One locus of local anger against Musharraf is the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in the capital Islamabad. For months the clerics of the mosque and the students of its two madrasahs, or seminaries, have openly defied the authorities: they have occupied a nearby children's library to protest government plans to raze illegal mosques built on state-owned land; set up their own Shari'a court; and have even kidnapped policemen and terrorized neighboring areas with a Taliban-like vigilante campaign against anything they consider un-Islamic. On July 3, that defiance erupted into a bloody clash between security forces and students when the authorities tried to cordon off the madrasah complex as part of a plan to shut it down. The next day, a shoot-on-sight curfew was in force around the area, and tensions remained high. TIME's Aryn Baker was caught in the July 3 cross-fire. Here's her account of what happened.
State of Siege
Umma Aman tells me she is prepared to die for her god. This is the kind of rhetoric I've come to expect from students at Jamia Hafsa, the women's seminary attached to Lal Masjid. I am not expecting an immediate demonstration of her faith. But during a six-hour battle between students and Pakistani paramilitary forces, which ended with four students, one policeman and several bystanders, including a local journalist, dead, and scores injured, it's clear these seminarians do not take their religion lightly.
I came to Jamia Hafsa to interview its headmistress, Umma Hassan, for a story about Islam in Pakistan. Aman, a pretty 22-year-old student in her final year, was her translator. Before the interview started, Aman talked about her desire to live according to the teachings of Islam, and how angry she was that her government did not support her. Students and teachers from both the men's and women's schools have embarked on an antivice campaign in the capital, shutting down video and music shops for promoting un-Islamic behavior. Twice now, the female students have abducted alleged prostitutes, saying that if the government doesn't cleanse the capital of sin, they will. "A man goes to medical school and becomes a doctor," says Aman. "We go to a madrasah, so we must practice Islam. But the government is not letting us. How can we allow this to happen?"
I ask Hassan about her goals for her students. "We all teach by example," she answers. "When we live according to God's law, we are successful, and others will emulate us." How far would she go to defend this principle? I never get an answer. Hassan looks out the window. Government rangers, a kind of paramilitary force, are trying to cordon off the madrasah complex with razor wire. The male students are fighting them off. "Emergency!" Hassan declares, and leaps to her feet. The teacher's lounge, a room of brightly dressed women, is doused in black as students and teachers don dark floor-length robes and headscarves that show only their eyes. Stout bamboo staves appear out of nowhere. A Sten gun flashes from beneath Hassan's robe.
"Come on, we are going out to protest," says Aman, now recognizable only by the glasses perched on the outside of her burqa mask. I follow her outside the madrasah gate where a hundred or so black-robed women chant in unison against Musharraf and Bush. A crack, a small explosion, and a cloud of acrid tear gas drifts our way, fronted by a pack of stampeding men. Apparently they tried to occupy the neighboring Environment Ministry.
I run back to the gate, having lost Aman in the sea of panicking black robes. More explosions, more tear gas. And the gunshots begin. First from the mosque, then in retaliation from the rangers. We are caught in a narrow corridor, bullets slicing through the thick smoke on either side of us. Another canister of tear gas rolls past my feet, spewing cottony clouds that claw at my eyes and tear at my lungs. My sweat, picking up gas particles clinging to my clothes, burns my skin. Someone from the second floor above the gate pours a bucket of water on us. Blissful reprieve, even if it lasts only a few seconds. Eyes streaming, coughing, choking, spitting, we scrabble at the front door, battling to get through the narrow passageway, back into the madrasah, to safety.
Once inside the metal gate, we suck lungfuls of air through wetted rags. Young girls pass bowls of salt. Eating salt lessens the effects of the tear gas, they say, with an air of practiced impatience. This is the second time the madrasah students have been tear-gassed; they know what to do. The afternoon call to prayer echoes through the halls, barely audible above the wails of women hurt by burns, tear-gas inhalation and, in one case, bullets. Dozens of hands push cups of water on me, conscientious, even in the middle of mayhem, about the foreigner in their midst.
The firing slows, and Hassan strides into the courtyard triumphant. "Good news," she announces. "Our boys stole four guns from the rangers." The atmosphere is electric. Aman's headscarf and robe are dripping with water. I realize that the head-to-toe shrouds serve another purpose: sopping wet, they provide excellent protection against tear gas. Aman's eyes, though bloodshot, are exultant. "We are students, not fighters, but if the government pushes us to fight, so be it," she says. "God will give us the power to win." I ask if she is afraid. "We are not frightened," she says. "One day all lives will end, [so] why not give [our lives] to Islam?" Amma Adeem, a 20-year-old student in the same class, says she is willing to sell her life for paradise. "This is the house of Allah," she says, meaning the madrasah, Islamabad, Pakistan and the world. "We must live by his laws. We don't do this for ourselveswe do it for Islam."
Steady gunfire continues to rattle the metal gate of the madrasah. Snipers are perched on the roof of buildings surrounding the complex. Outside, the male students are fighting with the rangers. Inside, women fill buckets of water at the tap and pass them, fireman style, out the gate to the men. They hurl bamboo staves, broom handles and water bottles over the complex wall. The bottles return, empty, and the women fill them up again and toss them back. Aman disappears out the gate. "I will do everything in my power to protect my madrasah," she says. "I am ready to die for it." An hour later I find her again, pressing a wet rag to her streaming eyes. "I wanted to die, but my elders stopped me." Friends, crowding around, nod in sympathy.
An explosion shakes the windows of one of the classrooms. A rumor that one of the male students has detonated a suicide bomb whips through the corridors. Last week, after the students abducted six Chinese masseuses for being prostitutes, Musharraf announced that he was ready to storm the mosque. But then he said that suicide terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda had infiltrated the men's madrasah, that going in would provoke a bloodbath. One of the female students laughs at the idea of an al-Qaeda link: "We ourselves are willing to die for our school; we don't need any outsiders to do it for us." (I later learn that the explosion came from the Environment Ministry, which had been torched to the ground while I was inside the madrasah.) The woman offers me lunch. When I point out that perhaps this isn't the best time, considering the ongoing fighting, she shrugs. "It is not a good time," she agrees, "but you are our guest and we have to look after you."
Eventually, I take advantage of a lull in the fighting to slip out the back of the complex to the street. Adeem leaves me at the gate. Eyes still blazing, she bids me farewell. "Tell them how angry we are," she says. "Write in your story how willing we are to die for our cause." It doesn't sound like rhetoric any more. It sounds like a promise.