Re­li­gious protests block roads to Pak­istan’s cap­i­tal

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY SHAIQ HUS­SAIN AND PAMELA CON­STA­BLE pamela.con­sta­ble@wash­ Con­sta­ble re­ported from Kabul.

islamabad, pak­istan — Thou­sands of re­li­gious pro­test­ers con­verged on the cap­i­tal Satur­day in a grow­ing con­fronta­tion with the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment over of­fi­cial at­tempts to amend a law that re­quires all po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates to af­firm their be­lief that Muham­mad, who lived in the 7th cen­tury, was Is­lam’s fi­nal prophet. More than 95 per­cent of Pak­ista­nis are Mus­lim.

The demon­stra­tors were stopped by se­cu­rity forces and ship­ping con­tain­ers placed across ma­jor roads, halt­ing most traf­fic in the cap­i­tal re­gion for much of the day and pre­vent­ing of­fice work­ers, stu­dents and other com­muters from trav­el­ing be­tween Islamabad and the nearby gar­ri­son city of Rawalpindi. They re­mained there as night fell and vowed to stay in­def­i­nitely.

The cru­sade to “de­fend the honor of the prophet” is be­ing led by a fringe Mus­lim group called the Move­ment in Service of the Mes­sen­ger of God. It is widely seen as an at­tempt to arouse pub­lic an­tipa­thy to Ah­madis, a small re­li­gious mi­nor­ity in Pak­istan whose fol­low­ers claim to be Mus­lim but who also fol­low a 19th­cen­tury prophet. Ah­madis were de­clared non-Mus­lim in 1974.

The emo­tional protests, which be­gan two weeks ago and have grown since, are also viewed as a di­rect chal­lenge to the author­ity of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, which has been weak­ened since for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif was ousted by the Supreme Court. The Mes­sen­ger of God move­ment, once seen as a purely re­li­gious fringe group, has be­gun run­ning can­di­dates for par­lia­ment in the past two months.

The protest lead­ers have de­manded that the fed­eral law min­is­ter be fired, charg­ing that he was be­hind an ef­fort to weaken the elec­toral law af­firm­ing the prophet’s “fi­nal­ity.” They de­clared Satur­day that they will not leave their protest site at the main en­trance to the cap­i­tal un­til the min­is­ter is pun­ished. Pak­istani me­dia re­ports said they also threat­ened to attack the homes of some gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials.

The gov­ern­ment has made no pub­lic state­ments about the pro­test­ers or their de­mands in the past sev­eral days, but of­fi­cials apol­o­gized last week about what they called a “cler­i­cal er­ror” in the elec­toral law amend­ment process and re­stored the orig­i­nal oath that all can­di­dates must take af­firm­ing the prophet’s fi­nal­ity.

“We are not afraid of pri­son. We are ready to die for our prophet,” Al­lama Khadim Hus­sain Rizvi, leader of the Mes­sen­ger of God group, de­clared to a large, emo­tion­ally charged crowd from atop a ship­ping con­tainer. “We are here to stay un­til our de­mands are ac­cepted, and our first de­mand is that the law min­is­ter be [fired].”

Rizvi as­serted that the leg­isla­tive change was an at­tempt to “cre­ate chaos” among the Mus­lim faith­ful. “The gov­ern­ment must re­veal who did this con­spir­acy against our reli­gion . . . who was be­hind the law min­is­ter and who wanted to please the Ah­madis,” he said. No se­ri­ous vi­o­lence was re­ported, but ral­lies were also held in Karachi and La­hore, and some ar­rests were made.

Some an­a­lysts and po­lit­i­cal fig­ures have as­serted that the “deep state,” a eu­phemism for the pow­er­ful se­cu­rity estab­lish­ment and its al­lies in the gov­ern­ment bu­reau­cracy, is en­cour­ag­ing the pro­test­ers to be­siege the cap­i­tal in a “sim­mer­ing coup” against the gov­ern­ment headed by Prime Min­is­ter Shahid Khaqan Ab­basi, who was picked by Sharif to run the coun­try un­til elec­tions next year.

There have been sim­i­lar as­ser­tions that such forces were sup­port­ing the re­cent po­lit­i­cal can­di­da­cies of fig­ures from the Mes­sen­ger of God move­ment and an­other rad­i­cal re­li­gious group. Sharif was over­thrown pre­vi­ously by the army in 1999, but current mil­i­tary lead­ers have re­peat­edly as­serted that they rep­re­sent no threat to democ­racy.

The Mes­sen­ger of God move­ment was formed in 2015 to de­fend the coun­try’s harsh blas­phemy laws, and it built a fol­low­ing around the case of Mum­taz Qadri, a man who as­sas­si­nated a pro­vin­cial gover­nor for rais­ing ques­tions about a blas­phemy case. The group reveres Qadri, who was hanged last year, as a hero and a mar­tyr to Is­lam.

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