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Pakistani Government Shuts Off Mobile Phone Network Amid Massive Protest


Pakistan remains a country in mourning following a suicide bombing Sunday in the city of Lahore. Seventy-two people were killed. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif responded to the attack by promising to stamp out violent extremism, yet extremism comes in different forms, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports from Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: These days, you can tell when the authorities here are worrying about unrest. They shut down the mobile phone network. For the last two days, people in much of Islamabad were unable to make mobile calls, to the annoyance of taxi driver Mansoor Masseh.

MANSOOR MASSEH: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Masseh reckons his income dropped by half because clients couldn't contact him. The reason the mobile network was switched off is to be found cross-legged in the middle of town. Some 2000 men, bearded and with flowing robes, are holding a protest sit-in in front of Parliament.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

REEVES: They sing Islamic hymns.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

REEVES: Then they breaking into chants that celebrate a killer.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

REEVES: These men are devotees of a former policeman called Mumtaz Qadri. Qadri was hanged a month ago for murdering a progressive provincial governor, Salmaan Taseer. Cadre shot Taseer in 2011 because Taseer spoke out against Pakistan's blasphemy laws. Rights organizations cite numerous cases of people falsely accusing others of defaming the profit, a capital offense, to win a feud or to persecute religious minorities. But these protesters want to guarantee that the blasphemy laws will not be reformed. They include Mohammad Javed Iqbal.

MOHAMMAD JAVED IQBAL: For this, we will sacrifice our own lives, our parents, our wives.

TALAT MASOOD: It's just fanaticism. It's a misguided sort of a thinking. It's completely misplaced.

REEVES: Talat Masood is a political commentator and retired general.

MASOOD: And it's a result of a lack of education and also the policies that had been pursued by the state over the last several decades.

REEVES: The hero-worshiping of Mumtaz Qadri troubles Masood.

MASOOD: Instead of sort of condemning him as a murderer and a militant, he is being turned into sort of a semi-prophet, and his grave is like a monument.

REEVES: Qadri's grave is on the outskirts of Islamabad. It's beneath an ornate green dome. Within this shrine, men sit in a circle, praying. There are carpets, flowers, flags and big banners with Qadri's picture. Raja Nafees Ahmed, Qadri's father-in-law, is among those gathered here. He says there are a lot of visitors.

RAJA NAFEES AHMED: (Through interpreter) People come here to sing hymns and to recite the Holy Quran and pray for departed souls.

REEVES: Qadri's supporters are from the Barelvi branch of Islam. Barelvis form a from a very large part of Pakistan's overwhelmingly Muslim population. They're often described as moderate because their faith's entwined with Sufi mysticism and ancient folk practices. Yet when it comes to the issue blasphemy, Barelvis are not moderate at all. Raja Nafees Ahmed again.

AHMED: (Through interpreter) According to Islam, if someone blasphemes against the prophet, he deserves to die.

REEVES: Today, the mobile phones in Islamabad were switched back on. The protesters outside parliament dispersed after lengthy negotiations, yet the issue of Pakistan's blasphemy laws remains unresolved. It's a sensitive and dangerous subject, but Talat Masood says Pakistan's decision-makers must address it.

MASOOD: And without fear. And the state must provide protection to those who speak openly and try to clarify what Islam stands for.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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