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LONDON: The Lal Mas­jid’s Maulana Abdul Aziz Ghazi has been heavily featured in a documentary that has premiered in London. Filmed over a five-year period in which Aziz and his students gave extended interviews, Among the Be­­lievers portrays the periods before, during and after the siege of the Lal Masjid in 2007.

Arguing that he was justified in fleeing from the mosque in a burqa, Maulana Aziz said that he did not want the students inside to martyr themselves for him. “If I had not left,” he argued, “more people would have died.” He said that as well as his brother dying in the assault, his 20-year-old only son Hassan, his mother and a cousin were also killed. Aziz claimed that when he was in prison after his burqa-clad escape, a sympathetic policeman approached him and offered to smuggle his son out. He turned down the offer.

“I said no, I was willing to sacrifice him for Allah.” Aziz went on to say that: “I regret the fact that I didn’t die for Allah.”

But he expressed no second thoughts on any other issues covered by the film. While he said he was shocked by the Peshawar school attacks of 2014 it was a case of an eye for an eye. “If someone kills there will obviously be a reaction,” he said.

He claimed that before the assault on the Lal Masjid there was complete peace in Pakistan.

“There was not a single incident of violence until they attacked our mosque,” he said.

Arguing that successive military and democratic governments had failed ever since 1947, Aziz argued that his followers will never give up their view that only Sharia could bring peace to Pakistan.

“If you think you can change us, forget it,” he said.

The film follows the stories of a young girl who managed to escape from the Lal Masjid by climbing over a wall and a boy who rejects his father’s appeals to give up living there and to return home.

Among the Believers also featured Quaid-i-Azam Uni­versity’s Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy describing the impact of the madressah system on Pakistan. “We will have to change our education system or we will be trapped in this cycle of violence,” he said.

The film’s Co-Director, Mohammed Ali Naqvi, said he is hopeful that Among the Believers will be shown in Pakistan — possibly with Maulana Aziz attending a Q&A session after a screening.

Maulana Aziz was imprisoned for two years after the Lal Masjid assault but subsequently allowed to return to his former position running the institution. He was placed under house arrest in January 2015 after the Peshawar school attack.

Maulana Aziz is currently entangled in a number of legal cases involving allegations of hate speech and criminal intimidation. The courts have dismissed FIRs concerning the incitement of sectarian violence and support for the militant Islamic State group .

Other legal actions concern the issue of whether the government should be compensating the Lal Masjid for the 2007 assault by rebuilding the Jamia Hafsa. Suppor­ters of Maulana Aziz insist that all the allegations he faces are politically motivated. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar has rejected claims that he has been too soft on Aziz saying last month that of 23 outstanding cases against the cleric, 12 are very serious.

As part of his campaign to secure the imposition of Sharia, Aziz petitioned the Supreme Court last Decem­ber to require the federal and provincial governments to exercise their authority so as to enable Pakistan to live according to the principles of the Quran and Sunnah. Citing legal objections the court rejected the petition in February this year.

Published in Dawn, March 14th, 2016