Analysts say the decision by the Pakistani government to sanction a special day for protests was a political move to draw support from a public that has larger frustrations with the US.
By Mahvish Ahmad, Correspondent / September 21, 2012
Thousands of members of political parties and Islamist groups took to the streets on Friday acrossPakistan to take part in government-sanctioned protests against the anti-Islamic movie that has prompted protests across the Muslim world. Though it was dubbed a “day of love for the prophet” by the Pakistani government this week in an effort to stem the chances of protests getting out of hand, reports indicate that at least fifteen people have lost their lives as the protests turned violent today.
Analysts point out that the decision by the Pakistani government to sanction a special day for protests, which have been ongoing throughout the week, highlights the complex inner workings of Pakistani politics and larger frustrations with the US.
Upcoming elections have played a key role in the government’s decision to allow the protests to happen at a time when they “[should] calm people, not officially give them an extra day to go to the streets” says the assistant editor of Pakistan’s The News, Mehreen Zahra-Malik.
“The government thinks that tapping into the outrage over this film is the best way to get on the right side of the public. For a government that has failed in every major way that a voter would care about – governance, power, jobs, security – flashing its Islamic credentials may seem like the prudent thing to do,” says Ms. Zahra-Malik.
Still, anti-American sentiment has been especially high this week as protests have been taking place. On Sunday crowds broke through a barricade near the US consulate in the southern city ofKarachi, and on Wednesday protestors marched outside of the diplomatic enclave that houses theUS Embassy in Pakistan‘s capital, Islamabad.
Surprising observers on Thursday, thousands marched in Islamabad and attempted to break into the heavily-guarded enclave, prompting the Pakistani government to call in the Army to protect the area. International and local media outlets called the Thursday protests violent, though BBCcorrespondent Aleem Maqbool noted that as soon as the sun set they “turned out like a light.”
The ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has “capitulated before the forces of the right in what is fast becoming a policy of appeasement and retreat,” says Zahra-Malik who adds that it is a particularly poor decision considering that the party lost its leader, the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, “to the same violence and extremism that it is today retreating and surrendering to.”
The Islamist group responsible for raiding the US Consulate in Karachi on Sunday might have been operating on the same logic. The little known Islamic political group, the Shia Majlis-e-Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen Pakistan, had been planning to register with the Election Commission of Pakistan, in an effort to participate in elections slated for next year. The frustrations surrounding the anti-Islam movie gave it an opportunity to propel itself onto the national stage, according to Zahra-Malik. “Outbursts of rage in Pakistan, as elsewhere, often bring with them mighty political dividends for political and radical groups,” wrote Zahra-Malik in a recent column for The News.
The protests are taking place within the larger context of frustration toward the US, say analysts.
Ties between the US and Pakistan reached a nadir, after a series of events that ratcheted tensions last year, including a perceived breach of sovereignty with the US raid on the Osama bin Laden compound in May 2011, and the airstrikes against a Pakistani border outpost, which resulted in the killing two dozen border soldiers. Pakistan closed its borders to truck convoys supplying US and NATO troops in Afghanistan last November and were only reopened in July.
Pakistan’s security establishment has been blamed for abetting Islamist groups within Pakistan to uphold what they believe is the country’s national security interests – including strategic depth in Afghanistan and resistance to India – as the US plans to withdraw its forces in 2014. And some see the protests as another platform for that.
In a conversation with the Christian Science Monitor, he called on the Pakistani government to close down the NATO supply routes again, and criticized attempts by the government to have closer ties to the US.
The US government paid private Pakistani TV stations $70,000 to air a message from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Pakistani people. The larger frustrations with US foreign policy in Pakistan and the region expressed by those present at the demonstrations indicate that the message will only have a limited effect on calming the protests.
19 Reported Dead as Pakistanis Protest Muhammad Video
Pakistani riot police officers chase a protester in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Friday.
Aamir Qureshi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Pakistani demonstrators battled with riot police in Islamabad on Friday.
It was the worst single day of violence in a Muslim country over the video, “Innocence of Muslims,” since protests began nearly two weeks ago in Egypt, before spreading to two dozen countries. Protesters have ignored the United States government’s denunciation of the video.
Peaceful protests had been approved by Pakistan’s government which declared Friday a national holiday, the Day of Love for the Prophet Muhammad, as part of an effort to either control, or politically capitalize on, rage against the inflammatory video, which depicts Muhammad, the founder of Islam, as a sexually perverted buffoon.
Friday’s violence began with the fatal shooting of a television station employee during a protest in the northwestern city of Peshawar, then was amplified through armed protests in the southern port city of Karachi that left 12 to 14 people dead, Pakistani news media reported.
By nightfall Geo, the leading television station, was reporting 19 deaths around the country.
Less violent protests occurred in other Muslim countries but were exacerbated by the publication of cartoonsdepicting Muhammad in a French satirical weekly.
In Bangladesh, several thousand Islamist activists took to the streets of the capital, Dhaka, waving banners and burning a symbolic coffin for President Obama that was covered with the American flag. “Death to the United States and death to French,” they chanted.
Local television networks reported that a mob had ransacked and burned an Anglican church in Mardan in northwestern Pakistan. A statement by Bishop Humphrey Peters of Peshawar said that newly installed computers were stolen before the church was set on fire. There were no reports that Christians had been killed or wounded.
France closed embassies and other institutions in 20 countries while, in Paris, some Muslim leaders urged their followers to heed a government ban on weekend demonstrations.
“There will be strictly no exceptions,” said Manuel Valls, the French interior minister. “Demonstrations will be banned and broken up.”
In Pakistan, the streets started erupting early in Peshawar, where protesters burned two movie theaters. Two people, including the television employee, Muhammad Amir, were killed.
Mr. Amir’s employer televised graphic footage of hospital staff members as they gave him emergency treatment shortly before he died, a broadcast that other Pakistani journalists condemned as insensitive and irresponsible.
Some protesters tried to reach the city’s heavily guarded American Consulate, which has a strong Central Intelligence Agency component. By evening, hospital officials said, at least five people were dead and more than 50 wounded.
After Friday Prayer, more severe violence erupted in Islamabad, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Multan and Karachi, where normally bustling streets were instead filled with clouds of tear gas and the sound of gunfire.
Protesters in Karachi burned effigies, stoned a KFC and engaged in armed clashes with the police that left 14 people dead and more than 80 wounded by evening.
“An attack on the holy prophet is an attack on the core belief of 1.5 billion Muslims,” rime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf said in an address at a religious conference Friday morning in Islamabad. “Therefore, this is something that is unacceptable.”
Mr. Ashraf called on the United Nations and the international community to formulate a law outlawing hate speech across the world. “Blasphemy of the kind witnessed in this case is nothing short of hate speech, equal to the worst kind of anti-Semitism or other kind of bigotry,” he said.
A senior American official in Kabul said his Afghan counterparts had worked hard to mute the impact of the video through the week. That was, in part, a product of their previous experience with what he called “a desecration or religious event.”
In Pakistan, however, extremist groups, many of them banned by the government, were at the forefront of the upheavals. Marchers in Karachi included members of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a banned Sunni sectarian group; Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen, which has fought Indian troops in Kashmir; and Tehrik-e-Ghalba Islami, a faction of another sectarian group.
In Islamabad, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan activists led a march toward the heavily guarded diplomatic enclave, where Western missions had closed for the day. They clashed for hours with police officers outside the five-star Serena Hotel, before eventually being pushed back.
In Lahore, activists from the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba, whose leader, Hafiz Saeed, is subject to a $10 million United States government bounty, led protesters toward the American Consulate, where perimeter defenses were breached earlier in the week.
The devastation caused by the protests belied their relatively small size. The largest street crowds were estimated to have 5,000 to 10,000 people, fewer than would typically attend a mainstream political rally, or even a high-profile funeral in some parts of the country.
Instead most Pakistanis drifted home after Friday Prayer, apparently keen to avoid the trouble. Still, many analysts questioned the government’s decision to give free rein to the marchers.
“Pakistan is a conservative but not a radicalized society,” said Cyril Almeida, a writer with the English-language newspaper Dawn. “But when the radical fringe is bold enough, it can hold society hostage. And that’s what happened today.”
The government tried to control the momentum of unrest by cutting off cellphone coverage in large cities for most of the day, and in Islamabad, it sealed all exits from the city after Friday Prayer.
That left most Pakistanis stuck at home, many relying on e-mail and social media sites, like Twitter, to voice their frustrations. “We are not a nation; we are a mob,” said Nadeem F. Paracha, a cultural commentator with Dawn, on Twitter.
Imran Khan, the cricket star turned conservative politician, addressed one of the Islamabad protest rallies, and used the occasion to condemn American drone strikes in the northwestern tribal belt. “There is no end to this war,” he said.
The State Department spent $70,000 on Urdu-language advertisements that were broadcast on several television channels, dissociating the United States government from the inflammatory video.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the American chargé d’affaires, Richard E. Hoagland, and requested that he have “Innocence of Muslims” removed from YouTube. YouTube had already been entirely blocked in Pakistan for several days.
In a statement, Mr. Hoagland said he had told Pakistani officials that the video represented “a deeply insensitive decision by a single individual to disseminate hatred” and did not reflect American values.
The protests largely abated by nightfall, allowing main roads in most cities to reopen, as hospitals continued to tend to the wounded. The government expressed some frustration at the day’s events.
“What kind of a love for the prophet is this where people are burning and looting?” said Qamar Zaman Kaira, the information minister, in a television interview, before berating the media for giving excessive coverage to the trouble.
“You should stop giving live coverage of protests,” he said testily to a news presenter.
But chaotic scenes in the streets outside suggested that if the government had aimed to harness public anger on the issue, it had failed.
In contrast, the day passed peacefully in neighboring Afghanistan, where officials had been preparing for the protests for days. Clerics at major mosques in the capital, Kabul, acceded to official requests that they preach peace, or another topic entirely. Police officers set up a cordon of checkpoints to search cars, and no street violence occurred.
Reporting was contributed by Alan Cowell from Paris; Julfikar Ali Manik from Dhaka, Bangladesh; Alissa J. Rubin from Kabul, Afghanistan; Salman Masood from Rawalpindi, Pakistan; Zia ur-Rehman from Karachi, Pakistan; and Waqar Gillani from Lahore, Pakistan.
In Pakistan, 20 killed on day of protest against incendiary video
Video: Pakistani police opened fire on rioters who were torching a cinema during a protest against an anti-Islam film. Security forces clashed with demonstrators in several other cities in Pakistan.
By Shaiq Hussain and Richard Leiby, Updated: Friday, September 21, 2:34 PM
In the northwestern city of Peshawar, rescue workers and other officials said six people were killed, including a policeman and member of a television crew, in rampages that also left about 60 people wounded. Television journalists on the scene said police opened fire with live rounds as mobs torched two movie houses.
In Karachi, officials and journalists at the scene said the marchers burned movie theaters, banks, American food franchises and police vehicles. Hard-line Islamist parties, including two banned factions, joined the protests.
But police and paramilitary troops blocked the crowds — 15,000 strong by some estimates — from reaching the U.S. Consulate.
Abdul Ghani, a Karachi shopkeeper, said the security forces opened fire on the protesters and turned the demonstration violent.
“We were completely peaceful and just wanted to register our protest in front of the U.S Consulate,” Ghani said. “That unwanted and uncalled action by the police got the mobs infuriated.”
In the eastern city of Lahore, officials said 12 riot police and four protesters were injured during pitched battles involving thousands of demonstrators. The crowd, however, could not breach the elaborate security cordon around Lahore’s U.S. Consulate, the final destination of about five major rallies in the city.
In the capital, Islamabad, and neighboring Rawalpindi, marchers skirmished with police throughout the day, blocking major highways and setting a tollbooth and vehicles on fire. Fourteen police officers were injured in the chaos, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said.
The Pakistani army was mobilized to protect the U.S. Embassy, presidential residence and parliament building.
The government had declared a national holiday for Friday, encouraging peaceful protests so that citizens could declare their love for the prophet Muhammad in the wake of the controversial video denigrating him, which has sparked demonstrations across the Muslim world.
Government critics correctly predicted that the move would backfire by giving official sanction to incitement by Islamist parties.
“This was a terrible idea,” said Mehreen Zahra-Malik, a columnist with The News, a national English-language daily. “It was time to calm people down and not give a stamp of approval to protesters, many of whom would just use it as an excuse for violence…. There was clearly going to be violence.”
Another commentator, Marvi Sirmed, said on Twitter: “It is sad, so very sad that we could never make a government realize that they don’t have to kneel before mullah,” a reference to Islamic clerics.