Tens of thousands of Pakistanis are expected to protest Friday as global Muslim anger mounts over a US-made anti-Islam film and cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a French magazine.
Huge crowds attempted to storm Islamabad’s diplomatic enclave Thursday, and similar demonstrations took place around the world, with crowds from Nigeria to Iran and Afghanistan chanting: “Death to France” and “Death to America”.
Western missions across the Islamic world are on high alert ahead of Friday prayers, which are often followed by protests.
The Pakistani government has called an impromptu public holiday on Friday — a “day of love for the prophet” — and has urged people to protest peacefully to show their opposition to the crudely made “Innocence of Muslims” film.
All of Pakistan’s major political parties and religious groups have announced protests, as have many trade and transport organisations.
Shops, markets and petrol stations will close and transport is likely to come to a standstill, but authorities will hope there is no repeat of the violence seen on the streets of the capital on Thursday.
Around 5,000 angry protesters, many armed with wooden clubs, battled police near Islamabad’s heavily guarded diplomatic enclave, demanding access to the US embassy, as police used tear gas and live rounds to disperse the crowd.
There have been dozens of protests against the film across Pakistan in the past week, and two people have died, but Thursday was the first time violence erupted in the capital.
Dozens of officers were wounded and a police post burnt to the ground before army troops were eventually called in to disperse the protesters, who had breached a wall of shipping containers designed to hold them back.
The film has triggered protests in at least 20 countries since excerpts were posted online, and more than 30 people have been killed in related violence.
The US State Department on Thursday warned its citizens to avoid travel to Pakistan, and Washington paid to air adverts on Pakistani television in a bid to disassociate the US government from the inflammatory film.
US interests bore the brunt of the first wave of protests against the amateurish film, which depicts Mohammed as a thuggish sexual deviant.
But this week France also found itself in the firing line after the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo printed a batch of cartoons caricaturing the founder of Islam, including two showing him naked.
French authorities banned a demonstration planned for Saturday in front of Paris’s Grand Mosque, and will close diplomatic missions, cultural centres and French schools in around 20 Muslim countries on Friday.
The French interior ministry has said it will deny all requests for permits to protest against the film after a demonstration last weekend near the US embassy in Paris turned violent.
Leaders of France’s Muslim community — the largest in Western Europe — said an appeal for calm would be read in mosques across the country on Friday but also condemned Charlie Hebdo for publishing “insulting” images.
The magazine’s editor, Stephane Charbonnier, mocked those angered by the cartoons as “ridiculous clowns” and accused the government of pandering to them by criticising the magazine for being provocative.
The United States is still investigating a deadly attack on one of its consulates in Libya after the row first erupted that left four US officials dead, including the ambassador.
The White House confirmed that FBI investigators suspected that Al-Qaeda may have been linked to the September 11 attack on the Benghazi compound.
However, it is not yet clear whether the attack by armed militants sprang out of the protest movement against the privately produced film or whether it was a pre-planned assault by an organised Islamist faction.
US President Barack Obama’s spokesman called the killings a “terrorist attack” and said officials were probing reports that the militants could have links to Al-Qaeda or its North African offshoot.
Separately, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that a senior panel would be appointed to review security in the wake of the killings. She was also to brief lawmakers on the investigation into the attack.