Believers Under Siege in Pakistan

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Asif Hassan / AFP / Getty Images

A student flees the Environment Ministry in Islamabad after students torched it during a fierce gun battle with Pakistan security forces

When I first met Umma Aman this morning, she told me she was prepared to die for her god. This is the kind of rhetoric I've come to expect from students at Jamia Hafsa, the women's seminary attached to Islamabad's radical Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque. I wasn't expecting an immediate demonstration of her faith. But over the course of a six-hour battle between students and Pakistani paramilitary forces that ended with several students dead and at least two police and one journalist caught in the crossfire, I learned that these seminarians do not take their religion lightly.

I came to Jamia Hafsa to interview its headmistress, Umma Hassan, for a story about Islam in Pakistan. Aman, a pretty 22-year-old student in her final year, was her translator. Before the interview started Aman and I chatted about her desire to live according to the teachings of Islam, and how angry she was that her government did not support her. For the past six months the clerics of the Red Mosque madrassah complex, which houses about 7,000 students, have openly defied the government, calling for the establishment of Islamic law throughout the country. Students and teachers from both the men's and women's schools have embarked on a vigilante anti-vice campaign in the capital, shutting down video and music shops for being un-Islamic. Twice now, the female students have abducted alleged prostitutes, saying that if the government doesn't cleanse the capital of sin, they will. "A man goes to medical school and becomes a doctor," says Aman. "We go to a madrassah, so we must practice Islam. But the government is not letting us. How can we just sit down and allow this to happen? We must act on God's will, not our own desires."

The interview started, and I asked Hassan about her goals for her students. "We all teach by example," she answered. "When we live according to God's law, we are successful, and others will emulate us." I asked how far she would go to defend this principle. I never got an answer. I didn't need one. Hassan looked out the window. Government Rangers, a kind of paramilitary force, were trying to cordon off the madrassah complex with razor wire. The male students were fighting them off. "Emergency!" she declared, and leapt to her feet. The teacher's lounge, a room of brightly dressed women, was doused in black as students and teachers donned dark floor length robes and headscarves that showed only their eyes. Stout bamboo staves appeared out of nowhere. A Sten gun flashed from beneath Hassan's robe.

"Come on, we are going out to protest," said Aman. I only recognized her by the glasses perched on the outside of her mask. I follow her outside the madrassah gate where a hundred or so black robed women chant in unison against Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and against George W. Bush. A crack, a small explosion, and a cloud of acrid tear gas drifts our way, fronted by a pack of stampeding men. Apparently they had tried to occupy the neighboring Environment Ministry. I run back to the gate, having lost Aman in the sea of panicking black robes. More explosions, more tear gas. And the gunshots begin. First from the mosque, then in retaliation from the rangers. We are caught in a narrow corridor, bullets slicing through the thick smoke on either side of us. Another canister of tear gas rolls past my feet, spewing cottony clouds that claw at my eyes and tear at my lungs. Sweat, picking up gas particles clinging to my clothes, burns my skin. Someone from the second floor above the gate pours a bucket of water on us. Blissful reprieve, even if it lasts only a few seconds. I fight for breath, and I fight my instinct to breathe deeply. Eyes streaming, coughing, choking, spitting, we scrabble at the front door, battling to get through the narrow passageway, eight at a time, back into the madrassah, into safety.

Once inside the metal gate we suck lungfuls of air through wetted rags. Young girls pass bowls of salt. Eating salt lessens the effects of the tear gas, they say, with an air of practiced impatience. This is the second time the madrassah students have been tear-gassed; they know what to do. The afternoon call to prayer echoes through the halls, barely audible above the wails of wounded women. Still, there is comfort to be found in its bland predictability. Dozens of hands push cups of water on me, conscientious, even in the middle of mayhem, of the foreigner in their midst. Not a good time to ask if it has been purified, I decide.

The firing slows, and Hassan strides into the courtyard triumphant. "Good news," she announces. "Our boys stole four guns from the rangers." The vibe is electric. Aman finds me eventually. Her headscarf and robe are dripping with water. She is preparing to go back out to help her comrades. I realize that the head-to-toe shrouds have another purpose: sopping wet, they provide excellent protection against tear gas. Her eyes, though bloodshot, are exultant. "We are students, not fighters, but if the government pushes us to fight, so be it," she says. "God will give us the power to win." I ask if she is afraid. "We are not frightened," she says. "We are never afraid. One day all lives will end, and if this is the case, then why not give it to Islam? If we give this life for our religion, we will have more blessings from our god." Amma Adeem, a 20-year-old student in the same class, says she is willing to sell her life for paradise. "This is the house of Allah," she says, meaning the madrassah, Islamabad, Pakistan and the world. "We must live by his laws. We don't do this for ourselves, we do it for Islam."

The steady rattle of gunfire shakes the metal gate of the madrassah. Snipers are perched on the roof of buildings surrounding the complex. Outside the male students are fighting with the Rangers. Inside, women fill buckets of water at the tap and pass them, fireman style, out the gate to the men. They hurl bamboo staves, broom handles and water bottles over the complex wall. The bottles return, empty, and the women fill them up again and toss them back. Aman disappears again, out the gate. "I will do everything in my power to protect my madrassah, I am ready to die for it," she says. An hour later I find her again, pressing a wet rag to her streaming eyes. "I wanted to die, but my elders stopped me." Friends, crowding around, cluck in sympathy.

An explosion shakes the windows of one of the classrooms. A rumor that one of the male students has detonated a suicide bomb whips through the corridors. Last week, after the students abducted five Chinese masseuses for being prostitutes, President Musharraf announced that he was ready to storm the mosque. But then he said that suicide terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda had infiltrated the men's madrassah, and that going in would provoke a bloodbath, and that the media would blame him. One of the female students laughs at the idea of an al- Qaeda link. "We ourselves are willing to die for our school, we don't need any outsiders to do it for us," she says. (I later learn that the explosion came from the environmental ministry, which had been torched to the ground while I was inside the madrassah). The woman offers me lunch. When I point out that perhaps this isn't the best time, considering the ongoing fighting, she just shrugs. "No," she agrees. "It is not a good time. But you are our guest, and we have to look after your well being."

Eventually I take advantage of a lull in the fighting to slip out the back of the complex to the street. Adeem leaves me at the gate. Eyes still blazing, she bids me farewell. "Tell them how angry we are," she says. "Write in your story how willing we are to die for our cause." It doesn't sound like rhetoric any more. It sounds like a promise.