Pakistan anti-France protests called off after ‘deal’ with gov’t

Supporters of a far-right party call off protests over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, saying the gov’t has agreed to consider downgrading ties with France.

TLP spokesman, Shafiq Amini, said the government had accepted the protesters' demands and would put the issue of expelling the French ambassador before Parliament in three months [Anjum Naveed/AP Photo]

A far-right Pakistani religious political party says it has called off a sit-in protest in the capital Islamabad after the government agreed to discuss its demands for downgrading diplomatic ties with France over the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

More than a thousand Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) protesters, led by religious leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi, had camped out overnight to block a major highway into Islamabad on Monday.

The group said it signed a deal with the government early on Tuesday to disband the protest, after extracting promises to consider expelling the French ambassador to Pakistan and to boycott French goods.

A Pakistani official involved in the negotiations, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, confirmed the deal to Al Jazeera.

The agreement signed between the two sides includes four stipulations. First, that the government will put the question of expelling the French ambassador to Parliament “within two or three months”. It also says that the government “will not appoint its ambassador to France”.

The third stipulation concerns the boycott of French goods, a move which has only partially been observed in Pakistan and other countries that have protested against the French caricatures and later comments by French President Emmanuel Macron that were deemed Islamophobic.

The agreement says Pakistan will “completely boycott French goods on a government level”.

Finally, the deal offers amnesty to the dozens of TLP protesters who were arrested during the course of the protest, which began on Sunday and saw several violent clashes between demonstrators and police.

The agreement was signed by Ijaz Shah, Pakistan’s interior minister, and Pir Noor ul Haq Qadri, the minister for religious affairs, in the early hours of Tuesday.

Free speech

In October, after and 18-year-old man beheaded French teacher Samuel Paty for showing cartoons of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in his class, Macron hailed the teacher as a “quiet hero”.

“Samuel Paty was killed because Islamists want our future and because they know that with quiet heroes like him, they will never have it,” said Macron.

Most Muslims believe any depiction of the Prophet is blasphemous.

Earlier, in September, Macron had defended the “right to blaspheme” under free speech rights and pledged to fight what he termed “Islamic separatism” in France through administrative measures.

Macron’s remarks drew ire from several world leaders, including Pakistan’s Imran Khan and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Pakistan’s government summoned the French ambassador to register a protest against the remarks.

The TLP has held several protests in the capital Islamabad on the issue of “blasphemy” in recent years. A sensitive subject in Pakistan, blasphemy against Islam can carry a mandatory death sentence, and accusations have increasingly led to mob violence or targeted attacks in recent years.

Led by Rizvi, who rose to nationwide popularity in the last decade by holding religious gatherings where he called for all blasphemers to be put to death. In 2017, the TLP staged a three-week sit-in in Islamabad against a minor change in the wording of an electoral oath that the group considered “blasphemous”.

That sit-in also ended after an agreement with the government that guaranteed protesters immunity from prosecution and secured the resignation of the government’s law minister.

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies