- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In a bold challenge to the government, a firebrand cleric said yesterday he has formed an Islamic court to enforce a Taliban-style campaign against vice in the Pakistani capital, threatening suicide attacks if authorities try to stop him.

Thousands of followers of Maulana Abdul Aziz underscored their defiance by chanting “Our way is jihad” and setting fire to hundreds of mainly Western DVDs and video cassettes outside Islamabad’s Red Mosque.

Yesterday’s events deepen a dilemma for President Pervez Musharraf: endure growing criticism for creeping “Talibanization” in Pakistan despite his alliance with the United States, or force a potentially bloody showdown with fanatics who have grown in influence under his rule.

Students from a seminary adjoining the mosque began a morality crackdown earlier this month by threatening shopkeepers selling films and music. They kidnapped a purported brothel owner and held her for two days until she made a public confession.

Mr. Aziz addressed about 3,000 people at the mosque for a conference on Shariah and jihad — Islamic law and holy war. People filled the courtyard and packed the roof of the red-walled building just a few hundred yards from the city’s government district.

Dozens of students armed with wooden poles and with checkered scarves tied around their faces patrolled outside the perimeter wall.

In his sermon, Mr. Aziz announced that he had established a Shariah court of 10 clerics to dispense Islamic justice. He said the clerics would issue decrees, but gave no other details about the court’s supposed jurisdiction.

He said it would begin in one month if the government didn’t move against “centers of vulgarity” in the city — and warned authorities against trying to stop his activities.

Tariq Azim, minister of state for information, denounced Mr. Aziz’s threat, and urged him not to force the government to take stern action. So far, police have done little. He accused the cleric of using female seminarians as a human shield.

After prayers, students at the mosque set fire to a pile of hundreds of DVDs, video cassettes and some broken video players on a nearby road. The DVDs included films from neighboring India and some Western titles, including children’s movies such as “Home Alone 4” and “Free Willy.”

Muslim hard-liners, who have gained influence by tapping popular opposition to Pakistan’s support for Washington’s war on terrorism — have pressed steadily for curbs on “un-Islamic” behavior such as distributing Western movies.

The move to impose a similar style of restriction in Islamabad has alarmed many in the relatively liberal city and drawn criticism from moderate clerics.

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