Pakistan: Thousands-Strong Anti-France Rally Goes 24 Hours

Activists and supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a religious party, shout slogns beside empty tear gas shells fired by police during an anti-France demonstration in Islamabad on November 16, 2020. (Photo by Aamir QURESHI / AFP) (Photo by AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images)
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images

Thousands of supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), an Islamist group in Pakistan, staged a sit-in and march from neighboring Rawalpindi to the capital that spanned overnight and into the morning hours of Monday, demanding justice against French President Emmanuel Macron.

Radical Islamists around the world have organized protests, mobs, and effigy burnings and beheadings of Macron in response to the French president honoring a schoolteacher beheaded in a Paris suburb last month. Samuel Paty had shown his students images of cartoons of Muhammad, a religious figure Muslims consider a prophet, published in the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Radical Muslims staged a massacre in response to the images at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in 2015.

A teen Chechen immigrant beheaded Paty on October 16 after a grassroots campaign to punish the teacher emerged at a mosque attended by parents of the children in his class. Paty had warned the class in advance that he would show the images and allowed Muslim students not to attend if they felt they would be offended.

Macron shut down a related mosque and has launched a campaign to ban Muslim organizations that support or engage in violence. He also organized a memorial service for Paty in which he posthumously granted the teacher the Legion of Honor, France’s highest civilian award.

Pakistan has experienced multiple public events demanding a boycott of French products and the expulsion of the French ambassador to Islamabad in response to honoring Paty. Prime Minister Imran Khan had called for the international criminalization of blasphemy even before the firestorm set off in France and has since referred to governments allowing individuals to express themselves in ways that displease Muslims as “intolerable.”

In this climate, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the Islamic cleric in charge of TLP, organized a rally, march, and sit-in in Rawalpindi against France on Sunday. An estimated 5,000 people attended the initial rally, prompting over 100 arrests on Sunday. Government officials reportedly attempted to convince Rizvi not to organize the event citing the threat of spreading the Chinese coronavirus, but failed. Authorities reportedly arrested at least 150 people tied to the TLP in an attempt to discourage the rally but this also did not lead to canceling it.

A smaller number than those attending the initial rally, but still believed to be hundreds, attempted to march into Islamabad, walking from one “twin city” to another overnight. Pakistani police established roadblocks to keep the mob from sensitive areas of the city on Monday, particularly locations near the French embassy. Police also reportedly shut down internet and mobile service, shutting down schools and businesses in the capital. Other offices either shut down or worked remotely as police closed major roads to keep the Islamists out.

Police reportedly shut down 24 entry points into Rawalpindi and 16 into Islamabad, most with large shipping containers.

The Pakistani Express Tribune reported that, on the Islamabad city limits, TLP supporters began attempting to stone police, prompting the use of tear gas to prevent the violence from escalating and to keep them out of the Faizabad neighborhood of the city. There, the mob performed a sit-in to protest not being allowed in. Dawn added that dozens were reportedly injured in Rawalpindi in other stoning incidents and some attacks on police using sticks.

In Islamabad, Dawn described police action as “unprecedented.”

“Over 3,100 law enforcement personnel, including 575 Rangers and 250 Frontier Constabulary personnel, were deployed. Police had brought 14 prison vans, five water cannons and six armoured personnel carriers for the security of key government installations and maintaining law and order,” the newspaper noted.

Pakistan’s Ministry of Religious Affairs announced midday Monday that it had succeeded in ending the sit-in, but that it still “expected that participants in the rally could go violent and proceed towards French embassy by breaking their promises with the district administration.” Khan himself called for an end to the rally — and all political rallies — on Monday not because he disagreed with the mob, but because he feared it would be a super-spreader event.

“We have canceled our Saturday’s rally and we have decided that any activity which does not affect the livelihood of people should be stopped immediately,” the prime minister said on Monday, referring to a rally by his political party.

“The whole world is going through a second wave of coronavirus. The U.S., Britain, and other European countries have again imposed a lockdown,” Khan explained, asking citizens to distance socially and wear sanitary masks.

Khan’s lack of condemnation for the intent of the TLP rally reflects his support of laws against blasphemy. Pakistan’s penal code criminalizes blasphemy against Islam, allowing courts to sentence individuals to death if they desecrate the Quran or speak ill of Muhammad personally. Other blasphemies against Islam suffer milder consequences.

“Blasphemy in the garb of freedom of expression is intolerable,” Khan said in early November, during a meeting with Bosnian leader Sefik Dzaferovic.

“Both of us condemned the terrorist acts by Muslims in France, like all other countries would condemn them. But at the same time, we felt that for inter-religious harmony, it is important that the freedom of expression is not used as an instrument to hurt the feelings of any religious community,” Khan said.

Last month, Khan accused Macron of causing terrorism by asserting during the ceremony honoring Paty, “we will never give up cartoons.”

“Sadly, President Macron has chosen to deliberately provoke Muslims, including his own citizens, and encouraged the display of blasphemous cartoons targeting Islam and our Prophet [Muhammad],” Khan lamented.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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