The Red Mosque

Cultic Studies Review, 8(3), 2009, 266-280

The Red Mosque: A Case Study of How Religion Can Evolve into a Terrorist Cult

Ana Ballesteros Peiró

M. Jesus Martin Lopez, Ph.D.

Jose Manuel Martinez, Ph.D.


The case of the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) is an example of how Islam can produce a sect within a specific context. Although it is difficult to define what a sect in Islam might be, there are some salient features that enable us to recognize them. Given the special conditions of Pakistan’s history, Islamic sects are mainly political. The use of religion for political ends has been a tool for most governments and for sectarian groups. In the case of the Red Mosque, children from traditional areas came to study religion and ended up in an armed confrontation with a government that they had been taught lacked authority for not being properly religious.

This paper is a case study that shows how Islam can produce, within a specific context, a cult. The case in question is the Red Mosque or the Lal Masjid (in Urdu language), which hit the front pages of international newspapers a few years ago. A school and one of the most important places of worship in Pakistan were turned upside down in one of the most peaceful cities in Pakistan, its capital, Islamabad.

Parents who sent their children to the Red Mosque to be religiously educated felt comfortable because this was an historic mosque in the heart of the nation’s capital, a mosque where members of the Parliament and of the High Court of the country prayed. The sons of a well-known Islamic scholar ran the religious schools for boys and for girls. Thus, many families from around the country trusted that their children would become righteous and pious, maybe even scholars.

In March 2007, however, members of the female high school attached to the mosque marched through the capital, sticks in hand. Presenting themselves as a “decency brigade,” they kidnapped a woman and her daughter, allegedly for running a brothel; threatened video and music shops for having un-Islamic businesses and promoting vice and immorality; and started a campaign to impose their version of Islamic Law on the whole country.

When the State challenged the leaders and tried to get part of the school demolished, ostensibly because it was supposedly built illegally on public land, the situation deteriorated. With sticks in hand, pupils once again defended the school—with their own lives.

Students threatened to launch waves of suicide bombers if Islamic Law were not to be implemented within a month. The students were willing to die for their cause. And so they did. Although figures are not reliable, the military attack left around 200 dead.

How did this tragedy come to be? Can we call this group a cult? Through this case, we will examine how sects or cults are viewed within Islam. We will also come to see, through the Red Mosque example, how religion can be used in order to try to change the social, political, and religious order in Pakistan.

What Is a Sect?

The terms “sect” and “cult” are often used interchangeably; the latter is favored in North America, while the former is favored in Europe. We will use “sect” in this paper.

Among those who study sects, especially those who work with victims of sects, definitional emphasis is often placed on the high levels of manipulation and exploitation often associated with controversial groups. Other observers and many among the general public, in contrast, distinguish sects from religions by comparing belief systems. Sects are typically viewed as schismatic or innovative but deviant theologically.

This latter, theological approach is problematic when applied to Islam, because the religion does not have a central authority. Although the two main confessions of Islam, Sunna and Shia, are well known, there are within each of these traditions many streams that have been admitted and integrated into the Islamic mainstream; and one finds many schools of thought and practices arising from different traditions in the varied cultures that have embraced Islam over time.

Although all Muslims must accept the five pillars of the faith, Islam adapted itself to local conditions, and many factors have affected how these dogmas are interpreted. Thus, there are differences between those Muslims in Arab countries (within the same Arab country even) and those in other geographic areas. Islam in South Asia, for example, adapted to the varied traditions, languages, castes, and other socio-economic factors of this region.

What Is a Sect in an Islamic Context?

Because, other than the requirement of the five pillars, so much theological diversity is accepted within Islam, it is difficult to define a sect theologically within an Islamic context. For example, the psychological perspective of many in the West, which values individual autonomy and condemns those who undermine autonomy through manipulative techniques, is not widely shared in Muslim countries. However, there are certain behavioral features that cause most Muslims to view a group or movement as socially deviant, and these are:

  • The group or movement has a basically political character.[1]

  • The group/movement leaders appeal to religious concepts in order to win support for political goals, which are the leaders’ paramount concern.

  • The group/movement does not tolerate dissent or diversity; adherence to the five pillars is not enough to satisfy the leaders.[2]

  • The group/movement rejects the moral legitimacy and challenges the power of the modern State.

  • The group/movement is a means for bringing about, not an expression of, religio-political and social change.

  • Sectarian groups/movements tend to be mainly a rural and peripheral phenomenon.[3]

The Red Mosque met all but the last of these criteria, and even the last criterion was partly met because so many of the school’s students came from rural areas.

Pakistan: Historical Background

Pakistan was created under the “Two Nation Theory,” which considered Hindus and Muslims to be two different nations. However, Muslim nationalism of this kind did not consider the many differences among Muslims themselves. It is beyond the scope of this paper to explain why this theory developed and how it contributed to the goal of creating a land for Muslims independent of mainly Hindu India.

That the nation of Pakistan was created based on a religious identity, however, did contribute to contemporary contradictions, ambiguities, and dangers, such as that:

  • Some provinces that were made part of the new state had not previously supported the Two Nation Theory.

  • Those who supported and fought for the Pakistani State on the basis of religion were secular men. They worked under the Muslim League political party banner because doing so was useful in achieving their political goals.

  • Islamists and many known scholars of Islam opposed the Two Nation Theory.

  • Although the state was supposedly created for Muslims, there never was any intention of making Pakistan an Islamic country.

Because Pakistan’s founding raison d’être was its religious identity, the new nation had its roots in an ideological construction that had not considered the realities on the ground, which created more problems, including the following:

  • Insufficient attention was paid to the ethnic nationalism that is present in three of the four provinces of Pakistan.

  • The many differences of population, both vertical and horizontal, were ignored.

  • The State pretended to be the bearer of progress, as it identified itself with Islam while failing to advocate an official version of Islam.

  • Because the State associated itself with Islam, however, going against the government was tantamount to going against Islam.

  • Consequently, dissent and freedom of speech and thought were restricted, and those holding different views about the country were usually silenced or branded as infidels. (It was not until 1997 that the Election Commission of Pakistan tried to limit the verbal abuse that candidates heaped on each other, in particular the habit of branding each other as infidels or traitors to Pakistan and/or Islam.)

  • This attitude fed the sense of deprivation among those ethnic minorities or communities that were told that their only source of identity should come from Pakistaniyyat and Islam.

According to Pepe Rodriguez’s (2000) analysis of Neil Smelser (1962), the sectarian genesis arises in those environments where six elements dominate:

  1. Structural conduciveness of the social system. The pretended homogeneity of Muslims, as told by those of the Muslim League (ML), ran into reality. It “started loosing strength until it fed a proclivity within the subsystem that, finally, strengthened the birth of new ‘sects’ and inside them, the same shall occur…” thus giving birth to more sectarian subgroups within the existing ones. The more the government tried to homogenize the nation, the more sects came into existence.

  2. Structural strain. In Pakistan, according to studies by Talbot (1992) and Robinson (1997), this strain was inherited from the movement for independence: the incapacity to adjust political and social dissent, the ambiguities of the Two-Nation Theory, and the interests of the elites that do not coincide with those of the population.

  3. Generalized belief. Islam was used in a generic way, irrespective of the realities of the Muslims who lived in the country. Islamic identity was built in opposition to British and Hindu identities. This artificial identity of opposition helped sectarianism to spread, because sectarian groups could appeal to the grievances of the people who were not comfortable with the artificial identity by focusing their attention on the past grandeur and unity of Islam.

  4. Precipitating factors. In Pakistan, internal and external events contributed to the resurgence of sects. Internally, we can point to Pakistan’s division into two parts (present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh) and the Islamization program of the military dictator, Zia ul-Haq. Externally, there was the Iranian revolution, which fed Shia militancy and the Afghanistan war, with the consequences it had on Sunnis. The authorities’ repeated lying to the Pakistani masses caused a loss of governmental credibility that paved the way for conflict.

  5. Mobilisation for action. The affected groups felt the need to become organized. Such organization was provided with the help and sponsorship of foreign and local agents, in the shape of politico-religious groups.

  6. Failure of social control. The state’s weakness and lack of control and inability to react effectively resulted in a generalized breakdown of social control.

Given this context, the character of sects in the Pakistani context would be defined by:

  • A political reading of Islam and not a formulation of a new theology. Nonetheless, it must be noted that some groups, by taking some verses of the Quran out of context, are, to a degree, reinventing religion.

  • Sects appearing as a form of politico-religious nationalism. They all claim to have the best solution for the country’s problems.

  • A combination of ethnic with Islamic discourses creating a new ethnic nationalism. Nevertheless, most ethnic-nationalist groups in Pakistan are secular. This nationalism is more related to tribalism.

  • Sectarian groups not necessarily being marginal. Some of them become political parties.

  • Sectarian groups portraying themselves as opposed to the corrupted system represented by the State.

The History of the Red Mosque

Children coming from backward tribal areas (mainly Pashtun, but some also Punjabi;[4] some of the children were family to mujahideen dead fighting in Kashmir) had come to study at both schools attached to the Mosque, in one of the nicest and posh areas of the capital. These children did not relate to the Pakistani elites, or to the artificial Islamic identity these elites promoted. They were, therefore, vulnerable to those peddling a “pure” form of Islam, one that would empower the poor.

The leaders of the Mosque, the two brothers Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi, were children during the war against the “infidel” Soviets in neighboring Afghanistan. They grew up with the idea of jihad[5] as a sacred duty of Muslims. Their father was the first leader of the Mosque, built in 1969, and was well known during the days when militancy and the mujahideen were the fighters the West supported to stop the spread of Communism. He had sent many to fight there, and their vision of religion was similar to a military discipline. A dualist vision of the world, Good against Evil, was thus assumed by the two brothers, who did not and could not strip themselves of all the ideas they had assimilated.

At the end of the war with the Soviets, all the constructed imagery about fighting evil under the flag of Islam vanished, and the brothers, as well as many others, were abandoned and, all of a sudden, discouraged from fighting. These people did not understand this change of mind, and they felt betrayed by the State that once more was failing the cause.

Both brothers openly supported the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in their sermons at the Mosque. Abdul Aziz claimed to have had 300 sacred dreams in which Prophet Muhammand (PBUH) had asked him to impose Sharia and purge society of its evils.

Not surprisingly, these brothers, who felt betrayed by the State, indoctrinated children at the Mosque’s attached schools so as to spread their ideas and reconquer the world once more to their cause. The Jamia Hafsa had the capacity to teach at least 5,000 girls,[6] while the boys’ school, Jamia Fareedia, was able to have at least 1,300 students. Over the years, they configured themselves as a force preparing for the day when they would be able to fight against the government and its allies (the United States).

The leaders of the mosque were further related to militant groups fighting jihad in Kashmir, such as the Jaish-e Mohammad (JeM, Army of Muhammad), a group known for its practice of kidnapping children and training them to fight against Indian forces.[7] They might have shared their views and methods for better training children to serve their purposes. Although normal subjects were taught at school (math, history, geography), the schools were mainly focused on a militant ideology that had perverted Islam to make it a religion of hatred, violence, and intolerance. Its version of religion, although some say it is based on the Deoband school of thought, seems more to be a radical evolution of it, for it is far too politicized not to be distinguished from its original.[8]

How the Red Mosque Used Islam to Pursue Political Goals

Having targeted the leader of the country, Musharraf, the brothers threatened to kill him and taught in their schools nonobedience to the authorities of what they deemed a corrupted state.[9] The President and the then-General of the Armed Forces, Musharraf, changed policy and decided to side with the United States in the “War against terror.” His decision resulted in a ban on many affiliated groups,[10] as well as a U-turn in the policy of aiding militants in their different fights. The brothers’ version of Islam was the only set of rules. Following the teaching of “Commanding right and forbidding wrong” (an Islamic tradition called al-amr bi-l-ma’aruf wa nahi ‘an al-munkar), girls started raiding the capital, stick in hand, as a decency brigade. The same way their Taliban allies in the tribal areas had conquered several of its districts, they thought they could change Islamabad. However, dressed in black and hiding all but their eyes, they were no representation of tradition, at least not of that of Pakistan or the region of their origin. Girls from around 6 years to 15 years of age were raiding the town, threatening music shops, or women not dressing like them or not covering their heads. They occupied a children’s library, kidnapped women under the accusation they were running a brothel, or legitimized throwing acid on women’s faces if they would not cover themselves, among other activities.

The state ‘s weak response made them believe they could succeed. This belief caused them to increase their demands. They demanded change not only on Islamabad, but also in the whole country, and they advocated enforcement of Sharia within a short deadline. In several interviews, the two leaders maintained that the failure of their leaders to implement an Islamic system in the country, along with their siding with America, was the cause of all troubles and evils in the country. They asserted that Pakistan was born to be an Islamic country. The voices of the girls could be heard saying they would fight for an Islamic state and sacrifice their lives for that cause. When the question of suicide attacks arose, they would say that they would gain paradise and were proud of being part of a school where they had been given the chance to follow the right path. It was most shocking to see even a six-year-old girl advocate suicide, while the girls’ teacher, the wife of one of the two brothers called Umme Hassan, tried to make reporters believe that the girls had adopted these ideas of their free and spontaneous will. Not surprisingly, they were articulating the same ideas and resorting to the same Quranic verses or traditions that the brothers used. The brothers had spent years indoctrinating children to hate other Muslims (Shias, Barelvis, secular or liberal Muslims), to change their appearance (from traditional to neoconservative in the Wahhabi fashion), and to believe that fighting was the better way for changing the world. The school had been a place for training jihad soldiers, and they were ready for the war between good and evil.

It must also be said that all this happened at a time when the government was in serious trouble and was allowing things to happen so as to divert attention from the nation’s real problems. Thus, the two brothers were in a way misled by some sectors of the Intelligence agencies (with whom they had lots of contacts) so that they could feel free to challenge the State. A bad government in Pakistan can always point to such open rebellion to justify military control and to seek foreign support.

The Final Confrontation

On July 3, 2007, the government decided to take action. Under the name of “Operation Sunrise,” the army was deployed around the Mosque for eight days. Traffic was diverted from the area and neighbors were told not to go out after noon, given the curfew imposed in the area. Soldiers had orders to shoot anyone outside after the curfew. The government’s patience was finally exhausted when some students stole weapons and communication sets from army Rangers and attacked the Ministry of Environment building. Those in the Mosque received several deadlines to vacate it, and several students left during this standoff.

At the time of the attack, the Mosque’s loudspeakers carried the voice of Abdul Aziz, calling:

Come and smell the fragrance of the blood of those who have already embraced martyrdom. Paradise is waiting for them, and paradise is waiting for all of us who are going to receive martyrdom soon.

By the time the government took action, it was already too late. Crowds of different militant groups had settled in and used the confrontation with the State for their own purposes. Their traditional peripheral position had become central, and achieving victory would mean a great boost for the country’s insurgency. The Mosque became a rallying point for different militants, and Taliban from different areas had locked themselves inside with the students. It appears that they were extending their time there by using the lives of the students as a bargaining chip. Nobody knows how such a large number of weapons got inside the Mosque. Militants apparently prepared for weapon storage before they were put under siege. Desperate parents started arriving in Islamabad when they heard their children were being held hostage inside the premises of the Mosque. They were frightened by the threats of suicide attacks or an assault by the authorities, given the military’s presence. Many of the children managed to escape following the end of the different deadlines set by the government, but about 300 to 400 remained inside, together with the different fighters, whom some number up to 100. One of the brothers tried to escape with a group of girls, hiding under a burka, while the other one died inside.

There are contradictory declarations from witnesses and some of the students. Parents told authorities that some children were being held hostages; the leaders of the mosque said that children were free to go home; and some jihadi propagandists spoke about the willingness of all students to die there. One piece of propaganda showed a girl with blood on her hands, crying for the fate of her dead companions and the fact that she could not be martyred there with them. Such images were shown in several places to enhance the feeling of deprivation and injustice to common and innocent Muslim children so as to inspire others to follow the path of jihad. They blindly believed that thousands of Muslims from the tribal areas and Kashmir would join them in a holy army. They were wrong. Most madrassas did not back the brothers’ statements; none joined them. The two brothers perhaps realized too late that their position was perilous. Some believe that when the militants of illegal groups entered the compounds of the mosque, the two brothers lost control of the situation.

At the same time, the behavior of the government was quite shameful, one more proof of its inability to provide its citizens with the rule of law. The final account of the approximately 200 deaths is contradictory, the number of weapons recovered from the mosque is huge, and the explosions of the attack could be heard in the entire city. Some families are still looking for the corpses of their sons, daughters, brothers, or sisters.


The ambiguities of the country of Pakistan and its birth theory contributed to a militia seeking to implement a “true Islamic system,” whatever their concept of that may be. Adapting Islamic principles to the rules of the country and the present system has not been achieved. There are modern and rich elites. Yet the mass of common people lack mobility within society and have few opportunities to progress. A weak state apparatus that lacks effectiveness and democratic ethos leaves people to look for different ways to have their voices heard.

The Red Mosque group was one response to this intolerable situation:

  • They had managed to escape from the usual peripheral situation of most sects that are in Pakistan (rural and tribal areas) and managed to settle in the capital.

  • They challenged the State’s liberal views and its progressive measures (several backward laws against women had been revoked at the time…).

  • They had mixed tribal Pashtun ideas with Islamic ones.

  • But also, they had changed what they considered was backward in that tradition (seclusion of women) by engaging them in an active and public role, thus changing their religious-tribal views.

  • They inherited the notion that Pakistan, being home for Muslims, should be an Islamic country run by the Sharia, and they considered violence to be the best means for its achievement.

  • They called for a change in society and appealed to the masses to revolt against the infidel government.

None of the hard-line militant students interviewed for this study could explain how they could represent Pakistanis, while hundreds of thousands had demonstrated in the streets of the country opposing their visions and ways. All the interviewees could say was, “We are right, they are wrong, and we will fight against our infidel government and its allies (the United States) till a change comes.” There are still a few students looking for another institution that can provide them with a new identity and not just an education. Many returned to their families, although we still don't know if they adapted themselves to their past lives. Although it may be a coincidence, recent strikes against the government forces fighting in the tribal areas against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban come from teenage suicide bombers.

Implications for the War on Terror

On July 6th, 2008, outside a convention held in Islamabad to observe the first anniversary of the army operation on the mosque, a suicide bomber blew himself up, killing 17 people, 15 of them policemen. The renewed commitment of the democratically elected government and President to combat terrorism, Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban feeds the anger of radical groups. At a time when suicide attacks became frequent and paranoia was running high through the streets of the capital, the Parliament approved a bill to introduce the Shariah (although not yet known in which form) in the Swat valley (April 2009). This move encouraged the Pakistani Taliban to take control of the surrounding districts, coming to within 60 miles of Islamabad. The fear elicited by the Taliban takeover motivated the government to vigorously attack the Taliban positions by the end of the month. In October, the government launched a vitally important attack in Waziristan against Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and all kinds of insurgent groups.

On our last visit to Islamabad (April 2009), Maulana Abdul Aziz was set free from jail. The night of his liberation, when many wouldn’t dare go out at night, screaming and celebrating chants could be heard throughout the capital. As we were wondering who would dare go out at night and protest, we realized that Abdul Aziz’s liberation had renewed once more the hunger for revenge among his students. Calls for jihad and revenge could be heard miles away. The phenomenon was shocking and troubling.

The deaths of so many Pakistanis, who had never witnessed violence on such a scale, have turned the populace against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Yet the government still lacks full support, due in part to contradictions in its responses to the terrorist attacks—e.g., setting free a person responsible for the deaths of many innocent people. Moreover, many Pakistani still believe in conspiracy theories, so some find it hard to believe that fellow Muslims would kill them. As a result, many Pakistanis are unsure about the government’s real intentions. Although a change of mindset seems to be occurring in Pakistan, the change is coming about in a very painful way.


de Planhol, Xavier de: Minorías en el Islam. Una Geografía de la Pluralidad. Barcelona: Bellaterra, 2002.

Khouri, Fuad I.: Imames y Emires (Ortodoxia y Disidencias en la Sociedad Árabe). Barcelona: Bellaterra, 2000.

Robinson, Francis: Separatism Among Indian Muslims. The Politics of the United Provinces Muslims 1860-1923. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Rodríguez, Pepe: Adicción a Sectas. Pautas para el análisis, prevención y tratamiento. Barcelona: Ediciones B, 2000.

Smelser, Neil J.: Theory of collective behaviour. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962.

Talbot, Ian: Pakistan. A Modern History. New Delhi: OUP, 1998.

About the Authors

Ana Ballesteros Peiró is a Ph.D. candidate in the Arab and Islamic Studies Department at Autonomous University of Madrid and member of a research team on electoral processes in Arab and Islamic countries (covering elections in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh). She has also been a research scholar at the South Asian Division of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi, India), where she studied terrorism, communalism, and sectarianism among Muslims in Pakistan. Her work focuses on sects in Islam and South Asia. (

Maria Jesus Martin Lopez has a Ph.D. in Psychology and is Associate Researcher at the Social Psychology and Methodology Department of Autonomous University of Madrid. She has obtained the following awards: 2nd Award of the 8th Edition of Research Awards of the Economic and Social Council of Madrid Community (2006); 1st Award “Virgilio Palacio” (2004); 2nd National Award of Educative Research (Modality: Ph.D. thesis), from the Education and Science Ministry (2003). She is author of national and international publications about risk behavior, juvenile violence, and organ donations. She is author of Juvenile extra-group violence (2005) and co-author of Risk Behaviors: Violence, Sexual Risk Behavior and Illegal Drug Consumption Among the Youth (1998), along with others.

Jose Manuel Martinez Garcia has a Ph.D. in Psychology and is a Lecturer in the Social Psychology and Methodology Department at Autonomous University of Madrid. He has obtained the following: 2nd Award of the 8th Edition of Research Awards of the Economic and Social Council of Madrid Community from the Autonomic Community of Madrid (2006); 1st Award “Virgilio Palacio” (2004). He is the author of national and international publications about risk behaviors, juvenile violence, and organ donations, including co-author of Risk Behaviors: Violence, Sexual Risk Behavior and Illegal Drug Consumption Among Youth (1998) and Organ Donation and Family Decision-Taking Within the Spanish Donation System (2001), among others.

Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 8, No. 3, 2009, Page

[1] According to the definition given by Fuad Khouri (2000).

[2] According to Xavier de Planhol (2002).

[3] de Planhol (2002).

[4] There are four provinces in Pakistan with four main ethnic groups: Punjabis, Baluchis, Pashtuns, and Sindhis.

[5] The traditional meaning of this word, which was used in order to motivate those who fought against the Soviets, has been perverted. This modern interpretation has been promoted in the West and has been accepted by many of the mujahideen groups, for it enables them to rationalize their violence.

[6] Numbers usually vary. It seems it could accommodate at least 1,300, and the rest would be day students.

[7] JeM has as an objective spreading its ideology in its “schools of jihad,” engaging as well in proselytising activities. Its main aim is to force a withdrawal of Indian forces from Kashmir.

[8] Recently, the Deoband seminary launched a fatwa stating that terrorism was against Islam.

[9] For sure, nonobedience to an unfair ruler was part of their teachings, which is in fact part of the Islamic tradition. A good leader must always be aware of the people’s needs; if not, he is not good and thus Muslims do not have any obligation to obey him.

[10] SATP: JeM had been banned by an Indian Law in October 2001.