Islamabad, Pakistan – Hundreds of far-right protesters are marching on the Pakistani capital Islamabad, threatening to blockade the city unless the country cuts diplomatic ties with the Netherlands over a cartoon competition deemed to be blasphemous.
Protesters belonging to the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party began the second day of their march on the capital from the eastern city of Lahore on Thursday.
Images from the march showed TLP activists toppling a container used to block their path in the Punjab town of Jhelum, as they continued on their way towards the capital.
Security has been increased in Islamabad ahead of their arrival, with roadblocks prepared to be placed on several major roads.
The TLP activists are protesting against a competition for cartoons depicting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad by far-right Dutch opposition leader Geert Wilders, a known provocateur.
Physical depictions of God or the Prophet Muhammad are forbidden in Islam, and the TLP says the competition amounts to “blasphemy”.
The Dutch government has distanced itself from the competition, with Prime Minister Mark Rutte clarifying that Wilders is not a member of the government.
“The competition is not a government initiative,” he told a news conference last week.
The Dutch government, however, maintains that banning the competition would be a violation of the right to freedom of expression.
Foreign Minister Stef Blok echoed Rutte’s comments.
“The Netherlands very much adheres by freedom of speech, but we also adhere to treat religions respectfully,” Blok said according to Dutch news agency ANP.
He added that the competition “wouldn’t be his choice” but that there were no plans to ban the contest from happening.
Wilders leads the Dutch opposition Freedom Party (PVV) and is known for his incendiary speeches and protests against immigration and Islam.
The far-right politician told Dutch media the contest was not being held “to provoke, but to show we are marching for freedom of speech”.
On Tuesday, Dutch police arrested a man accused of plotting to kill the politician over the competition.
Clashes with riot police
The TLP rose to prominence last November, when firebrand Muslim scholar Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the party’s founder, led a three-week blockade of the Pakistani capital over a minor change to an electoral oath that he said amounted to “blasphemy”.
Riot police clashed with protesters but failed to end the demonstration, with TLP activists only vacating the sit-in after the government capitulated to all their demands, including the reversal of the change in the oath, the resignation of a federal minister, and the granting of legal immunity to all protesters.
In Pakistan’s July general election, the newly formed party bagged 2.2 million votes in national assembly constituencies nationwide, making it the fifth most popular political party in the country.
Those votes, however, only translated to two provincial assembly seats in the southern province of Sindh.
Ijaz Ashrafi, a TLP spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that his party was prepared to repeat the November blockade if their demand that Pakistan cut diplomatic ties with the Netherlands was not met.
“This issue must be resolved on an emergency basis, otherwise we will be out on the streets,” he said shortly before the protest. “I don’t mind if I die, but no one can dishonour the Prophet.”
‘They must act’
On Monday, Pakistan’s upper house of parliament passed a resolution condemning the holding of the competition, with newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan saying his government would raise the matter with the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and at the United Nations.
Prime Minister Imran Khan just released the following video statement, on the subject of the Dutch cartoon competition:
“I want to make clear that this is not an issue for just one Muslim, or a few Muslims, but every Muslim in the world, wherever they live, this issue affects us all,” Khan said in a video statement released on Thursday.
“The prophet … lives in Muslims’ hearts. When anyone disrespects Him, all Muslims are hurt by this. Our problem as Muslims is that the people of the West do not understand this. They don’t understand because we Muslims have not explained to them that the way we think of our religion is very different from how they think of their religion.”
At a press briefing on Wednesday, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said he had requested the OIC to call an emergency meeting on the issue.
“We have decided that an effective voice may be raised unanimously from the OIC platform,” he said.
“I assure the people of Pakistan that we are aware of their sentiments and we will stand with the Muslims around the world in raising the voice against this event.”
Qureshi’s statement followed an official note of protest registered with the Dutch charge d’affaires in Islamabad, as well as a phone call with Dutch Foreign Minister Blok.
It is unclear, however, if the government’s statements will be deemed sufficient by the TLP.
As the protest caravan of hundreds wound its way through Punjab province, the country’s political heartland, demonstrators carried banners condemning the Dutch government and Wilders and sang devotional songs.
“For our Prophet’s honour, we will lay down our lives,” they chanted, video footage from the rally showed.
Prime Minister Khan frequently referred to the blasphemy allegations raised by the TLP in November during his election campaign, and in his victory speech promised to run the country on the basis of the Prophet Muhammad’s governance of the Arab state of Medina in the 7th century.
“They have made a promise during the election, they have promised to establish a state along the lines of Medina,” said TLP spokesperson Ashrafi.
“So now they must act.”