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The Red Mosque in Islamabad has been repainted white and cream. It's one of the ways the government has tried for a fresh start at the scene of a bloody, week-long siege earlier this month. More than a hundred people were killed, and the incident was closely followed because it's a battle between competing visions of Pakistan itself.
Pakistan's army seized the mosque from an extremist group that had wanted to impose a strict version of Islamic law, and that army operation triggered a backlash which continued even as Friday prayers resumed at Red Mosque today.
NPR's Philip Reeves was there today.
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
PHILIP REEVES: A large crowd of white-clad Pakistani men gathers in the middle of Islamabad, a pool of anger and indignation. The Red Mosque, where they've come for prayers, is being patched up and freshly painted. But beside it there's a field of rubble, the remnants of the madrassa which the authorities have just demolished.
Clusters of dazed men pick through the ruins, fishing out clothes and shoes. When the prayers begin, they weep.
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REEVES: They're remembering these events of less than three weeks ago.
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Ms. TASNIM ASLAM (Spokeswoman, Pakistan Foreign Ministry): For any government, when things come to such a pass that it has to open fire on its own people, it's very sad. It breaks our heart.
REEVES: Tasnim Aslam of Pakistan's Foreign Ministry says what happened at the Red Mosque, or Lal Masjid, was unavoidable. She says the activities of the extremists who had taken control of the mosque left the government of General Pervez Musharraf no choice.
Ms. ASLAM: They were acting as vigilantes, going around arresting people. No society would tolerate that. But what government had to do was unpleasant. Though necessary, it was very, very unpleasant.
REEVES: After an eight-day siege, Musharraf ordered his troops to storm the mosque complex. There was chaos. More then 100 people were killed. Some were militants, a dozen were soldiers, some were just students. It wasn't long before the backlash began, revenge attacks that seemed more suited to Iraq than Pakistan. Suicide bombers blew up Pakistani soldiers and police recruits and, as ever, any members of the public unlucky enough to be in the way.
More than 200 people died within two weeks, mostly in Pakistan's northwest, the most volatile and religiously conservative part of the country. Pakistanis began to talk of a full-scale confrontation between the moderates and fundamentalists, and of a rising tide of violent religious extremism destabilizing the country.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
Beday Abdul Aziz(ph) was one of 3,000 female students in a madrassa within the Red Mosque compound. She took part in the siege but left before the Pakistani troops stormed in.
Ms. BEDAY ABDUL AZIZ (Former Student, Red Mosque Madrassa): (Through translator) Many of our fellow students, male and female, are still missing. We don't even know how many people were martyred, and how many are missing, and how many are back at home.
REEVES: Like most of the students from the Red Mosque's madrassas, Aziz came from Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. In Pakistan, intensely devout Muslim women don't usually speak with Western journalists. But Aziz has agreed to meet at a house near her village.
She wants the outside world to understand how she and her fellow religious students think. She sits beneath a black burqa which even conceals her eyes. Ignorance and poverty are often blamed for creating religious fundamentalism. Aziz, who is 22, suffers from neither of these conditions.
She is middle class, single and highly articulate. She has access to the Internet, a mobile phone and knowledge of world events. She sees the storming of the Red Mosque as a conflict which has set the Pakistani state and its army against the faithful.
Ms. AZIZ: (Through translator) What happened to us was totally unacceptable. We were attacked by Muslims. We thought they were our brothers.
REEVES: Aziz disputes government claims that the Red Mosque clerics had a large arsenal of weapons. But she doesn't deny students kidnapped people, including an alleged brothel owner. She argues doing this was a religious duty, as Islam compels Muslims to intervene if they encounter sacrilegious behavior.
And anyway, she points out, Musharraf himself ignores the writ of law. After all, didn't he seize power in a coup? Aziz deeply regrets leaving the Red Mosque complex before it was stormed. She says she'd much rather have died there.
Ms. AZIZ: (Through translator) The government accuses us of being suicide bombers. But our leader always said suicide attacks are forbidden in Islam. He would never allow it. Yet, we were ready to die for Islam. That's what we wanted. It turned out we made a mistake and came out of the mosque compound.
REEVES: Aziz says, during the siege, she was caught in crossfire. Tear gas shells and bullets rained in. Occasionally, she weeps. It's clear she's struggling to overcome the trauma.
Ms. AZIZ: (Through translator) I can't sleep. I don't want to eat or drink. I suddenly wake up at night and my whole body is shaking. I have no peace of mind. It's not through fear; it's because we're worried about our parents and brothers and sisters in prison, and because we're waiting for Musharraf's downfall.
(Soundbite of dog barking)
REEVES: You don't have to travel far in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province to find others who feel the same way about their military ruler. In this part of the country, the storming of the Red Mosque has made a big impact on public opinion. The province's parliament is controlled by an alliance of Islamic religious parties. On this highly conservative landscape, Musharraf's so-called enlightened moderation has few friends.
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REEVES: In his bakery in the village of Jagurah, Mumers Kahn(ph) is making the day's supply of cookies. Residents often gather in his shop to drink tea and gossip. Events at the Red Mosque, or Lal Masjid, are high on the agenda.
Mr. MUMERS KAHN: (Through translator) People said that innocent children were killed. They say what happened at Lal Masjid was not good. They criticize the government.
REEVES: Anger over the Red Mosque is meshing with other grievances. Half this village are Pashtuns, the same ethnic group as the Taliban militants fighting American and international forces in Afghanistan on the far side of the Khyber Pass, some 30 miles away. The men at the bakery shop grumble about Musharraf's support for the U.S.
Mr. MOHAMMED ASHAD(ph): (Speaking in foreign language)
REEVES: We're fighting someone else's war, says a teacher called Mohammed Ashad. That's another reason, he says, for the violence now erupting in this region. The U.S. supported Musharraf's intervention at the Red Mosque. Washington is now following that up by leaning on the general to use more military force against Islamist militants, especially in the border tribal belt that abuts the North-West Frontier Province.
U.S. intelligence says those areas are now a safe haven for al-Qaida and the Taliban thanks to a recent 10-month truce Musharraf made with local tribal leaders. Ashad, the teacher, believes this U.S. pressure, coupled with events like the Red Mosque storming, only deepens the sense of injustice widely felt by Pakistanis.
Mr. ASHAD: (Through translator) The United States has never been happy with the performance of Pakistan. Pakistan has suffered most of the casualties in the war in this region, more than the U.S. But the U.S. is always asking us to do more. What more can we do?
REEVES: Tasnim Aslam of Pakistan's Foreign Ministry believes most Pakistanis were glad to see their government take on the extremists inside the Red Mosque.
Ms. ASLAM: A majority of Pakistanis did not agree with what Lal Masjid clerics were doing. They were opposed to it. Even religious scholars from all schools of thought had come out and condemned the waywardness of this madrassa.
REEVES: The government hopes the issue will now fade away, and so do Pakistan's moderates. For Beday Abdul Aziz, the madrassa student, that will never happen. Listen to her talk and it's hard not to conclude that the conflict between Pakistan's hard-line Islamists and the rest of society has a long way to go.
Ms. AZIZ: (Through translator) This isn't the first time Musharraf has done this sort of thing. The fire has just started. It might go on like this if the nation doesn't stand up for itself. And if our clergy doesn't show some courage, then I fear this fire will destroy the whole of Pakistan.
Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.
MONTAGNE: And the war of the colors continues. The new white paint on the Red Mosques was barely dry when protesting students began repainting it red.
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