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Islamist rallies and protests in Karachi

Islamist rallies and protests in Karachi

For the last six weeks, I was in Karachi doing research for a paper I’m writing. The project is on Friday prayers and Islamist mobilization. What I was trying to understand was why so many Islamist protests and rallies — and, when they get violent, riots — happen on Fridays. What’s so special about namaaz-e-juma?

I’m going to leave the extended argument for the academic paper, but the gist of the thesis is this: Friday prayers help Islamist mobilization in two main ways. The first is Friday prayers function as a physical and temporal focal point. As a physical focal point, mosques on Fridays extend to Islamists a fantastic advantage: lots of people gathered in one place already. People who organize collective action will tell you the hardest thing is to get everyone at the same place at the same time, and here the mosque does the work for them (to an extent). Moreover, mosques are peppered all along main thoroughfares and roads, which makes them ideal points to choke traffic and shut off roads should the need arise, thus making protests and rallies more intimidating than they otherwise would be (go along Bander road and see for yourself how many groups have control of mosques within a 5 minute walking distance of Bander road, if not on Bander road itself).

The second way Friday prayers help is the imam’s sermon. This is fairly self-evident so I won’t belabor the point. Suffice it to say, various Islamists will control various mosques/madrassas, whose congregations can be encouraged or cajoled to join a particular protest, especially if it’s an emotive issue, like blasphemy or cartoons or women’s rights.

To understand this stuff better, I talked to a bunch of journos, police wallahs, and Islamists themselves. I also went all over Karachi again and again, almost every day, to the point where this Defence/Clifton sheltered baby actually feels kind of comfortable with his knowledge of the geography of the city now. I’ll just highlight some blog-worthy stuff some of you guys may be interested in.

1. What does an Islamist rally look like?

Broadly speaking, there are two types of Islamist rallies. You have the truly massive ones (2006 blasphemy protests, 2012 Mohammed movie protests, JUI-F rally in December 2011) and the small-bore ones. The former are likely to have hundreds of thousands of people and the latter a couple hundred at the most. The locations are also likely to be different: a massive protest in Karachi will usually be on Bander road, either starting or ending at Mazaar-e-Quaid (although SSP/ASWJ remains an exception for this). A smaller one could be anywhere in Karachi’s central zone. For instance, I attended a JuD rally at the press club, a SSP/ASWJ rally at Lasbela Chowk, and one (cancelled) SSP/ASWJ rally on I.I. Chundrigar in front of the police station. These will almost invariably start after Friday prayers near a mosque and will last anywhere from an hour to eight or nine hours (JUI-F election rally in Karachi, for example went from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. by most accounts). Both big and small rallies will have a stage from which the party leaders can address the crowds. There will be lots of flags and banners. And beards. Lots and lots of beards.

JuD rally outside Press Club

JuD rally outside Press Club

ASWJ rally at Lasbela Chowk

ASWJ rally at Lasbela Chowk

2. What does an Islamist rally sound like?

Awful, just awful. Here’s a sample. First, some predictably anti-India rhetoric from JuD (this was right after the BSF killed worshipers in a Kashmiri mosque). Click here to listen.

Next, some fairly catchy tunes from SSP/ASWJ. These were played over a loudspeaker at Lasbela Chowk, outside Masjid-e-Nauman. Click here to listen.

One quick point on SSP/ASWJ. Yes, they are banned, and yes, there was a name change, but the name change does not seem to have seeped down all the way through from letterheads to ground level staff. For instance, the “charity”-collectors right outside the mosque encouraged people to donate to Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, not Ahle-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat. The songs embedded above also reference “SSP” or “Sahaba”, not ASWJ. On the other hand, party ads, signs, banners, posters will reference ASWJ, not SSP.


Speaking of party ads, I though Jamaat-e-Islami’s co-optation of Imran Khan’s tabdeeli message was hilarious** (see correction below):


3. What is the role of the police?

The police cannot stop them. If you ask the police, they will tell you they can, but that governments never give them the necessary support or permission. Either way, the bottom line is, the police do not attempt to stop them. To the contrary, they facilitate such mobilization by helping such organizations block off the road and providing them protection as they march/rally. This is not necessarily pernicious: yes, SSP is banned, and yes SSP should not be receiving police help in having a protest, but if the choice you face is “facilitate it, so you have some control, and can keep things relatively quiet and non-violent” vs “leave them to it”, the obvious choice is the former. Of course, this logic can be taken too far, and you can end up with Rehman Malik decreeing an entire Friday for nutjobs to do their thing, with predictable results. But generally, according to police wallahs I spoke to, they want to be there so they can keep an eye on things lest things get out of control. So you will often see the police work hand in hand with such organizations.

Police blocking Nishtar road with a mobile and tankers

Police blocking Nishtar road with a mobile and tankers


ASWJ guys reminding the police wallah who has the bigger gun

ASWJ guys reminding the police wallah who has the bigger gun

4. How do Islamist rallies and protests have an effect on policy?

There are two basic ways. One, the rally or protest can shut down a city. Karachi is a pretty easy city to shut down, all things considered, because everything that matters in the city takes place within an area of approximately 0.65 square miles (blue shaded area below). Here you will find major government buildings (Sindh Assembly, CM House, Governor House), all major media organizations, most major financial institutions (stock exchange, State Bank, private banks and firms), headquarters of security forces (police HQs, Rangers HQs), major commercial institutions (Zainab market, Empress market, Bohri bazaar, Bolton market, Joria bazar, and of course, the port), and major legal institutions (district and high courts). For such a large city, it is quite strange how everything that matters is so concentrated, but I think this reflects Karachi’s immigrant-led outward growth.

Karachi hub

So what tends to happen is these guys shut the entire city down by essentially blocking one, and only one, road (Bander road, which is the longest edge of the blue triangle shaded above). This is the “nuisance value” you often hear of associated with Islamists; it is the threat of future “nuisance” that causes governments to back down. Nobody wants an entire city paralyzed for something as inconsequential as Ahmedis or women or Shias, so why not?

The second way these rallies and protests matter is that Islamists have arrogated to themselves the right to declare who is Muslim and who is not, what is Islamic and what is not. This is very powerful tool to have in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where almost all public policy issues have to be first mediated through a religious prism. Such rallies and protests can force governments and government officials to voice more Islamist views than they otherwise might hold (e.g. every PPP government/leader in history), especially if they are over an emotive issue and results in a big rally. I cannot think of a single instance, other than the Musharraf/PPP women’s rights bill, where governments actually withstood the street pressure of Islamists.

**Correction: JI did not appropriate PTI’s “tabdeeli” message; they’ve had this slogan for at least one additional election cycle. My bad.

About Ahsan Butt

Assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason.

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