Insight and foresight from the global frontlines

Sweeping Pakistan: Wave of violent protests fueled by anti-Islam film

A third Pakistani was killed on Friday in the northwest city of Peshawar as violent crowds filled the streets of several cities on a day of government-sanctioned protests against an anti-Islam film.

Mian Khursheed/Reuters
Protesters shout slogans as they march towards the US embassy during an anti-America rally to mark the 'Day of Love' in Islamabad, Pakistan, September 21. Pakistan has declared Friday a 'Day of Love for the Prophet Muhammad.'

With anger still simmering over the anti-Islam YouTube video from the film "Innocence of Muslims," and stoked by cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that ran in a French magazine this week, authorities worldwide braced for another day of protests.

Pakistan was particularly on alert, unsure what the result of declaring a national holiday to honor the prophet would be.

Governments worldwide took steps to mitigate the fallout of expected protests: Tunisian authorities used their emergency powers to ban all demonstrations today, the German Interior Ministry postponed the launch of a government-sponsored anti-radical Islam campaign, and France closed embassies and other French institutions in at least 20 other countries for the day, according to The New York Times. The US closed diplomatic missions in Indonesia because of demonstrations Friday, though no violence had been reported according to the Associated Press and CNN

Haaretz reports that Egypt's grand mufti, the country's highest Islamic legal authority, appealed to Egyptians to "follow [the prophet's] example of enduring insults without retaliating." The top leader of France's Muslim community also called on French Muslims to forgo protesting the cartoons published in the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, warning that a protest, even a peaceful one, could be "hijacked." 

Meanwhile, France banned any protests over the cartoons today, Reuters reports.

In Pakistan, authorities shut down cellphone service coverage in several major cities, blocked road access to US diplomatic posts, and closed down gas stations and exits from Islamabad after Friday prayers, according to The New York Times, Bloomberg, and The Washington Post. The foreign ministry summoned US Embassy Chargé d’Affaires Richard Hoagland today to demand that the US government remove the video from YouTube.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar defended the government's decision to proclaim the national holiday, deemed a "day of Love for the prophet," saying that making it official would encourage peaceful protest, Associated Press reports. "We are very confident this will lessen the violence," she said, although she acknowledged, "There will always be elements that will try to take advantage of these things." Indeed, at least three people have been killed following the protests there. 

The Washington Post reports two movie theaters were burned down in Peshawar, close the the Afghan border and a tollbooth and cars were torched near Islamabad and Rawalpindi as thousands turned out to protest across the country. 

The AP reports that the US is spending $70,000 to air a television ad in Pakistan that features both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton denouncing the video in a bid to tamp down the anger still boiling more than a week after the initial protests.

The State Department said Thursday the embassy had compiled brief clips of Obama and Clinton rejecting the contents of the movie and extolling American tolerance for all religions into a 30-second public service announcement that is running on seven Pakistani networks. Obama and Clinton's comments, which are from previous public events in Washington, are in English but subtitled in Urdu, the main Pakistani language.

Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the aim was to get the messages to the widest possible audience in Pakistan, where tens of thousands of protestors angry about the film tried to reach the U.S. embassy before being turned back by Pakistani police. She said embassy staffers had decided the ads were the best way to spread the word. The seven networks have a potential audience of 90 million people, she added.

Ms. Nuland said it was common practice for the US to buy ad time in Pakistan. The US Embassy in Islamabad also distributed an e-mail with a link to a video showing ordinary Americans denouncing the video.

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