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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 February 2006, 15:50 GMT
Hidden motives behind cartoon riots

By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, Karachi

Several people have died in Pakistan in continuing violence over the publication in the West of cartoons satirising the Prophet Muhammad. But some targets seem far removed from the cartoon row.

KFC in Peshawar
American fast food outlets were dragged into the cartoon row

Protests in Pakistan against cartoons satirising the Prophet Muhammad have been slow to take off but violent nevertheless.

In two days of heavy rioting, five people have been killed in two major cities and public as well as private property worth millions torched.

Even the high security around the diplomatic enclave in Islamabad was breached, though without resulting in any major damage.

Pakistan's religious parties, who had been calling for mass demonstrations against the cartoons since the controversy first flared up, have disowned the violence.

But they have stopped well short of a categorical condemnation of the rioters while vowing to continue with their "peaceful protests".

"If the government is unable to respond appropriately to a situation, the people are left with no choice but to take to the streets," senior provincial minister Sirajul Haq told reporters in Peshawar.

Mr Haq belongs to the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a religious alliance of six parties which rules the volatile North West Frontier Province.


Like most other religious leaders, he describes the violence as a result of a spontaneous outpouring of Muslim grief at the cartoons.

But given the nature of the violence, few seem convinced the riots are either spontaneous or driven purely by public indignation at the satirical cartoons.

For one, most of the public and private property attacked by the rioters cannot even remotely be linked to the cartoons.

The buildings burned in Lahore and Peshawar included cinemas, a theatre, banks, mobile phone outlets, fast food restaurants, the Punjab assembly building, petrol stations, music and video shops.

Most of the vehicles set alight were motorbikes, which are owned mostly by lower middle class people.

Protesters burn American flags in Peshawar
The protesters' anger is aimed at all western symbols

Such targets have nothing to do with the cartoons but have historically been the target of choice for religious activists whenever they have had a reason to take to the streets.

Why motorbikes and cars? Because they are readily available - parked on roadsides and unprotected - burn easily and provide the media with fiery images.

Cinemas, fast food joints and banks are also targeted because they represent entertainment, US economic interests and the interest-based Western financial system.

Powerful statement

Attacking such properties makes for a powerful statement of the cultural agenda pursued by almost every Pakistani religious organisation.

Is this the image of ourselves that we want to paint for the outside world?
Pervez Ellahi
Punjab's Chief Minister
Pakistani observers point out that while the protests may have done little to bring the alleged blasphemers under pressure they have certainly conveyed the destructive potential of injured religious sentiment to the outside world.

"Is this the image of ourselves that we want to paint for the outside world?" Punjab Chief Minister Pervez Ellahi asked of the riots in Lahore.

"Are we trying to convince the West that Muslims are indeed violent people?"

Maybe not, but perhaps Pakistan's religious leadership may not be averse to the idea of demonstrating to the world that Pakistanis remain a deeply religious people despite Gen Musharraf's liberal rhetoric.

And if demonstrating this requires arson and looting, it may be a small price in the mind of the country's religious leadership for emphasising an orthodox cultural agenda which has been under consistent pressure since the September 2001 attacks on the US.


That may be the reason why the MMA's attempts to distance itself from the violence have not been very convincing.

Even as MMA president Qazi Hussain Ahmed was busy disowning the violence in Lahore and Peshawar, the student wing of his party was scuffling with the police at Punjab University in Lahore.

Traffic policeman keeps an eye on protests in front of portrait of Pres Musharraf
Is President Musharraf's liberalism the real target?

Western observers may be baffled at the images of Muslim rioters burning the properties of other Muslims in protest at sacrilege committed by Danes.

But they may find the situation easier to understand if they give a thought to what might be the real target of the rioters.

Is it a bunch of nameless and faceless cartoonists living in Denmark or a government at home which is threatening their orthodoxy with its liberal rhetoric?

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