Religious groups rally across Pakistan over anti-Islam film

Demonstrators in cities across Pakistan took to the streets to call for punishment against the makers of a film that insulted Islam.

Fareed Khan/AP
Supporters of the Pakistani religious party Jamaat-e-Islami cahnt slogans during a demonstation, in Karachi, Pakistan on Friday, as part of widespread anger across the Muslim world about a film ridiculing Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

Protests over a film insulting the prophet Muhammad erupted across Pakistan Friday, with participants demanding the government cut off ties with the United States and expel the American ambassador.

Protestors belonging to several religious parties gathered across the city, while members of Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the main religious parties in Pakistan, took to the streets in Karachi, Lahore, and Peshawar. The head of the party, Syed Munawar Hasan, called for cutting off ties with the United States.

“The global Muslim community has been deeply hurt by this film and we are coming out on the streets to register our protests. No one can tolerate insults against Islam and the prophet. It is not acceptable,” says Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, chairman of the Pakistan Ulema Council, an umbrella group of Muslim clerics and scholars based in Islamabad. “But we have advised the public to remain calm, since violence cannot bring any results,” he adds.

Globally, protesters have already attacked several different Western embassies in the Middle East and Africa, and the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed during an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on Wednesday.

According to Mr. Ashrafi, he and the protestors are targeting the US because the American government has not acted against the filmmaker. “By not arresting the filmmaker, it shows the US government is in collusion with him and that is why the protests are anti-American,” he adds.

Trouble for the Pakistani government

Analysts in Pakistan believe that protests over the film could grow. “Two things are happening in Pakistan with regards to this film. One, the religious parties are using this as an issue, which is normally what they do. Secondly, what is more of a concern is the law-and-order situation, which can put the Pakistani government on spot,” says Fahd Husain, a noted columnist and a popular political TV show host.

“It has happened in the past that we saw things going out of control, and therefore keeping the public calm can be a great internal security challenge,” adds Mr. Husain, referring to violent protests that have erupted in Pakistan in the past, include those in 2005 over Danish cartoons which depicted the prophet Muhammad.

Pakistan’s Foreign Office and its parliament have already condemned the film, and the country's telecom authority has blocked the Internet access to the video. But observers say the government needs to do more this time.

“The film is a clear mischief and it is feeding into the frenzy in Pakistan. The government needs to demand the US to take some action against the filmmaker, because it will otherwise create a lot of unrest in Pakistan,” Husain adds.

Protests, clashes in the capital

Elsewhere in Islamabad, a few hundred protestors called for action against the Americans and expelling them from Pakistan. “We will not stop protesting until the Pakistani government cuts off ties with the American government,” says Asif Khursheed of Jamat-ud-Dawa, the group alleged to be behind the 2008 Mumbai terror attack that left over 150 people dead. Jamat-ud-Dawa also gathered in other Pakistani cities, holding banners that read “Jihad [Holy War] – the only solution against America.”

One religious group known as Majlis Wahadat-e-Islami gathered some 100 men and attempted to march on Islamabad's diplomatic enclave, the compound where most foreign embassies, including the American embassy, are located. Although the protesters tore down barriers erected by police, heavy police contingents equipped with riot gear eventually stopped them short of the enclave, where they chanted anti-government, anti-US, and anti-Israeli slogans and burned US flags. Pakistani soldiers were also seen patrolling the area around the enclave.

The protests across the country today did not seem to be a coordinated effort by the religious parties, but the Pakistan Ulema Council's Ashrafi says a joint protest by all religious parties in the country has been called for Sunday in Lahore. “We will continue our protest till action is taken against the film maker,” he adds.

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