I, along with so many other people, was having a good work day at the Islamabad Serena Hotel on Thursday last. We were busy with the organisation of a half-day conference hosted by the Delegation of the European Union (EU) to Pakistan as part of the six-day consultations they are having with different segments of Pakistani stakeholders to help them formulate their future plans for EU-Pakistan cooperation.
The conference, with members of Pakistan’s civil society, which included representations from all provinces, culminated at 1.30 pm with lunch. Pakistan’s civil society demonstrated its vibrancy at the conference and the discussions were lively and useful. Everybody was happy at the opportunity provided by the EU to get opinions and feedback, and there was a general air of bonhomie all around at a morning well-spent. Hosts and participants were all supposed to disperse after lunch. Or so we had planned.
The hotel where all this was taking place is within the red zone of Islamabad and chosen because of the security it offers. The hotel security alerted everyone inside the building around 2.00 pm that there was a big rally consisting of students and traders, who were just close by and were being stopped by the police from entering the red zone - for which, they had also placed containers on the roads. One thought that this was also one of those rallies, which would disperse after protesting for a couple of hours.
As all the day guests crowded into the Business Centre of the hotel to watch news channels on television, people also started to receive phone calls from various sources to say that the crowd was increasing by the minute with busloads more on the way. The news channels showed battle scenes just outside the building we were in, with ugly visuals of mob fury, stone hurling and setting on fire of several police chowkis. Mob fury, as we have witnessed several times in the recent past, has no recourse to sanity. All they want to do is destroy whatever they see!
The mob also clearly demonstrated its strength in numbers, as they just shoved the container, which was the blockage between the hotel and them, easily aside. The recently removed encroachments that consisted of heavy structures to prevent direct entry from the road by CDA also proved disastrous, as the angry mob was able to get inside the hotel parking lot easily.
The whole experience was decidedly unnerving for those who were inside the hotel and watching visuals of all that was happening just at the doorstep of the building on news channels. One realised how the plans of those who wish to see us destroying ourselves (the Muslim world) easily bear fruit. The easiest way for them is to provoke the Muslims through sacrilegious and highly insulting publications or, as in this case, film about the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). While there is complete agreement that Muslims all over the world must protest and condemn these acts of deliberate mischief and sacrilege, they must also work towards ensuring that no country’s laws allow such things. We just fall into the trap laid out for us and immediately react by becoming violent and self-destructive - which only feeds into our existing image.
Islam, despite the hostile propaganda against it, is the only religion that recognises and respects all the messengers of God and the holy books they brought. Therefore, Muslims can never respond in kind and show disrespect in any way to any of them, according to the teachings of our Prophet (PBUH). People of all faiths, our guests, the foreign missions located in our country, must all feel extremely safe in our country, as our Prophet (PBUH) preached, practiced and demonstrated in his lifetime. It was depressing and sad to see how the foreigners present in the hotel on Thursday became more insecure than the Pakistanis present and the deliberate vandalising of cars bearing CD number plates in the parking.
Only when the essence of true Islam is reclaimed by the majority and separated from those who propagate a narrow and bigoted version, can we hope to change our collective behaviour patterns and reactions. At this point, there are too many illiterate men and women, who incite the majority to violent forms of protests and the ordinary Pakistani, who is simple and devoted to his faith, is prepared to act at his or her bidding. We have to learn better ways of dealing with such situations, instead of making some extremely foolish person like the one who made this film into an international figure.
The government was slow in its responses to the situation, as it developed on Thursday. It was a time when, ironically, even members of the civil society, held hostage at the hotel whose gates were being pulled down by a crowd gone mad, were asking questions like “where is the army when one needs it?”
Postscript: An interesting glimpse into the mind of Qamar Zaman Kaira, Federal Minister for Information. He was invited to the consultation session with the parliamentarians by the EU and which invitation he had accepted. When he was called on the day of the consultations to reconfirm his time of arrival, he asked two or three pertinent questions like “will I be placed on a head table?” and “will I be asked to make a speech?” When the answer to both was given in the negative with the explanation that these were just consultations for preparing future policy, he did not think it necessary to attend! I rest my case.
The writer is a public relations and event management professional based in Islamabad.