ISLAMABAD, April 5: Several hundred men and women protested here on Thursday against the religious militancy and ferociousness of the students of Lal Masjid madressahs who have held the capital in awe for 10 weeks.

They gathered at the Aabpara Chowk in response to a call of civil society organisations to protest against Jamia Hafsa girls, and their Lal Masjid male supporters, who have launched a campaign “to stop vices” in the city and pave way for enforcement of Sharia in the country.

“Stop terrorising people in the name of religion,” said one placard held by the demonstrators who were outnumbered by riot police.

Jamia Hafsa girls have been on the march, and in the headlines ever since they seized a public library on January 21 and forced the city authorities to stop demolishing illegally built mosques.

That success encouraged them to launch their “stop vices” campaign. They kidnapped three women alleging that they were running a brothel, and started asking owners of music and CD-DVD shops in the Aabpara Market to close down their business.

One placard at the protest on Thursday declared: “No to religious extremism, Yes to life and music”.

Other placards and slogans declared: “No to extremism in the name of religion”, “No to mullahism”, “No to religious fascism”, “Ghunda Gardi Band Karo”, “Danda Badmashi Band Karo”, and “Mullah Ki Yari Nahi Chalay Gi”.

Though the demonstration took place a few hundred metres away from the Lal Masjid, it drew no reaction from the ‘moral squads’ entrenched in the mosque.

Law-enforcement personnel were there for a couple of hours as the slogan-chanting human rights activists marched along the Aabpara Market.

Towards the end of the protests, however, police intervened when some enthusiastic women activists wanted to march towards Lal Masjid and blocked their way.

Representatives of the civil society and a number of political leaders made short speeches criticising “the self-proclaimed custodians of morality”.

They demanded that the government must use force to end Hafsa girls’ occupation of the children’s library and warned that if it was not done “the menace” would continue to be a threat for peaceful citizens.

When asked how a few hundred activists could confront the 4,000 organised and emotionally charged students of Jamia Hafsa, prominent activist Dr Nayyar said: “They have to be opposed by someone. We just want to impress upon the government that peaceful citizens of the city are really disturbed over this development where they are not safe even within the four walls of their homes.”

“There is no second opinion that the government has to establish its writ,” he added.

Ruling party MNA Mehnaz Rafi remarked that these people should keep their faith system unto themselves. “There is no need to make us more Muslim,” she said.

As soon as the protesters marched back to Aabpara Chowk to disperse, some PPP leadership, along with their supporters, appeared on the scene and almost monopolised the demonstration.

In their speeches, the party’s secretary general Raja Pervez Ashraf and information secretary Sherry Rehman criticised the government for deliberately ignoring the threat and maintain the status quo on the Jamia Hafsa issue.

“Where is the writ of the government? They take no time in throwing out elected governments but looking helpless in front of a few thousand burqa-clad students,” Raja Ashraf said.

“What do they (religious extremists) want, do they want to make us Muslims again?” he asked.

A press statement issued by the organisers of the protest said: “We believe that the students of Jamia Hafsa are playing into the hands of religious extremists who wish to impose their fascist ideology upon the state and its apparatuses — totally opposite to the views espoused by Quaid-i-Azam.

“The violent manner in which these students have tried to negotiate their political aims and agenda is proof that the anti-democratic forces have become a threat to the life and property of ordinary people.

“The responsibility for this state of affairs rests squarely with the wrong policies of the present and previous governments that promoted Jihadi culture and patronised religious extremists,” the statement said.

A veteran human rights activist participating in the protest talked about some other “ominous signs that forebode ill for the future of a civilised, pluralistic society”.