Pakistan's very future seems to be on the line at Lal Masjid (the Red Mosque), in the capital city of Islamabad. For months students and teachers at the mosque's madrasahs, or seminaries, have been taking the law into their own hands, launching vigilante raids on video and music shops for promoting "un-Islamic behavior." Twice they abducted women--including six Chinese masseuses--for alleged prostitution.
For months the government of general turned President Pervez Musharraf has been threatening to crack down against the madrasahs' radicals but has held back for fear of a conservative backlash. I was inside the mosque compound on July 3 when the assault finally came.
The day began quietly. I was on hand to interview the headmistress of the women's madrasah and got into a discussion with her translator, Umma Aman, 22, a pretty seminary student. Aman talked about the source of the students' anger, saying that if the government wouldn't cleanse the capital of sin, they would. "A man goes to medical school and becomes a doctor," says Aman. "We go to a madrasah, so we must practice Islam. We must act on God's will."
She tells me she's prepared to die for God. It's the kind of rhetoric I've come to expect from students here; I am not expecting an immediate demonstration of her faith. But as we speak, government rangers, a kind of paramilitary force, are moving in, trying to cordon off the compound with razor wire. Students will soon be forced to put their lives on the line to defend their beliefs.
Outside, male students are battling the rangers. "Emergency!" the seminary's headmistress, Umma Hassan, declares, and she leaps to her feet. Students and teachers don battle gear over their tunics and pants: dark, floor-length robes and headscarves that show only their eyes. Stout bamboo staffs appear out of nowhere. A Sten gun flashes from beneath Hassan's robe.
"Come on. We are going out to protest," says Aman. I recognize her only by the glasses on the outside of her burqa mask. I follow her outside, where a hundred or so black-robed women chant in unison against Musharraf and his ally President George W. Bush. There's a crack, a small explosion, and then a cloud of acrid tear gas drifts our way. I run back to the gate, losing Aman in a sea of panicking black robes. More explosions, more tear gas. And then gunshots--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. A canister of tear gas rolls past my feet, spewing cottony clouds that claw at my eyes and tear at my lungs. Someone from the second floor above the gate pours a bucket of water on us. Blissful reprieve, if just for a few seconds. Coughing, choking, we scrabble at the front door, battling to get through the narrow passageway, back into the madrasah, to safety.
The firing slows, and Hassan strides into the courtyard triumphant. "Good news," she says. "Our boys stole four guns from the rangers." The atmosphere is electric. Aman eventually finds me. She wants to go back out to help her comrades. 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 never afraid," she says. "One day all lives will end, and if this is the case, then why not give our life to Islam?" The battle lasts six hours and claims the lives of four students (Aman survives), a policeman and several bystanders. At one stage, I take advantage of a lull to slip out the back to the street. Another young student, Amma Adeem, speaks to me at the gate: "Tell them how angry we are. Write in your story how willing we are to die for our cause." It doesn't sound like rhetoric anymore. It sounds like a promise.