In Pakistan, on April 11, 2021, massive anti-French protests erupted. The call for citizens to take to the streets came from the head of the Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik – a group banned in the Russian Federation – Muslim cleric Allama Saad Rizvi. Subsequently, people went on strike over the fact that Rizvi was arrested on April 12.
The preconditions for the protests were the fact that back in October 2020, French teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded by an Islamist terrorist near Paris for showing students a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad in class. Immediately after the tragedy, French President Emmanuel Macron defended freedom of expression and the right to publish these kinds of cartoons.
After his words, massive protests took place in Pakistan, and swept throughout the Islamic world. In November 2020, Rizvi and his organization demanded that the Pakistani leadership expel the French ambassador from the country, and break off economic contacts with the Fifth Republic for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the Paris-based publication Charlie Hebdo, as well as for the stance taken by the French president on these issues. That same month, pro-Rizvi activists blocked the entrance to the capital city of Islamabad, and demanded the expulsion of the French ambassador from Pakistan. The outbreak of riots stopped on November 16, 2020 after the country’s leadership promised in April 2021 to review the demands put forth by the Islamist Rizvi party in parliament, but the authorities did not put their words into real action.
This is the reason why the leader of the terrorist organization Tehreek-e-Labbaik, one that is banned in Russia, began to incite his supporters to take part in the protests in April 2021, and he was subsequently taken into custody by Pakistani law enforcement officials on April 12 for inciting riots.
Why are there so many people in Pakistan who are taking a stand on the attitude shown towards the Prophet Muhammad on the other side of the continent? Why does the Tehreek-e-Labbaik terrorist organization, one that is banned in Russia, have so many followers in this country? What kind of reaction did the official Pakistani authorities offer in response to the unrest that broke out? What will be the consequences of the measures taken by the authorities?
The riots that began on April 11 grew stronger and stronger with each passing day. On the first day, during the demonstrations in Lahore, the Islamists took some police officers hostage. Initially, the seizure of 8 law enforcement officers was announced, but on April 12 the Pakistani Ministry of Interior announced the release of 11 of its employees. The photos and videos that wound up on the Internet show that the hostages were injured: they bore traces of beatings, and some of them even bled to death.
On the night of April 14-15, French diplomatic services sent a warning to French citizens and the branches of French organization operating in Pakistan about the danger posed by threats from the Tehreek-e-Labbaik, an organization banned in the Russian Federation. It contained recommendations for French citizens to temporarily leave Pakistan, and for organizations to suspend their activities in this country due to the terrorist threat. Many French citizens took heed of this warning.
Despite the fact that Pakistani security forces suppressed the bulk of the riots, thousands of Rizvi followers vowed to die for the honor of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Protesters repeatedly threw stones at police officers, and used firearms against them. Rizvi’s supporters have blocked the city’s main thoroughfares and highways, staged sit-in strikes, and tried to shut down public transport.
By virtue of the attempts made by Tehreek-e-Labbaik party activists to ultimately destabilize the situation in the state, the Pakistani authorities have decided to deploy special forces units in the largest cities to help maintain law and order. The police used brute force, military weapons, and water cannons. On April 16, Pakistani authorities blocked a number of major Internet services to try to disorient the protesters. Access was blocked to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp and Telegram, although for now that is temporary. Tehreek-e-Labbaik was banned in Pakistan on April 15 under the anti-terrorism law.
As of April 22, 2021, 36 citizens had died during the riots, both demonstrators and law enforcement officers. More than 500 people were injured, with various degrees of severity. The state of affairs was genuinely catastrophic.
Rizvi was released from custody on April 20. On that day, hearings began in the Pakistani parliament on whether the French ambassador should be expelled from the state for publishing cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, and whether a boycott of French goods should be introduced. After this news, the protests began to subside. Now how this issue is discussed in the legislature will become a litmus test of whether the Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan, whose party is represented by the largest number of parliamentary deputies, will succumb to pressure from the terrorist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik.
As we all know, one of the main reasons social tensions run high is poverty. Pakistan has never been set apart by a high standard of living among population. The 2020 crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has worsened the already rather poor state of affairs in this Islamic republic. Addressing economic problems will help reinforce public order.
Competent foreign policy will play no small role in helping boost economic growth. With each passing year, Pakistan’s trade turnover with Russia and China is growing. Even if economic contacts with France become disrupted, similar contracts will soon be entered into between Pakistan and Russia and China, which, unlike their European colleagues, are partners willing to cooperate on more favorable terms.
Recapping what has been stated above, the following conclusions can be drawn. First, the high level of aggressiveness expressed by the Pakistani population, which leads to a large number of people who support terrorist organizations, could be reduced by improving living standards. Second, if Pakistan loses France as its foreign economic partner, it will immediately acquire new foreign economic partners in the form of Russia and China. Third, this story with Pakistan will serve as an example for the leadership in Western countries that if they want to keep their foreign economic partners among Islamic countries, they should be more careful with their statements, and show respect for foreign cultures and traditions.
Petr Konovalov, a political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.