not been tried. Pakistan's Supreme Court ruled this week that he should be granted bail, though he was not physically freed until Thursday. It is widely suspected that he was released with some behind-the-scenes understanding with the government over his activities, and he seemed careful not to call for violence. How long that understanding will hold is unclear.
Aziz was caught sneaking out of the besieged mosque dressed as a woman in a burka. That apparent humiliation has not dented his status, because his supporters don't believe it. He is scheduled to lead the weekly prayer Friday at the mosque, which will give him the opportunity to spell out his vision for an Islamist Pakistan.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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