Pakistan Lawmakers Debate French Envoy's Expulsion
By Ayaz Gul April 20, 2021
Pakistan's parliament began debating a resolution Tuesday on whether the French ambassador should be ordered to leave the country over the publication of anti-Islam caricatures in France.
The proposed resolution is the outcome of a deal Prime Minister Imran Khan's government negotiated in overnight talks with leaders of the radical Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) to defuse days of deadly, nationwide anti-France demonstrations.
The TLP has agreed to call off its protests across the country, said Pakistani Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed while sharing details of the understanding.
Ahmed added that all cases registered against activists of the group under anti-terror laws for their involvement in recent violent protests will also be withdrawn.
The government, he said, has also agreed to withdraw last week's decision outlawing the TLP and to release leaders as well as activists of the group detained during the protests.
Attempts by police to disperse the demonstrations sparked violent clashes, leaving four policemen and six protesters dead. Officials said more than 800 people, mostly law enforcers, were among those injured in the clashes.
The resolution calls for the expulsion of the French envoy and it would be up to the lawmakers to vote in favor or against it.
The text of the resolution, however, stressed the (Pakistani) state alone is authorized to deal with foreign policy matters and "no individual, group or party are allowed to exert undue illegal pressure regarding such matters."
"The optics of tabling a resolution calling for the expulsion of the French ambassador are not good for Islamabad, as it's essentially caving in to the TLP's core demand," Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at Washington's Wilson Center, told VOA.
"That said, the Parliament has an opportunity to reject the resolution, and that would be a major victory not just for the government, but also for a state that has repeatedly treated religious hardliners with kid gloves," Kugelman said.
Khan's ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party holds a simple majority in the legislative house.
The TLP has been agitating and demanding since November that Islamabad expel the French envoy, citing French President Emmanuel Macron's statement defending media rights in France to republish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, an act denounced by Muslims as blasphemous.
The latest protests in Pakistan erupted April 12 after authorities detained TLP chief Saad Rizvi, saying the cleric was planning to lead a march on Islamabad to pressure the government into expelling the French ambassador.
The action angered Rizvi's supporters, who took to streets across Pakistan, blocking scores of highways and refusing to disperse until the government released their leader.
The government barred local media from covering the protests before ordering a police crackdown to disperse the rallies. The security action cleared almost all sit-ins, but TLP activists continue rallying in Lahore, the capital of eastern Pakistan, where the group is headquartered.
In a televised address to the nation Monday evening, Khan defended the actions against TLP and said the expulsion of the French ambassador would not stop extremists in the West from insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
"It doesn't make any difference to France. If we keep protesting our whole lives we would only be damaging our own country," Khan said. He noted that expulsion of the French diplomat would mean cash-starved Pakistan cutting all ties with the European Union, one of the largest destinations for Pakistani textile exports.
Khan again urged Western governments to criminalize any insulting remarks against the Prophet Muhammad and treat offenders the same way they do those who deny the Holocaust.
The Pakistani leader called for all Muslim-majority countries to collectively lobby Western leaders to convince them that insulting the Prophet Muhammad in the name of freedom of speech hurts followers of Islam.
"When 50 Muslim countries in one voice tell them that if something like this happens in any country, we will go for a trade boycott on them and stop buying their goods," Khan insisted.
The far-right TLP, along with demonstrations against France, has pressured the Pakistani government into not repealing or reforming the country's harsh blasphemy laws, which critics say often are used to intimidate religious minorities and settle personal disputes.
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