With the government declaring Friday as a national day of protest against the anti-Islam film `Innocence of Muslims’, protests turned into large scale arson across major cities of Pakistan; resulting in the death of at least 15 people and considerable loss to both public and private property.
The dead included the driver of a television channel covering a mob attempt to torch a cinema hall in Peshawar. The brunt of the violence was felt by the movie theatres with eight such structures being set afire across the country; five in Karachi, two in Peshawar and one in Quetta. Besides, banks were looted and petrol pumps torched. A church in Mardan district of Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa was also razed.
The Government tried in vain to cool down matters with Prime Minister Raja Parvez Ashraf empathizing with the angst felt by the people and urging them to keep the protests peaceful. ``This is not about freedom of expression, this is more about hatred, and it also demonstrates blatant double-standards. If denying the Holocaust is a crime, then is it not fair and legitimate for Muslims to demand that denigrating and demeaning Islam's holiest personality is no less a crime,’’ he asked while addressing a conference on the issue at his residence in the morning.
The Government’s call for protest – albeit peacefully – and assertion that any attempt to slight the Prophet was unacceptable translated into a free-for-all on the streets. The strategy drew considerable criticism with some maintaining that the Government had courted trouble by declaring a national day of protest.
The day also saw the Foreign Ministry summoning the U.S. Chargé D'Affaires Richard Hoagland to lodge a strong protest over the blasphemous video, demand its immediate removal from the Internet and action against the film-maker. Mr. Hoagland, for his part, described the video as disgusting and said it was an act of one aberrant individual; adding that it had been condemned at the highest level by the U.S. administration.
Given the fear of violence and also being accused of blasphemy in case they went about their work, shopkeepers kept their shutters down and petrol bunks remained closed for the day. People preferred to stay indoors and most cities wore a curfew-like look in the morning but this uneasy calm broke down after the `juma’ prayers with mobs taking to the streets in large numbers; destroying whatever came their way. Even trees were not spared in some places as mobs sought to start fires with anything they could grab.
In Islamabad, where the Diplomatic Enclave was besieged on Thursday, several attempts were made to storm the usually barricaded Red Zone where most of the major diplomatic missions are located. The heavy presence of Army personnel however put paid to these efforts but in Lahore the U.S. consulate at one point appeared to be at risk of being breached.
Though a French magazine had lampooned the Prophet in the week since the film triggered a wave of protests among Muslims, the anger in Pakistan was essentially directed against the U.S. as it fed into the anti-Americanism already rampant here.