Pakistan Hopes Army Can End Protests

The Pakistani government mobilized military forces in response to growing violence among protesters blocking the Faizabad Interchange.  Reports confirm two dead and at least 250 injured in demonstrations that began in early November.  Protesters are calling for Law and Justice Minister Zahid Hamid to step down from his position for what they consider to be blasphemy.  Hamid has since apologized, but Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, the Islamist movement mobilizing the protests, has not indicated that they are satisfied.

The Faizabad Interchange, a connection between Islamabad and Rawalpindi, has been blocked by protesters since the 6th of November.  The protests started after amendments of several parliamentary bills weakened rules that required lawmakers to reference the Prophet Muhammad when taking oaths.  Many believed this to be blasphemy. After calling the amendments “clerical mistakes”, the government seemed reluctant to take any action against the protesters.  At least one plan to disperse the protesters was abandoned and the officers that were stationed at the Interchange were unable to arrest any leaders of the protest.  Another attempt by law enforcement resulted in 100 arrests, but 112 protesters and law enforcement officers are now being treated for various injuries.  When it became clear that the movement was growing, the government shut down all live news channels and social media sites that were covering the story.

Military representatives made it clear that they were disappointed in the government’s lack of preparation.  A letter written by military officials said, “As you are aware that employment of army implies application of a force which is traditionally not just used for dispersal of crowd/ protesters but to quell commotion.  Its employment needs to be clarified.”  The military has taken key positions around the interchange.  There has yet to be any direct contact between the military and the remaining protesters, but it is impossible to tell if that will last.

Violence resulting from differing opinions on religion in Pakistan is not without precedent.  Mumtaz Qadri shot and killed Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011.  His alleged reason for doing so was Taseer’s stance against the blasphemy law, which makes insulting Islam a capital offense.  Qadri’s followers formed the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan movement.  After his execution last fall, supporters participated in street demonstrations that presented Qadri as a martyr who died for the Prophet Muhammad and his cause.  Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan has since been enjoying increased religious and political support.

While the protests led by Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan put many in danger, the government’s response was much too slow.  In both 2011 and 2017, it is obvious that there was a lack of communication between the government and its citizens.  It did not help that the government shut down news outlets, thereby leaving many without any information on the dangers in the streets.  An open dialogue should be the first step in the future.  Only then can compromise on blasphemy laws be reached.