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Pakistani riots about more than cartoons

Violent protests may have been influenced by poverty as much as religious fervor.

By David MonteroCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 17, 2006



ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN

As elsewhere in the Muslim world, Pakistan has seen an upswing in violence following the publication in Danish and other newspapers of caricatures of the prophet Muhammad.

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Local TV has been awash with images of young men rampaging through the streets, hurling stones, and carrying sticks. Some youths simply seemed swept up in organic chaos, smiling and waving before cameras. Others destroyed hundreds of cars and trashed banks and restaurants like Pizza Hut and KFC in Lahore. A bank guard opened fire, killing two young men, and a third bystander was killed during clashes between students and police. In Peshawar, an 8-year-old boy was killed after being accidentally shot by a protester firing into a crowd. One man was killed by downed power lines.

Over the past week, Islam and religious fervor have been fingered as the source of the spreading violence. But to some analysts, the erratic nature of the demonstrations points to different root causes.

The flash conflagrations, they argue, highlight a profound discontent in Paki-stan over economic and social inequality that has deepened over the past five years, sparking alienation and resentment.

While the attacks on Western restaurants, cars, and banks have been read as an attack on the West, those targets are potent symbols simply of privilege and status that is beyond the reach of much of Pakistan's population.

"In Western society, only the common man eats at KFC. But in Pakistan, these are eateries of the most privileged," says Rasul Bakhsh Rai, a professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Muhammed Sarfarz Naimi, a religious party leader, began Valentine's Day shouting down the Danish cartoons as blasphemous. By the afternoon, however, his faith compelled him to shout different protests, as throngs of young people in Lahore destroyed private businesses and government buildings, part of a swell of some 15,000 protestors who rampaged through the cultural capital in some of the worst violence the city has seen in recent years.

For Dr. Naimi, condemning the desecration of the prophet Muhammad and the desecration of life and livelihood are both parts of his calling.

"We demand that the government of Denmark apologize. Until they apologize, the protests will continue," he said by telephone, but added about the violent protesters, "On that day we stopped them. We shouted, 'Don't destroy others' livelihood, don't destroy others' wealth, others' shops.' This is prohibited by Islam."

Naimi is one of several religious leaders playing a dual role these past few days, condemning in equal measure the offensive depictions of the prophet and the wanton violence perpetrated in several Pakistani cities.

"Violence is antireligion. To be harmful in this respect is against religion," says Syed Munawar Hasan, secretary general of Jamaat Islami Pakistan in Lahore.

While some of the agitation was in fact directed toward the cartoons, religious leaders and secular analysts agree that the ensuing violence has little to do with religious offenses committed far away, and more to do with grievances at home.

"There was no religious component to the violence," says Kamila Hyat, joint director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, based in Lahore. "All the violence was influenced by small groups of boys who were not moved by the blasphemy issue."

Others express doubt that those participating in the destruction were even aware of the blasphemy issue. Instead, they say, many participants took the opportunity to express an otherwise stifled but roiling sense of frustration.

"The whole thing was initiated because of the cartoons," says Nauman Wazir, president of the Industrialists' Association of Peshawar. "Then it was hijacked by some elements - schoolboys, people sitting idle - who also wanted to be a part of it. They have forgotten what the cause is."

But youthful discontent alone cannot be blamed, religious leaders and other analysts are quick to point out. Both on and off the record, many say the involvement of state intelligence agencies in fomenting the violence cannot be discounted. The current administration, some argue, is trying to spread panic about religious extremists in a bid to hold on to power.

"Maybe [President Pervez] Musharraf is trying to create a situation where he says to [US President George] Bush, 'Look, I'm sitting on dynamite with these mullahs and I'm the only one who can contain them,' " says Zarafullah Khan, director of the Center for Civic Education in Islamabad.

There is no proof of such activity, but observers say a weak police response is suggestive of state approval. The police in Lahore have been widely criticized for their failure to quell the violence, with many saying police did little to intervene. Mian Ameer Mahmood, the district nazim of Lahore, roughly equivalent to a mayor, denied the accusations: "I am on the record that police were not present at the time when people were burning buildings."

Such a tepid response contrasts sharply with last month's controversial marathon in Lahore, observers say, where thousands of police were deployed to prevent disruptions. It also contrasts with reports of armed troops stationed on rooftops and roadsides of Karachi Thursday, where 50,000 demonstrators rallied peacefully against the cartoons.

Further protests are expected to mount in coming days, culminating in a nationwide protest on March 3 to coincide with the arrival of President Bush. Leaders of Jamaat Islami hope the demonstrations will be peaceful, although they cannot account for how some outside their party will act. "Ensure we cannot. We don't have the police and army with us," says Mr. Hasan. "Even then, our experience tells us that we've always been successful in organizing peacefully."

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