Storm after the lull

Published : Oct 19, 2012 00:00 IST

The right-wingers finally got the show of violence they wanted in a country that started out with a restrained reaction. And because it was a matter of faith, the state remained on the back foot.

in Islamabad

When news first broke of the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims triggering protests in Egypt and Libya on September 12, many feared the reaction in Pakistan. Predictably, several Western diplomatic missions and organisations cautioned their expatriate staff and declared a holiday the following Friday in anticipation of trouble.

Belying all the doomsday predictions, Pakistan presented a picture in contrast for four days, including the Friday, even as protests spread through the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It was not as if protests were not held in Pakistan or that the film did not find mention in the mainstream narrative, be it on the various television shows or in the khutba (sermons) at the Friday juma prayers. However, the news programmes on television, usually quick to whip up the persecution complex, were subdued in their coverage. Not too much space was given to the protests in MENA and the talk show hosts who dwelt on the subject also sought to keep tempers low. On the social mediaa major platform for discourse in Pakistan given that public spaces are not particularly conducive to free expression, especially of the liberal, secular kindpeople observed that the best response to the film would be to ignore it.

Meanwhile, other institutions of the state also tried to sync their actions to keep matters in check. The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) asked all service providers to immediately block access to the video available online via YouTube. Knowing full well the tinderbox potential of the film in Pakistan, with its numerous jehadi outfits, radicalisation of society and proliferation of small arms, not many protested against the PTA move though earlier such directives had been widely criticised.

The government sought to seize the initiative by getting the Foreign Office to condemn the film the day violence broke out in Egypt and Libya and following this up with a resolution in the National Assembly to the same effect with across-the-floor support.

Protests were held across the country, but not a single incidence of violence was reported from anywhere until the evening of September 16, the fifth day since an Egyptian television channel aired a clip of the film in Arabic. On a day when several protests had been heldagain peacefully in both Lahore and Karachi by organisations such as the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD)a smaller demonstration by another group, the Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM), turned violent when the police stopped its members from proceeding towards the United States consulate in Pakistans commercial capital.

What ensued was a pitched battle between the police and the protesters, which ended in the death of one MWM activist. The following day, another person was killed in a similar clash up north in Upper Dir near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Still, the protests were nowhere as violent as predicted. But, the first death did generate a rather telling Twitter quip: Jealous of the carnage in Cairo, Tunis & Sana, Pakistans radical right wing has finally managed to get someone killed over the film. Shame.

With the PTA directive failing to block the film from cropping up on YouTube, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf stepped in and ordered a blanket ban on the website as the protests gathered momentum. The issue continued to simmer and many religious organisations called for protests the following Friday. Political parties, with an eye on the elections that are just round the corner, followed suit. With the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) grappling with the popular perception of its being too pro-American, and with its secular moorings more of a baggage than an asset, the federal government plunged right into the thick of it by calling for a national day of protest on September 21, a day officially designated as Yom-e-Ishq-e-Rasool (Day of Love for the Prophet).

The PPP leadership took great pride in claiming that Pakistan was the only Islamic country where the federal government had taken such a strong stance on the film, leading the protests from the front, so to speak. Only, when the day arrived, none in the PPP leadershipor for that matter none of the leaders of any of the political and religious organisations that had called for protestswas to be seen among the crowds that took to the streets, leaving the field wide open to all and sundry to do as they pleased.

The federal governments declaration of a day of protest appeared to manynot just among the mob but those who had greeted the decision with well-founded and later vindicated premonitions of what it would lead toas a licence to go on the rampage. Sure enough, the mobs did not disappoint. A taste of what was in store was provided in the fortified capital itself within 24 hours of the Cabinets decision when school students converged near the Diplomatic Enclave a day ahead of the designated day of protests.

As it was being tear-gassed and lathi-charged, the mob kept swelling, with people pouring into the capital from the neighbouring districts of Rawalpindi and Murree. How they managed to enter Islamabad in buses remains a mystery since all entry points to the city are usually heavily barricaded. For four hours, they held the area hostage, and it was only when the federal government called in the Army to protect the Diplomatic Enclave that the mob dispersed.

This was to be only a trailer, with the national day of protest turning into a day of loot and arson. As many as eight cinema halls were torched across the countryfive in Karachi aloneand several banks and petrol pumps looted. According to the veteran journalist Najam Sethi, 70 per cent of the mob was made up of supporters of religious organisations and children from various madrassas while 30 per cent comprised miscreants. In the name of religion, a myriad of frustrations were let loose, and because it was a matter of faith, the state remained on the back foot.

While protests were reported from all parts of the country including remote Gilgit-Baltistan, the violence centred around the cities that housed U.S. diplomatic missions: Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar. The mobs had a specific target to direct their anger at and whatever came their way was destroyed. Twenty-two people were dead in a day.

The most worrisome sights were that of small boys, as young as 10 or maybe even younger, indulging in mindless violence. A particularly nerve-chilling photograph doing the rounds was of a young boy, with a schoolbag slung over his back, breaking the windscreen of a car inside which an entire family was sitting.

As day turned to dusk, religious leaders began appearing on television programmes to appeal for calm and assert that the violence was not their doing. But the damage had been done, in more ways than one. According to some die-hard optimists, there was a silver lining to all this: the religious right-wingers had been put on the defensive. Maybe so, because they have been trying since then to distance themselves from the mayhem on the streets, blaming outsiders, as always, for what happened.

Under the aegis of the JuD, leading religious right-wing organisations gathered in the capital four days after the national day of protest to keep the issue alive. On board were most of the faces that were part of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council, formed late last year to press for a complete closure of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) supply lines running through the country into Afghanistan. Sure enough, they resurrected that demand to protest against what they called the repeated insulting of the Prophet by the Western world. JuD chief Hafiz Saeed said the U.S., by refusing to ban the film on the pretext of the First Amendment, had unleashed a clash of civilisations between the Zionist/Christian world and the Islamic Ummah.

The rhetoric apart, the meeting itself amplified a curious turn of events since the previous week when all political parties were trying to jump onto the bandwagon of protests. Exactly a week later, not one of them sent a representative to this meeting though Saeed time and again said that all, including the Prime Minister, had been invited.

In fact, the confusion among politicians was best exemplified by Railway Minister Ghulam Ahmed Bilour announcing a $100,000 bounty for anyone who killed the film-maker and enlisting the Talibans support in this endeavour. Bilour owes his allegiance to the Awami National Partya legacy of Frontier Gandhi Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khanwhich is a sworn enemy of the Taliban. And, Bilour, who lost his cinema hall to vandalism on that fateful Friday, also condemned the burning down of a church in Mardan by a mob as part of the protests.

Face to face with reality

What impact this entire episode has on Pakistans polity is anyones guess but the violence did force the average Pakistaniwho still maintains that the society is not as radicalised as is made out by secular/liberal/Western analyststo come face to face with reality.

Be that as it may, there is also a sizable section within the rational voice in Pakistan which maintains that the West will have to take steps to stop such provocations that alienate.

In an increasingly connected world, the wired-in religious right-wingers are quick to pick up and magnify what they see as different yardsticks being used in the West to slights on different religions. Be it the French governments decision to ban protests against a magazine that had lampooned the Prophet, a court allowing anti-jehad advertisements on the New York subway, or the Advertising Standards Authority of the United Kingdom disallowing an ice cream advertisement showing a pregnant nun, all of them fit snugly into the persecution complex that is being drummed up by the jehadi outfits, providing them the fodder to survive and grow while sucking up whatever little space there is for reason.

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