Violence in Pakistan: Mapping the Protests Following the Anti-Islam Film

September 25, 2012

Supporters of the Pasban-e-Peshawar group burn a U.S. flag during an anti-U.S. rally in Peshawar, Pakistan on September 18, 2012 (Reuters)

Protests and violence have erupted across the Muslim world following the release on YouTube of “Innocence of Muslims,” a film mocking the Prophet Muhammad. Nowhere has the violence been as intense as in Pakistan, where demonstrations and riots have claimed over 20 lives since street agitation first began on Friday, September 14.

The demonstrations have been far from spontaneous expressions of anger in the wake of publicity surrounding the film; they appear, rather, to have been sparked initially by Islamist political parties and groups with ties to militant Islamist groups. Protests first broke out on Tuesday, September 11 in Egypt and Libya, but the first public protests in Pakistan were not seen until three days later, and even then they were fairly small-scale and peaceful. Fridays are usually days when protests are expected to be their largest, due to congregations across the country meeting for Friday afternoon prayers. Protests did not start in earnest in Pakistan until Sunday, September 16 when large demonstrations, including those organized by religious parties and Islamist groups such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a front group for terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Jamaat-e-Islami, marched on U.S. diplomatic missions in Pakistan’s main cities.

As protests continued throughout the week, the government of Pakistan decided to respond to public pressure by declaring a public holiday on Friday, September 21 in solidarity with the protestors. Violent protests that day subsequently spiraled out of control and became the deadliest day of protesting against the film across the Muslim world with over 20 killed and 200 wounded.

What the data and reporting on the protests make clear is that, far from being spontaneous outpourings of public anger, the protests were fueled by hard-line religious parties and militant Islamist groups. Furthermore, by completely ceding ground to the protestors the Pakistani government allowed the violence to get much worse than it otherwise might have been. 

This slide deck tracks the spread of protests across Pakistan, their reach across the country, incidences of violence, and the tendency for violent protests to occur near U.S. diplomatic missions, especially in Karachi, the worst-hit city. 

Kimberley Hoffman contributed research to this slide deck.