When people began pouring out onto the streets in Pakistan to protest on Friday, there was little chance that the government would take any action against them. After all, it was a declared public holiday to mark love for Prophet Mohammad, and religious and political groups had taken the government's move as a sign that the protests were sanctioned by the state.
Pakistan has been engulfed with protests against the controversial film the Innocence of Muslims. Over the course of a week, members of a religious grouphave broken through police cordons to amass outside the U.S. Consulate in Karachi and protestors attacked the enclave reserved for diplomatic missions in the capital city of Islamabad. In Hyderabad, the second largest city in the Sindh province, a businessman was accused of blasphemy for not participating in the protests.
Friday was a free-for-all in Pakistan. Television channels broadcast footage of riots from nearly every major city. Protestors burned down cinemas in Karachi and Peshawar, as well as a church in Mardan, and attacked banks, police vehicles, buildings and even a public hospital.
In Karachi, hundreds of members of groups as diverse as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a mainstream political party, to the banned Jaish-e-Mohammad and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan dominated the streets. Dozens of effigies of U.S. President Barack Obama were burned along with American flags, and protestors chanted against the U.S., Israel and the filmmaker behind Innocence of Muslims. Police were deployed at several key locations, but did not act to stop the protestors. In any case, they were largely outnumbered: about a half-dozen police officers are no match for hundreds of angry rioters.
The issue in Pakistan is not just of one day, or one week, of protests. The problem is institutional. The outrage at issues like an allegedly blasphemous film or cartoons has a legal basis, which stems from controversial laws that make blasphemy punishable by death, and excommunicate an entire sect. Government officials not only support the law, but the Interior Minister Rehman Malik once declared that he would kill a blasphemer himself. In a speech on Friday, Pakistan's Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf questioned why those denying the Holocaust were punished while there was no consideration for the feelings of Muslims.
The government has supported the outrage ensuing from the film, not just by declaring a holiday, but also by summoning the current U.S. Charge d'Affaires in Pakistan to protest the film, blocking YouTube and reportedly approaching Interpol. These measures do little to control violence. More importantly, the government has failed to act against banned organizations that operate openly and protest without anyone batting an eyelid.
Acting against the protestors -- as the Karachi police did when members of a Shiite group protested outside the U.S. Consulate -- is construed in Pakistan as the state attacking civilians for the sake of protecting ‘foreign governments.'
The outrage is also politicized, though not entirely. Many of the groups protesting are used by political parties for support during election campaigns. The Difa-e-Pakistan Council, a coalition of over 40 religious organizations that also protested on Friday, seeks to become a pressure group to raise issues of religious ‘honor' and issues related to foreign policy, and will likely support many of the candidates from coalition parties in the upcoming elections.
However, many protestors in Karachi said that they were not linked with political parties or religious groups, but had taken to the streets because they genuinely felt angry over the film. In a country where religious honor is tied in with nationalism, it is not surprising that many felt the need to protest. The protestors were from a wide spectrum, ranging from office workers to students to clerics. And for many of them, it was an opportunity to vent: President Asif Ali Zardari was condemned as vociferously as President Obama was.
The protests will likely die down in a few days, if not earlier. The pattern of these protests has been fairly consistent over the years, and the issue will be abandoned in favor of something else.
But the question of what the government can do to stop the protests may now be too late. The rot in Pakistan has been many decades in the making. Sectarian conflict has been stoked by successive rulers, including military dictators, religious outrage has received state approval by governments and political parties, and those responsible for massacres of various religious sects continue to fundraise to kill more. The military backs anti-U.S. sentiment, as evidenced during the debate in Pakistan over the Kerry-Lugar bill, or the outrage over the May 2 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. What is undoubtedly worse, though, is that there is no attempt to reverse any of the damage that has been done over the decades. Instead, the current government - and successive ones - will likely play a game of appeasement with religious groups in the hope that they will one day back them. That bet, as history has proven, will not pay off.
Saba Imtiaz works as a reporter for The Express Tribune in Karachi, Pakistan. She can be reached at email@example.com.