Clashes between a recently banned Islamist party and police in Pakistan’s second-largest city, Lahore, reportedly left at least two people dead and scores of others wounded Sunday.
Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) was demanding that Pakistan expel the French ambassador over the French president’s remarks defending freedom of expression regarding caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
Police from Punjab province said Sunday’s action was in response to the TLP attacking a police station, trapping officers and Rangers, members of a paramilitary force, inside, kidnapping a senior police officer, and stealing an oil tanker containing 50,000 liters of fuel.
“The miscreants were armed and attacked Rangers/Police with patrol bombs,” a tweet from Punjab police’s official Twitter handle said.
The entire episode unfolded on social media as the mainstream news outlets, especially the country’s dozens of 24/7 television channels, were ordered not to report it.
“Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority banned coverage of TLP,” tweeted senior journalist Hamir Mir, the anchor of a prime-time current affairs show on Pakistani Geo News TV channel.
Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority banned coverage of TLP TV channels are not covering the operation against TLP in Lahore but all information and videos are available on social media so PEMRA ban is now useless media will lose its credibility https://t.co/5Yi0ozVjhL— Hamid Mir (@HamidMirPAK) April 18, 2021
He said the ban was only going to damage the media’s credibility since everything was available on social media.
Pro-TLP tweets became top trending items on Twitter within hours, with hundreds of thousands of tweets and retweets of videos of police firing live rounds, images of the wounded, and messages from TLP leaders.
In a video message circulating on WhatsApp, TLP spokesman Shafiq Amini said they will not bury their dead until the government forces the ambassador out of the country.
Security analyst Mubashir Bukhari said if the TLP follows through on this threat, it will make the situation worse.
“I call this group dangerous because the ideology they follow is supported by all sects of Islam... so a lot of groups will support them, and you might hear voices in support of them coming from the parliament,” he said.
The demand to expel the ambassador first arose last year when the TLP, under a fiery, wheelchair-bound leader, Khadim Rizvi, organized a large protest in the capital, Islamabad. At the time, the government agreed to take the matter to parliament within three months. That deadline is scheduled to expire on April 20. The TLP had announced a march on the capital unless the government fulfilled its promise.
To preempt the march, the government last week arrested Saad Rizvi, who has led the party since his father’s death last November. The detention led to Islamists blocking major roads and highways across the country for days, creating traffic jams and disrupting life in major cities.
Police attempts to disperse them resulted in violent clashes that left two officers and three demonstrators dead, hundreds wounded, and public and private property damaged by angry mobs.
The events of last week led to the government banning the TLP and the French Embassy asking its nationals to leave Pakistan temporarily over safety concerns.
On Friday, the Pakistani government shut down social media sites Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, TikTok, and Telegram for four hours, on orders from the Interior Ministry, as police in Lahore cracked down on a gathering of TLP supporters.
Lahore residents say cell phone data services in parts of the city have been slow or non-existent for days.
Last October, a history teacher, Samuel Paty, was beheaded by a Chechen militant as he headed home from class in Paris.
The incident came days after Paty showed his class controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet in a discussion on freedom of expression. The cartoons had been published in satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which came under a terrorist attack in January 2015.
Many Muslims considered the images blasphemous.
The October incident took place less than a month after a Pakistani immigrant stabbed two people outside Charlie Hebdo’s old Paris headquarters. In both cases, the suspects appeared to retaliate against the publication of the cartoons, which originally inspired the 2015 attack.
French President Emmanuel Macron called Paty a hero and vowed to defend the country’s liberal values and freedom of expression, including the right to mock religion. His statement caused an uproar in parts of the Muslim world, including Pakistan, where the TLP led the charge in demanding Pakistan boycott French products and sever diplomatic ties with the country.
After banning the TLP in his country, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan Saturday demanded the Western nations criminalize insulting Islam’s prophet in the same way that some countries make it a crime to deny the Holocaust occurred.
Those in the West, incl extreme right politicians, who deliberately indulge in such abuse & hate under guise of freedom of speech clearly lack moral sense & courage to apologise to the 1.3 bn Muslims for causing this hurt. We demand an apology from these extremists.— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) April 17, 2021