Violence Breaks Out in Pakistan as Public Holiday Begins
By DECLAN WALSH
Published: September 21, 2012
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A television station employee was shot dead on Friday in the northwestern city of Peshawar as violent crowds filled the streets of several cities on a day of government-sanctioned protests against an anti-Islam film made in the United States.
The unrest came as governments and Western institutions in many parts of the Muslim world braced for protests after Friday prayer — an occasion often associated with demonstrations as worshipers leave mosques. In Tunisia, the authorities invoked emergency powers to outlaw all demonstrations, fearing an outpouring of anti-Western protest inspired both by the American-made film and by cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a French satirical weekly.
American diplomatic posts in India, Indonesia and elsewhere closed for the day, news reports said, while thousands of Islamists gathered in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, to chant slogans against the United States and France, burning the flags of both countries and an effigy of President Obama, Reuters said.
European countries took steps to forestall protests among their own Muslim minorities and against their missions abroad. France had already announced the closure on Friday of embassies and other institutions in 20 countries while, in Paris, some Muslim leaders urged their followers to heed a government ban on weekend demonstrations protesting against denigration of the prophet.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls said officials throughout the country had orders to prevent all protests and crack down if the ban was challenged. “There will be strictly no exceptions. Demonstrations will be banned and broken up,” he said.
The German Interior Ministry said it was postponing a poster campaign aimed at countering radical Islam to avoid fueling protests among the country’s 4 million Muslims, The Associated Press reported.
In Pakistan, the scene of the most turbulent unrest, ARY News said that a driver, Muhammad Amir, was shot three times by the police as he drove through an area where stick-wielding protesters were burning a movie theater owned by a prominent politician.
The station repeatedly broadcast graphic footage of hospital staff giving emergency treatment to Mr. Amir, apparently shortly before he died. Other Pakistani journalists condemned the footage as insensitive and irresponsible.
Businesses closed and streets emptied across the country as the government declared a national holiday, the “Day of Love for the Prophet Muhammad,” to encourage peaceful protests against the controversial film that has ignited protest across the Muslim world for more than a week.
“An attack on the holy prophet is an attack on the core belief of 1.5 billion Muslims. Therefore, this is something that is unacceptable,” said Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf in an address to a religious conference Friday morning in Islamabad.
Mr. Ashraf called on the United Nations and international community to formulate a law outlawing hate speech across the world. “Blasphemy of the kind witnessed in this case is nothing short of hate speech, equal to the worst kind of anti-Semitism or other kind of bigotry,” he said.
But the scenes of chaos in some parts of the country as the day progressed suggested that the government had failed to control public anger on the issue.
In Peshawar, where the television employee was killed, protesters attacked and burned two movie theaters, breaking through the windows with sticks and setting fire to posters that featured images of female movie stars.
Television footage showed the police firing in the air to disperse the crowd, and a hospital official said that at least 15 people, including three police officers, were injured.
In Islamabad, where thousands of protesters flooded toward the heavily guarded diplomatic enclave, Express News reported that the police ran out of rubber bullets because of heavy firing.
A television reporter said that when protesters in nearby Rawalpindi ran out of material to burn, they broke into several tire shops along a major road to steal fresh supplies.
The government cut off cellphone coverage in major cities, while authorities in Islamabad sealed all exits to the city after Friday prayers, state radio reported. Some Pakistanis were relying on e-mail and social media such as Twitter to communicate.
Expressions of weary anger over the violence were common. “We are not a nation. We are a mob,” said Nadeem F. Paracha, a cultural commentator with Dawn newspaper, on Twitter.
Large shipping containers blocked roads through the center of several cities. Western diplomatic missions were closed for the day.
The State Department spent $70,000 on Urdu-language advertisements that aired on several television channels, dissociating the United States government from the inflammatory film.
The Interior Ministry announced it had summoned the American chargé d’affaires, Richard Hoagland, asking him to have the anti-Islam film removed from YouTube, which has been entirely blocked in Pakistan for the past several days.