ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Protests by Muslim activists continued for a second day across Pakistan on Sunday, but most were peaceful and security forces kept a distance from the crowds, averting a repeat of the unrest that gripped cities and towns Saturday after police stormed a protest camp blocking a highway to the capital.
The army, which was called out by civilian officials Saturday night to keep order in the capital region as the demonstrations cascaded, reportedly agreed to guard government buildings in the capital but put off any further action. Army leaders formally asked the government to “clarify” the role of troops in the event of further civilian unrest, apparently concerned about losing public support.
Late Sunday, Pakistani media reported that top civilian and military officials had met and agreed to seek a negotiated solution to the crisis.
The chaos erupted after millions of Pakistanis spontaneously took to the streets Saturday to protest what they believed was an insult to the prophet Muhammad by the government.
Clashes between demonstrators and security forces in Islamabad and other locations left several hundred injured, and at least six civilians were killed. On Sunday, mass funerals were held for some of the victims at the highway camp outside the capital.
The main protest leader, cleric Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi, told journalists at the site Sunday evening that the group would negotiate only if the government removes the federal law minister, Zahid Hamid. Protesters believe Hamid was behind plans to change a law requiring all political candidates to swear that Muhammad was the final prophet in Islam.
Some protesters called Saturday for Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and his entire cabinet to resign, but that demand seemed to have been downgraded Sunday as Rizvi and other religious leaders reiterated only their original call for Hamid to step down or for the government to name and punish any other officials involved in the proposed law change.
On Saturday, Hamid’s home was ransacked by protesters. There was no indication that he intended to resign or would be removed.
Late Sunday evening, Hamid released a video message in which he said he believed in the “finality” of Muhammad, loved him “from the depth of my heart” and was prepared to lay down his life for the prophet’s honor. He also read out the oath all candidates must repeat about Muhammad.
As tensions eased, the government lifted a blackout of all TV news channels that had been imposed Saturday and restored public access to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Officials said they had suspended news broadcasts and social media to prevent an escalation of public anger and violence.
But with the conflict unresolved, the Muslim citizenry still aroused and the potential for violence to erupt again, the government kept all public schools and universities closed, shopping centers were shuttered, and many streets were deserted in the major cities of Rawalpindi, Karachi and Lahore. Some religious groups have called for a nationwide strike Monday.
The Abbasi government was widely criticized Sunday for failing to anticipate trouble as the highway protest camp swelled over the past three weeks and for launching an assault that failed to drive the demonstrators out and instead inspired sympathetic protests and road blockings nationwide.
In its lead editorial Sunday, the Dawn newspaper said the government had handled the episode “disastrously” and allowed the protests to become a “dangerous and destabilizing national crisis.” The paper asserted that no “fledgling political party” could be allowed to hold the capital “hostage” and that the episode showed “a near-vacuum” at the top of government.
The religious group that spearheaded the protests, the Movement in Service to the Messenger of God, was almost unknown until recently. It is part of the mainstream Barelvi sect of Sunni Islam, has disavowed violence and focuses on reverence for Muhammad. But it has also created a cult around a man who assassinated a provincial governor for religious reasons and was hanged last year.
The once-obscure Islamist movement recently entered national politics, fielding candidates for Parliament in two recent races. One of them was a high-profile contest in Lahore to replace former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted by the Supreme Court in July. The movement’s candidate came in third, a stunning result that shocked the political establishment.
“We’re looking at a combination of emboldened hard-line protesters and a deeply vulnerable government. That’s a perfect storm for extended unrest,” said Michael Kugelman, a Pakistan expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. He said military involvement might actually ease the crisis because the army enjoys respect among such religious groups.
On Sunday, leaders of the Messenger of God movement were joined by other Barelvi groups and clerics, who addressed crowds on streets and squares across the capital region and the country, making stirring speeches about the prophet’s “finality” and playing religious chants on loudspeakers.
At a crossroads in Tramri Chowk, a working-class market center several miles outside Islamabad, hundreds of men sat or stood in the street all day, listening to religious leaders and periodically breaking into chants that praised Muhammad and vowed to defend his “finality” to the death. The mood was emotional and edgy, and the crowd was guarded by young men holding clubs who stopped all cars from entering the square. Banners praising the prophet flew above the crowd
“We are not terrorists or extremists. We are Muslims, and our belief that our prophet is the last and final one is fundamental. There can be no compromise on this matter,” said Chaudhry Rizwan Ahmad, a local politician. “We are here to set an example so no one will ever try to change the laws again.”
Another man in the crowd, a government worker named Adnan Khan, said he and everyone else there would give their lives to defend the prophet. “This is our faith. It is everything,” he said. “If we die here, we will go to paradise.”
Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.