Islamabad, Pakistan – A Pakistani court has ordered authorities to clear an anti-blasphemy protest that has blocked a major highway into the capital Islamabad for the last 10 days, prompting fears of clashes between police and demonstrators.
Hundreds of demonstrators remained gathered at the protest site on Friday, located at a major entry point to the city, vowing to hold their ground unless their demands were met.
“We have been told to clear the protest, by hook or by crook,” said Mushtaq Ahmed, a top local administration official. “We have been told to enlist the services of the [paramilitary] Rangers and FC as well, if required.”
The protesters first gathered at the Faizabad interchange on November 8, demanding the resignation of the federal law minister over a change of wording in an electoral law that they perceived as softening the state’s official designation of members of the Ahmadi sect as non-Muslim.
Ahmadis are a minority sect, numbering in the hundreds of thousands in Pakistan and up to 10 million worldwide, who identify as Muslim while maintaining that the Prophet Muhammad was succeeded by the founder of their faith, Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, as a “subordinate prophet” in the late 19th century.
They face widespread discrimination in Pakistan and other Muslim-majority countries. In Pakistan, they are forbidden from referring to themselves as Muslim and are frequently the target of violent attacks.
Political unknown’s rise
The protesters are led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a hard-right conservative who is known for his vitriolic rhetoric against the Ahmadi community, and who has recently risen to prominence as the leader of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) political party.
A relative political unknown, Rizvi’s party bagged third place in a recent by-election in the eastern city of Lahore, about 275km south of the capital, held to elect a replacement for Nawaz Sharif, who was disqualified from the prime minister’s office in July on corruption allegations.
Sharif’s party, embattled on several political and legal fronts, struggled to control the protest in its early days, with party leaders telling Al Jazeera they did not want to be perceived as alienating Pakistan’s largest Sunni Muslim sect, a part of which Rizvi represents.
On Friday, however, it appeared that the Islamabad High Court’s patience with the blockade, which has caused massive traffic jams and disruptions to businesses and educational institutions across Islamabad and its adjoining twin city Rawalpindi, had run out.
“We will write them a letter first, and then if they do not respond or clear the area, we will have to carry out a police operation against them,” said Ahmed.
‘Why should we leave?’
The mood was defiant at the rally, as hundreds of protesters prepared for Friday prayers, while dozens of riot police gathered at roadblocks erected around the demonstration.
“There is no need to worry […] God willing, this will be a historic day!” boomed an announcement from loudspeakers across the protesters’ tent village. “We ask you to conduct yourself calmly and bravely.”
Protesters sat under large fabric tents, raising their hands in unison and chanting in time to cries of “Labbaik, labbaik ya Rasool Allah”, a slogan indicating solidarity with Islam’s prophet.
Volunteers manning their makeshift barricades, constructed out of buses, wooden branches and paving stones, carried large wooden batons, some with iron hooks embedded in them.
“We do not accept the court order. Why should we leave?” asked Nisar Ahmad, 30, a shopkeeper from Lahore. “The courts did nothing in the case of Salmaan Taseer’s [alleged] blasphemy either. It was Mumtaz Qadri who had to show bravery.”
Qadri, a policeman, murdered Taseer, then the governor of Punjab province, over alleged blasphemy in January 2011. Taseer had publicly defended a woman accused of blasphemy and called Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws, which prescribe a mandatory death penalty for some forms of blasphemy, “black laws”.
At least 73 people have been murdered over blasphemy allegations in Pakistan since 1990, according to an Al Jazeera tally.
“We will face the police if needed, because we have the strength of faith on our side,” said Ahmad, the protester.
Others struck a more conciliatory tone.
“We will stay peaceful for as long as we can, we do not want to take the law into our own hands,” said Hafiz Qasim, 27, an electrical engineer from Lahore.
“Everything comes after the prophet’s honour, however. The police, the courts, even Pakistan itself.”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s Web Correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @Asad Hashim.