The TV screen caught my eye. We were in a restaurant eating some delicious Pakistani food but suddenly the images of protesters waving placards and storming into embassies grabbed my attention. Protesters in the Middle East had attacked US embassies in the Middle East in response to an amateur film which was critical of Islam and its prophet. My first thought was whether the protests would spread further.
“Oh, don’t worry” said a passing waiter in response to my anxious question. “People here aren’t too bothered about it”.
Well, he was wrong. Boy, was he ever wrong. A few days later protests exploded all over Pakistan. Cinemas were burned, mobs roamed the streets stoning cars and attacking the police, and a large crowd attempted to storm the US embassy in Islamabad. Our whole family stayed inside the house for four days. Over twenty people were killed, largely in the southern megacity of Karachi.
These protests were criticised heavily, both within Pakistan and internationally. Certainly, it is hard to see how torching a cinema and thereby destroying the livelihoods of many people is a valid way of expressing discontent. They also seemed disproportionate to some – how could an amateur film, shoddily made in California on a tiny budget, possibly merit a response of such violence, a response which locked down Pakistan’s major cities for three days and which led to the deaths of so many people?
What people in the West largely fail to appreciate is that there is a lot of latent anger within Pakistan. People here are angry about a whole range of issues. Resources such as electricity, water and gas are limited. Jobs are limited. The population is growing rapidly and the pressure on both resources and jobs is increasing. Prices are increasingly rapidly and salaries are not keeping pace. Furthermore, it is widely recognised that Pakistan’s leaders are corrupt, with Transparency International claiming that $94 billion (yes, billion) have been lost due to corruption within the last four years. People know this, and they also know that there’s not much they can do about it, and if I were in their shoes that knowledge would make me very angry indeed.
So yes, these protests were about the film, but the violent and angry response we all saw on our TV screens runs a lot deeper than that. Lots of people here are angry and afraid. When I caught up with a friend recently I asked him about how he saw things in Pakistan. His response saddened me. “Everyone here feels mental depression. Some people can barely afford to eat. Are you surprised that we are so angry?”.