ISLAMABAD: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan had hoped a fight over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed would result in an easy win — placating the ultra-conservative quarters at home while being hailed as a defender of Islam abroad.
The gamble seems to have backfired spectacularly.
For the past week, riots have again engulfed Pakistan, with police officers killed and taken hostage, and the French embassy taking the “urgent” step of advising its citizens to leave the country.
Khan is now scrambling to keep order, months after launching a war of words with President Emmanuel Macron following the French leader’s defence of the magazine Charlie Hebdo’s right to republish images of Mohammed — an act deemed blasphemous by many Muslims.
When Macron openly backed the magazine, Khan took up a crusade — accusing the French leader of insulting Islam and using an address to the United Nations as an opportunity to lambast the West.
But rather than appease the religious right, Khan’s grievance appears only to have encouraged the extremists, with the radical Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) — the Movement at the Service of the Prophet — calling for the expulsion of the French ambassador.
“I think the prime minister has realised that appeasing the radical forces isn’t an easy task because when you try to please them they demand more and more,” security analyst Amir Rana told AFP.
“So far he has failed to maintain the balance.”
Few issues resonate in Islamic Pakistan quite like blasphemy, where the publication of the cartoons in Europe has long stoked outrage.
“No Pakistani politician or military dictator has or is going to challenge the idea that the honour and the sanctity of Islam and the prophet, and his person in particular, are not important to them,” said political analyst Mosharraf Zaidi.
“Any time that the prime minister is representing that view, it’s one that has salience in the Pakistani mainstream.”
Khan’s rhetoric coincided with a wave of Francophobia that prompted a nationwide boycott of French goods, and upstart party TLP sent its supporters into the streets.
The outrage quickly boiled over into violence.
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