ISLAMABAD/RAWALPINDI, Sept 21: Friday was a day to protest the provocative ‘Innocence of Islam’ film by demonstrating the love Muslims of all persuasions have for the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), but it ended in violence, exposing disunity in a common cause.
After the mayhem had ended, people of the twin cities were left discussing why the self-destructive violence and who whipped it up to whose benefit?
“Well I don't know about the movie, but I have heard from my friends that the film contained sacrilegious contents about Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). I will watch the movie later but first I will teach lesson to the infidels on our soil,” young Mohammad Zafran in the crowd gathered at Rawalpindi's Liaquat Bagh for a march of the US embassy in Islamabad, told Dawn.
Zafran turned out to be an activist of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) group who works in a brick kiln in Taxila. He was in the company of dozens of his friends, all set to combat police if they were stopped from reaching the embassy. Some protesters had plastic bags filled with stones in their hands.
When in their march on Islamabad, the protesters reached a commercial plaza built on the site of old Naz cinema, they started stoning it, notwithstanding a banner condemning the movie the owner had hung on the plaza.
A cleric kept on issuing battle cries from a loudspeaker-fitted van, and criticising law enforcement agencies when no policeman was in sight.
So the protesters vented their anger by smashing decorative plants flower pots on the Benazir Bhutto Road.
Better sense and unity became visible when people belonging to Shia, Sunni, Alhe Hadith, Deobandi, Barelvi sects and other schools of thought started joining the protest on the way.
They came separately but presented a united mass at Faizabad interchange. They could be identified by their specific slogans inscribed on bands of some youngsters tied on their foreheads.
“We came to stand up and be counted. All Muslims are united in their love and commitment to protect the dignity of our Prophet (peace be upon him),” said Ali Abbas who came from Dhoke Ratta.
Abbas said the rally aimed at informing the West that the conspiracies to divide th Muslims would not succeed.
Perhaps the biggest among the rallies that converged at Faizabad came from Jamia Masjid Amna on Kuri Road.
Mohammad Zubair, belonging to Deobandi school of thought, agreed with him saying that sectarian differences don't stand in the way of a common cause. Another protester, Naseem Ahmed, interjected calling for a boycott of US products. “Our government should ban US products if the Americans don't act seriously to stop such acts,” he said.
Afghan nationals living in Hazara Colony, Fauji Colony, Pirwadhai and along the IJ Principal Road also participated in the protest in large numbers. Most of the young among them were seen carrying sticks.
Mohammad Rahat, an observant resident living close to Faizabad, the gateway to Islamabad, noted that madrasa students among the protesters mostly carried banners. “But once clashes started with police stopping their onward march, they pulled out the sticks from the banners and used them to hit policemen, their vehicles and also public property,” he told Dawn.
In Islamabad itself, the scene had a different hue. A group of youngsters on the Park Road was seen trying to hitch a ride to Aabpara. Some of them were in jeans, others in shalwar kameez and they spoke in a mix of English and Urdu, as educated young people are wont to these days.
“We spent the whole night making this US flag,” said one of them.
Until he pointed to the Star-and-Stripes painted on the road for the traffic to run over it, the youngsters looked unlikely candidates for the crowds that were gathering at Aabpara and the square in front of the parliament, with plans to march on Serena Hotel, and ultimately the diplomatic enclave.
Though the protesters gathering there had different backgrounds and, as it came out later, different aims, they did not appear to have any religious or political handlers.
Traders of course were present in strong numbers. “We want to express our anger against the derogatory film,” Malik Sohail, an office bearer of Federation of Pakistan Chambers Commerce and Industry (FPCCI), told Dawn. Aabpara was chosen as the main convergence point by the leaders of trade bodies. However, Sohail could not say who the rioters were when the trouble began. He was quick to distance his community from the violence.
“Traders and ordinary citizens are not capable keeping up with the police for hours,” he noted.
Most probably workers of religio-political parties with experience of violent protests initiated the violence by throwing stones at police and pushing towards Serena.
“We have walked almost all the way from I-8/3 and the authorities should know that we can go to any extent to protect our faith and the honour of our Prophet,” said Hafiz Abdullah, who along with his friends had gathered at Serena after offering prayers in Lal Masjid.
These party workers did not dominate the crowd but stood out because of their typical appearances and the flags they carried.
They came from the madrasas run different groups in the twin cities.
Flags of the banned Ahle Sunnah Wal Jamaat, Jamiat Ulema Islam, and some Barelvi parties were visible.
Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf was the only political party whose workers came with their party flags and were present during the clashes with police at Serena.
Otherwise, there was negligible presence of any local or national level leaders of any religious or political party.
“It is the responsibility of the parties to control their workers and abide by the law of land,” said Amir Jamaat-i-Islami, Mian Aslam, who led the protest from China Chowk to D Chowk.
Activists of the MWM and Imamia Students Organisation were relatively docile on Friday, maybe because their central leadership was part of the big show outside the US Consulate in Lahore and had burnt the US flag.
Many people joined the crowds just because it was a holiday.