Thinking of strengthening his ultra-conservative base in his country and polishing his image as a defender of the faith in the Muslim world, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has placed himself at the forefront of the fight against the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

But this bet now seems to have turned against him.

Pakistan has been facing riots for a week which resulted in the death and kidnapping of police officers.

The French Embassy has called on its nationals to temporarily leave the country.

Encourage extremists

Imran Khan had embarked on a war of words with Emmanuel Macron, when the French president had defended the right to cartoon in the name of freedom of expression, during the tribute paid to a teacher killed on October 16 after having showed his class satirical drawings, in the wake of the republication of depictions of the Prophet Muhammad by the weekly Charlie Hebdo. He then accused Emmanuel Macron of "attacking Islam", a month after having already estimated at the UN that the cartoons had contributed to reinforce "Islamophobia". But rather than having coaxed the religious right, he seems above all to have encouraged extremists, in particular Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which has been demanding since this fall the expulsion of the French ambassador.

“I think the Prime Minister has understood that appeasing radical forces is not easy, because when you try to satisfy them, they ask for more.

So far, it has failed to maintain the balance, ”said security expert Amir Rana.

Islam in its strict interpretation prohibits any representation of Muhammad and the issue of blasphemy is particularly sensitive in Pakistan, where it transcends party lines.

"No Pakistani politician or military dictator has ever contested or will ever contest the idea that the honor and holiness of Islam and of the Prophet, of his person in particular, are not important to them," notes political analyst Mosharraf Zaidi.

Anti-French sentiment

“Every time the Prime Minister represents this point of view, it has an impact on the general public,” he adds. Imran Khan's rhetoric accompanied anti-French sentiment that led to several protests against France, the TLP call, and the boycott of French products. On September 25, the very day he was speaking to the UN, a Pakistani, Zaheer Hassan Mahmoud, seriously injured two people with a chopper in front of the former offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Some relatives had confirmed that the young man had watched videos of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the founder of TLP, who died in November.

Further very violent protests in November, in which protesters attempted to approach the French embassy in Islamabad, only ended after discussions between the TLP and the authorities.

They would then have undertaken to expel the French ambassador after a vote in Parliament, according to the TLP.

But the government has always been vague on the existence of such an agreement.

Last week, the TLP accused him of breaking his promise and called for a march in Islamabad on April 20 to again demand this deportation, triggering the arrest of its new leader, Saad Rizvi.

Vote at the Assembly

The government responded to the violent protests that followed by banning the TLP, which it called a terrorist group. "No one can be above the law and the Constitution," Imran Khan tweeted over the weekend, suggesting that he only acted against the TLP because he disapproved of its violent methods and not its ideology. Banning the TLP may have little effect, as other religious parties have already supported it. "The Pakistani state has, for decades, actively promoted the ideology that drives the TLP and made people sympathize with it," said Madiha Afzal of the Brookings Institution.

For her, Imran Khan walks the wire by trying "not to deny the ideology of the group and its demands, while taking measures against it".

"Pakistan must certainly manage its relationship with France, other nations and the rest of the world, but it must also appear to be sensitive to the feelings of Pakistani Muslims," ​​she notes.

Imran Khan ultimately chose to partially accede to the TLP's demands by agreeing on Tuesday that a motion calling for the ambassador's expulsion be put to a vote in the National Assembly.

However, this resolution is not binding and it will be up to the government to implement it or not if it is adopted.

In doing so, however, it takes the risk of encouraging religious extremists to continue to use violence as a tool for negotiation in the future.


Pakistan: Police officers held hostage by anti-France protesters freed


Caricatures: What will be the impact of the call for a boycott and anti-French demonstrations in certain Muslim countries?

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