In a unique form of land grabbing, government land, public parks and even green belts are appropriated for building mosques, or other religious buildings such as seminaries. Once the mosque is up and running, it becomes extremely difficult for the authorities to reclaim the land since it is now a house of God and any other claim amounts to disrespect or worse. It is usually argued that such mosques are harmless, and evicting the occupants and destroying the building would cause more unrest and conflict than letting the structure simply exist. Considering the prevalence of mob violence on sensitive religious subjects in Pakistan, is a real possibility. Now the problem is that clerics at these mosques depend on this catch-22 situation to cover for their illegally acquired land and the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) Administration, the body which is charged with combating such illegal activities, is presenting the same argument for not taking a stand and reclaiming public land.

Having failed to reclaim government land from illegal mosques the ICT, in conjunction with the Capital Development Authority (CDA) and Auqaf Department and Islamabad Police, plans to stop the expansion of existing buildings and ensure that new ones are not constructed, and for that purpose they have devised a plan that is to be implemented presently. The move itself is commendable; the Interior ministry has decided to take decisive action against a mushrooming problem; yet the move is not decisive enough – by giving the existing illegal structures a clean pass.

Firstly, let’s look at the facts; of the 492 mosques within the municipal limits of the CDA, 233 mosques were operating illegally – the office of the Auditor General of Pakistan (AGP) the estimated that “this resulted in a loss of Rs1.12 billion” to the public exchequer. There is absolutely no reason why such a large amount of land and its attendant revenue should be abandoned without a fight. The land belongs to the capital and had been earmarked for other purposes, all of which are unfulfilled. Secondly, not taking action against illegal mosques because it is difficult would serve as an incentive to future illegal encroachers to gamble with the severity of the CDA’s crackdown. If they have allowed these structures to exist, what is the guarantee that others will be taken down, especially since the reasons stay the same?

This is a difficult and sensitive task, yet with legal cover for the police force, intervention of federal religious ministry and proper incentives for the clerics, the land stolen by the opportunistic clerics can be reclaimed, and should be reclaimed. Without the government taking exemplary action some of the mosques, there will be no compliance to the law. Orders not backed by sanctions are meaningless.