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Executive Summary: Anti-Blasphemy Protests in Pakistan

Updated: Jul 1

Team: Extremism

Week of: April 26, 2021


Anti-Blasphemy protests in Pakistan[1]


Tehreek-e-Labbaik is a former Islamist political party in Pakistan that organized violent protests and demanded the expulsion of the French ambassador after the diplomatic disagreements following the beheading of a French school teacher on October 16, 2020, who showed a picture of the Prophet Muhammad in a school lesson. The protesters revolved around the perceived blasphemy of France. On April 14, 2021, the government of Pakistan announced it would ban Tehreek-e-Labbaik for its role in the protests.[2] The Pakistani government then entered into negotiations with Tehreek-e-Labbaik in the hope of calming the violence on April 19, 2021.[3] The anti-blasphemy protests in Pakistan indicate deep contradictions within Pakistan and signal that more waves of domestic Islamist violence are likely. The crisis in Pakistan is a product of domestic trends towards Islamism; Pakistan has an increasingly Islamist identity that is used to produce internal stability. Pakistan has long exported its internal Islamist problems abroad, which now may be coming to fruition. Islamist extremism will likely grow as a security threat to Pakistan. However, the increasingly Hindu identity of India could encourage loyalty of Pakistani citizens to Pakistan and the outsourcing of Islamist terrorism to India could continue.


The protests are emblematic of a Salfi Islamist identity; the violence witnessed within the protests demonstrates how the popular Islamist ideas within Pakistan are a method for mobilizing violence within Pakistan. The demand for the expulsion of the French ambassador is based on the Islamist claim that adherence to Islam contradicts participation in the modern international system. The Prime Minister of Pakistan spoke on national TV about the international problems that would arise from expelling the French ambassador; the impossibility of this action is the reason Tehreek-e-Labbaik has demanded it.[4] This reflects Islamist’s frustration arising from the apparent limitations that the modern international system places upon the practice of Islam. Islamists broadly argue that strict adherence to the values of Islam is constrained through modernity and that this explains the perceived injustices faced by the global Muslim community or the ummah.[5] Islamists broadly reject the nation-state model for representing the ummah; or the global Muslim community. Therefore, Islamists are likely to reject appeals to Pakistan’s national interests made by the Prime Minister.[6] The Islamist protestors reject the primacy of Pakistan’s national interests. their adoption of violence and seemingly impossible demands reflects Islamist’s frustrations about the constraints placed upon Muslims by the international system.


Islamist extremism will likely grow as a security threat in Pakistan because it has been cultivated to resolve internal problems associated with a weak national identity. Pakistan, an acronym, stands for Punjab, Afghani, Kashmir, Sindh, and Baluchistan.[7] The sources of Islamism in Pakistan are evident from Pakistan’s inception. The territories of Punjab, Afghani, and Kashmir are divided between Pakistan and its neighbors. The Indus river, the most crucial feature of Sindh, originates in India. Balochistan is home to the Baluchi people, some of whom do not consider themselves Pakistani and have constantly rebelled against Pakistan since its inception. Pakistan was also created with the province of Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi people spoke a different language, had a different culture and lived about 1000 miles away from mainland Pakistan. The shared religion of Islam resolved the incoherence among the Pakistani territory. Pakistan was created as a secular country for Muslims.[8] This vision, however, was almost immediately broken. Within two years of Pakistan’s independence, the state amended the previously secular constitution to declare Sunni Islam the official religion. Sunni Islam is a broad church encompassing 90% of Muslims. A military coup in the 1970s was followed by the Islamization of Pakistan, sealing the trajectory towards domestic Islamist extremism.[9] This early Pakistani history demonstrates how Pakistani elites cultivated an Islamist state through constitutional amendments and state-enforced social policy. Pakistani elites have prioritized Sunni Islamist identities to unite their Muslim population, resolving regional inconsistencies produced by territorial separations. Islamist political identities are based on the political ideology of Islamism. Islamist extremism may grow as a security threat because it has been deliberately embedded into the social fabric of Pakistan.


The recent protests show that strong social institutions in Pakistan support Islamists who do not care about Pakistan’s national identity or geopolitical interests. This suggests Islamists increasingly oppose the national interests of Pakistan. The historical decision to make Pakistan a nation at the heart of a global Islamist network has produced a population with little loyalty to the idea of Pakistan.[10] The success of Salafi Islamism in Pakistan is demonstrable; there are around 40-50,000 mosques in Pakistan, only 4-5,000 of which signed up to the government’s voluntary monitoring program so it could regulate Islamist messaging.[11] In the context of the War on Terror, Pakistan’s strong links to Kashmiri insurgents and the Taliban rebels; mosques refusing to cooperate with the government indicates they were promoting Salafi Islamist messages likely to be banned under the scheme. Many mosques openly retain links with Islamist terrorist groups in regions like Kashmir and promote violent messaging at home. This is particularly significant considering that madrassas (Islamic schools) contribute to the education system and, in some areas, provide more education than the state education system.[12] This produces a population with strong Islamist identities and therefore, as a democracy, a strong Islamist electorate. This has produced a domestic political system dependent on the support of Islamists to provide governments with legitimacy. The protests demonstrate the utility of this network in creating violent Islamist riots. This strongly suggests the growing contradictions between Pakistan’s national interests and its population’s Islamist identities will produce violence in the future.


Islamism is embedded into the history of Pakistan; its history of utilizing Islamism as a method of achieving geopolitical goals and unifying an otherwise disunited population has produced a culture surrounding Islamism. The recent anti-blasphemy protests are likely indicative of future waves of protest and violence; the dependency on Islamist narratives will continue to produce friction with Pakistan’s geopolitical realities. The prominence of Islamist identities in Pakistan will continue to produce incentives for Islamist groups to promote adherence to Islamism above the national interests of Pakistan. Pakistani elites are caught between the demands of a modern nation-state and the loyalties of a population without attachment to the Pakistani state. The waves of violence witnessed in the anti-blasphemy protests will not be the last violence produced by this problem, a problem of Pakistan’s creation.


The Counterterrorism Group is continuing to monitor the situation in Pakistan and how the impact of Islamist extremism will affect Pakistan’s domestic security. CTG’s Central Command (CENTCOM) focuses specifically on the region to identify the risks of attacks before they are carried out. CTG’s Extremism is monitoring the impact of the ideology and how it is spreading throughout the nation and the repercussions that it is likely to have globally. Both teams monitor the situation to ensure that the wider public is aware of the situation and detect new threats. CTG’s Worldwide Analysis of Threats, Crime, and Hazards (WATCH) Officers provide 24/7 monitoring of global attacks and therefore are continuing to detect the threat posed by Islamist extremists in Pakistan, and Threat Hunters monitor the likelihood of an attack being carried out.

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN - OCT 26: Members of Tajir Ittehad KPK are holding protest demonstration against publishing cartoons of Prophet Mohammed (P.B.U.H) in France, on October 26, 2020 in Peshawar. By Asianet-Pakistan licensed under Public Domain

[2] Pakistan government decidesto ban radical Islamist party, The Economic Times, April 2021, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/pakistan-government-decides-to-ban-radical-islamist-party/articleshow/82066989.cms?from=mdr

[3] Protests Spur Pakistan to Talk With Extremist Group It Banned, Bloomberg, April 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-04-19/protests-spur-pakistan-to-talk-with-group-it-banned-on-thursday?utm_source=iterable&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2241280_&fbclid=IwAR38n4boMty9q5wVlu7gp0QVaQtljlvbDj9EH4jn_QsvzBBEzKtyLobvB9s

[4] Pakistan opens talks with outlawed Islamists behind violent anti-France protests, Reuters, April 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/pakistan-negotiates-with-islamist-group-behind-anti-france-protests-11-police-2021-04-19/

[5] Engagement with the Muslim Community and Counter-Terrorism: British Lessons for The West, Brookings Institute, December 2007, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/12_counterterrorism_hellyer.pdf

[6] Pakistan opens talks with outlawed Islamists behind violent anti-France protests, Reuters, April 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/pakistan-negotiates-with-islamist-group-behind-anti-france-protests-11-police-2021-04-19/

[7] Pakistan, Britannica, May 2021, https://www.britannica.com/place/Pakistan

[8] How Jinnah's ideology shapes Pakistan's identity, BBC, August 2017, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-40961603

[9] The Islamization of Pakistan,1979-2009, The Middle East Institute, July 2009, https://www.mei.edu/sites/default/files/publications/2009.07.Islamization%20of%20Pakistan.pdf

[10] Whose side is Pakistan's ISI really on?, The Guardian, May 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/may/12/isi-bin-laden-death-pakistan-alqaida

[11] Pakistan's Jihad Culture, Foreign Affairs, December 2000, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/2000-11-01/pakistans-jihad-culture

[12] Pakistan’s Islamic Schools Fill Void, but Fuel Militancy, The New York Times, May 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/04/world/asia/04schools.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0



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