ISLAMADBAD — Violent protests broke out across Pakistan on Friday as people vented their fury over a YouTube video that they believe is blasphemous. At least 15 people died amid widespread destruction.
The primary targets of the leaderless mobs were the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad and U.S. consulates in the provincial capitals of Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar, but violence spanned the country. Police and paramilitary forces managed to keep the protesters from entering any of the diplomatic compounds, but many cities were virtual war zones, suffocating under blankets of tear gas. Dozens of police officers were among the wounded as the enraged crowds hit back, burning buildings and ransacking shops and vehicles.
The worst violence took place in Peshawar, in the country’s northwest, and Karachi, the country’s main southern port. Police and hospital officials in those cities counted 15 dead, while some reports put the death toll at 20, with 12 killed in Karachi alone, including three police officers, and more than 100 injured.
Banned extremist groups, carrying their organization’s flags, joined many of the demonstrations, including Sipah-e-Sahaba, which is accused of killing Shiite Muslims. In Lahore, one rally was addressed by Hafiz Saeed, the leader of internationally proscribed Jamaat-ud-Dawa, who carries a U.S. bounty of $10 million on his head for his role in the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, that killed 166 people. In many places, the crowds burned effigies of President Barack Obama.
The government’s gamble of declaring Friday a national holiday so that people could express their “love for the prophet,” an apparent attempt to provide a means for people to vent their anger, swelled the crowds and bolstered their determination, with tens of thousands joining the chaos, especially after Friday prayers.
In Islamabad, police and the crowd battled for seven hours in front of the entrance to the city’s heavily fortified diplomatic area, where the American embassy is located.
“We want America to know that we are ready to die for Islam,” said one marcher, 24-year-old clerk Muhammad Adil, recovering from tear gas. “Our religion is not the sort that you can make fun of. We will not tolerate it.”
Members of the crowd seemed sure that the American government was behind the amateurish video, “Innocence of Muslims,” or that Washington could stop its distribution on the Internet. Many said Pakistan should sever diplomatic relations with the United States.
“We just want the guilty person tried and hanged,” said Omar Hyat, a 38-year-old soft-spoken businessman who was among the protesters. “All this is happening by design. It is a conspiracy. They are testing how far they can push Muslims.”
In Peshawar, an employee of a TV news channel was shot dead, apparently by police. The city’s iconic Firdous cinema was set ablaze as a crowd rampaged toward the U.S. consulate. In Karachi, four cinemas were burned, as well as banks, restaurants and shops. Often the buildings were looted before being set on fire. The crowds only dispersed as night began to fall.
Pakistan’s information minister, Qamar Zaman Kaira, said: “Our enemies must be very happy. We are only hurting ourselves. Only damaging our own country. What did those killed today die for?”
The acting U.S. ambassador in Islamabad, Richard Hoagland, was called to the Foreign Ministry to hear an official protest.
In a statement, Hoagland tried to separate the United States from the video, which was produced by a Coptic Christian in California and publicized by a well known Egyptian anti-Islam activist who lives in suburban Washington and who sent an Internet link to the video to a newspaper reporter in Egypt. Actors in the video have said they were misled into appearing. There voices are obviously dubbed in the video.
“This act was a deeply insensitive decision by a single individual to disseminate hatred. It does not reflect the values of the United States, a nation of more than 300 million people, built upon the pillars of religious freedom and tolerance,” Hoagland said.
Prime Minister Raja Pervev Ashraf, addressing a televised gathering of political leaders, boasted that Pakistan was the only Muslim country where the government had joined sides with the protesters. Ashraf leads the liberal Pakistan Peoples Party, with a secular ideology, but it is voicing sympathy for the protesters, while calling for demonstrations to remain peaceful.
Ashraf hit out at the film, saying it was “nothing short of hate speech,” and he called for action from the United Nations. He said that “blatant double standards” were being observed by the world because Holocaust denial was deemed unacceptable but the video was allowed.
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.