ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – In a bold challenge to the government, a firebrand cleric said Friday he had formed an Islamic court to enforce a Taliban-style vice campaign in the Pakistani capital, threatening suicide attacks if authorities try to stop him.
Thousands of followers of Maulana Abdul Aziz underlined 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.
Friday's events deepen a dilemma for President Gen. Pervez Musharraf: endure growing criticism for creeping "Talibanization" in Pakistan despite his alliance with the U.S., or force a potentially bloody showdown with fanatics who have grown under his rule.
Students from a seminary adjoining the mosque launched a morality crackdown earlier this month by threatening shopkeepers selling films and music. They even kidnapped an alleged brothel owner and held her for two days until she made a public confession.
Aziz addressed about 3,000 people at the mosque for a conference on Sharia and jihad — Islamic law and holy war. Listeners 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, Aziz announced that he had established a Sharia 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.
Aziz appealed for volunteers to defend the mosque, which has links to outlawed Sunni extremist groups. Mosque officials deny allegations that weapons are stored inside.
"If the government says it will launch an operation against us as a last resort, our last resort will be suicide bombings," Aziz said. Bearded young men in the crowd punched the air in response.
Aziz then asked the gathering, "What is our way?" and students bellowed back: "Jihad! Jihad!"
Tariq Azim, minister of state for information, denounced Aziz's threat, and urged him not to force the government to take stern action. So far, police have done little.
"They have misjudged the government's resolve. We want to avoid the use of force against them. We want to resolve all issues through peaceful means," Azim told The Associated Press. 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 — stock from an Islamabad shop whose owner had agreed to close his business, said Aziz's brother, Abdul Rashid Ghazi.
"This is porno material and blue films. This is destroying our society," Ghazi said. Crowds shouted, "God is great!" when the pile, doused in gasoline, caught fire with a whoosh.
The DVDs included films from neighboring India and some Western titles, including a romantic comedy called "Dirty, Filthy Love," but also children's movies such as "Home Alone 4" and "Free Willy."
Scores of female students in black burqas listened to the sermon and watched the video bonfire from the roof of their neighboring seminary, where Ghazi is vice principal.
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.
Most of the agitation for Taliban-style social controls has been in the conservative northwest, along the Afghan border, where sympathies run high for the fundamentalist Taliban militia that ruled Afghanistan before a U.S.-led invasion in 2001. The Taliban banned TV and largely confined women to their homes.
The move to impose a similar style of restrictions in Islamabad has alarmed many in the relatively liberal city and drawn criticism from moderate clerics. It has added to the impression that the mosque and its thousands of followers are above the law.
Female student followers of Aziz and his brother are already defying authorities by occupying Islamabad's only library for children. The women have also threatened suicide attacks to oppose plans to demolish the mosque for encroaching on government land.