*** You cannot forcibly suppress intense religious and nationalist desires and hope they will simply go away. They have a nasty habit of coming back again with an even higher level of violence. With rampant corruption and looting, what is the solution? You can only build them walls so high. MS ***
ISLAMABAD–When many Pakistanis discuss their country's tumult, they do so with a furrowed brow or a grimace.
Not Maulana Abdul Aziz.
A radical and charismatic Islamist leader who was a central figure in a bloody showdown between security forces and religious conservatives three years ago, Aziz now says he's confident Pakistan is indeed on the road toward becoming a "true Islamic state." He says Pakistan is on its way to adopting strict sharia law – forcing the women of this country of 170 million to begin observing purdah, or being removed from public life.
Aziz is among Pakistan's most controversial personalities and has preached in front of massive crowds, encouraging suicide bombings and repeatedly promising the country is on the verge of "an Islamic revolution" and that "the blood of martyrs will bear fruit."
In July 2007, Aziz and his supporters brought this nation's capital to a standstill when they barricaded themselves inside Islamabad's Red Mosque for more than a week as thousands of supporters rallied outside.
Eventually, police stormed the mosque, formally known as Lal Masjid, and 102 people were killed, including Aziz's brother and son.
Aziz himself was captured when he tried to escape. He fled the mosque wearing a burqa, the head-to-toe veil worn by female students at his conservative seminary.
Sitting in his small home office in central Islamabad, surrounded by eight of his followers and a machine-gun toting security guard, the 60-year-old Aziz spoke with the Star at length about Pakistan's deteriorating security situation, Canada's planned withdrawal from Afghanistan and his embarrassment over being caught fleeing the mosque while wearing a burqa.
"Our friends talked to us and said one of us had to get out at any cost," Aziz says, referring to himself and his brother Abdul Rashid Ghazi.
"I just took it as an order and followed what I was supposed to do. Maybe I was embarrassed (about wearing the burqa), but maybe this is what God had planned for me. I didn't want to go out, I wanted to be martyred. My son was inside. Why would anyone want to go?"
Sharia law in Pakistan "is coming very soon," Aziz assures. "Our country is in a very precarious state. There is no peace and looting, mugging, murder and kidnapping are increasing."
Indeed, the streets of the capital are blanketed with police checkpoints, blast walls and barbed wire, and people are tense.
At a coffee shop in an affluent section of Islamabad, several teenagers gather for hot chocolate and sandwiches.
"Our friends are too afraid to come out of their houses," one says.
A few days later, several dozen young professionals gather at a rooftop house party for a barbecue that features an open bar serving whisky and vodka. Debate at one point turns to whether someone remains conscious for a few final seconds after they are beheaded.
At one point, someone close to the house fires a dozen or so rounds from a machine gun into the air. It's a neighbour upset over the loud music, the host explains, turning down the volume of a Black Eyed Peas song.
"Maybe Aziz is right," one guest remarks.
In some Pakistani circles, the debate isn't over what Aziz says, but that he's allowed to say anything publicly at all.
Several security analysts say they are baffled at the release on bail of Aziz, who travels freely between the Lal Masjid and his home a few blocks away.
"He's a living martyr," says Ahmed Rashid, a leading Pakistani terrorism analyst and author of Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia. "Aziz is a great risk and a symbol of extremism."
Aziz says he now faces 27 criminal charges of inciting violence against the state and is awaiting trial.
"There were many benefits," Aziz now recalls of the siege.
"If we struggled for 1,000 years we wouldn't have achieved the same progress as we did through this one incident."