Mian Khursheed/Reuters
A Shi'ite Muslim supporter of the Imamia Students Organization shouts slogans as he scuffles with police while running towards the US embassy with others during an anti-American protest rally in Islamabad Friday.

Pakistan avoids inflaming anti-US protests

Strong anti-US protests have swept across more than a dozen countries in response to an inflammatory video, but Pakistan's response has been comparatively muted because of preemptive government action.

The Pakistani government and politicians across the political spectrum have condemned a controversial anti-Islam video that exploded into international awareness this week and sparked protests across Pakistan.

The National Assembly passed a resolution yesterday unanimously condemning the movie, made in the US, and the Foreign Office released a statement saying that the “government of Pakistan strongly condemns the airing of a defamatory video clip in the US, maligning the revered and pious personality of Prophet Muhammad.” Authorities also ordered the Pakistan Telecom Authority to block all Internet links to the video, although some links continued to function.

But while protests broke out, demonstrators stopped short of storming the US embassy in Islamabad and US consulates elsewhere in the country. The security establishment's interest in maintaining cordial ties with the US and early political condemnations played a key role in preventing protests from getting out of hand.

“Right-wing Islamist parties are known for their deep links to the security establishment. Up until recently, we were not even on talking terms with the US. That relationship has finally been restored. The security establishment has a lot of influence on street demonstrations, and they are not interested in rocking the boat,” says Muhammad Ziauddin, the executive editor of the Express Tribune newspaper.

Relations between the US and Pakistan have been rocky since early 2011, when American Raymond Davis, a covert CIA contractor working in the country under the guise of being embassy staff, killed two Pakistani motorcyclists.

That incident was followed by the US Navy Seal operation that killed Osama bin Laden just north of Islamabad, and a high-profile cross-border attack by ISAF forces in Afghanistan that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at a checkpoint. The cross-border attack resulted in closure of NATO supply routes for several months, prompting threats from US legislators that American aid to Pakistan would be frozen or cut.

The reopening of the routes and the reestablishment of dialogue has caused the security and policy establishment to be careful about whipping up anti-US sentiment.

Islamist parties could easily have whipped up more rage against the video, Mr. Ziauddin says. While condemnations from the political elite played some role, the security establishment's interest in stable relations with the US was probably much more important. One of the largest alliances of Islamist parties in Pakistan, Difa-e-Pakistan or the Defence of Pakistan Council – which includes 36 Islamist parties, many of them fronts for banned militant outfits – is often seen as having deep links to Pakistan's shadowy intelligence.

According to Ziauddin, the council is believed to be “trained, armed and fed” by Pakistan's security establishment, who want to oppose further conciliatory moves towards the US or India. Difa-e-Pakistan did not organize any protests in Pakistan as a response to the anti-Islam film.

According to Foreign Office spokesman, Moazzam Khan, Pakistani authorities do not plan to take any more action with regards to the anti-Islam video, despite calls by some Islamist parties to order the US ambassador to leave the country. The Foreign Office said in a statement that it sees the movie as deliberately inciting conflict between the US and Pakistan.

“Such abominable actions, synchronised with commemoration of atrocious events like 9/11, provoke hatred, discord and enmity within societies and between peoples of various faiths," the statement read.

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