ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The sudden house arrest of a high-profile Islamist cleric in Pakistan on Monday sparked peaceful protests Tuesday by his followers, who condemned it as a government effort to appease the Trump administration after it banned visitors and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries over the weekend — and after a top presidential aide hinted that Pakistan could be added to the list.
Supporters of Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the fiery leader of the Jamaat-ul-Dawa movement, said the move by Pakistani officials had also come at the behest of India, Pakistan’s Hindu-led rival and neighbor. The group zealously opposes India’s claim to the disputed Kashmir border region, and a previous militant group led by Saeed, Lashkar-e-Taiba, was blamed for the 2008 terrorist siege that killed 166 people in the Indian city of Mumbai.
“There was pressure coming from the U.S. on Pakistani authorities to either arrest Hafiz Saeed or face the sanctions, and the government succumbed to that pressure,” Nadeem Awan, a spokesman for Saeed, said in an interview Tuesday. The U.S. government offered a $10 million bounty for Saeed’s arrest in 2012.
At a rally in the capital Tuesday, about 200 supporters burned representations of the U.S. and Indian flags and repeatedly chanted, “We are Hafiz Saeed!” One speaker praised Saeed as a champion of the needy and said his supporters are “civilized citizens” who only perform relief work and “carry out no illegal or anti-state acts.”
Pakistani officials dismissed suggestions that they had moved against Saeed under foreign pressure, insisting that they were only implementing the terms of a U.N. resolution that declared Saeed’s group a terrorist organization after the Mumbai attacks.
They also criticized Trump’s new visa restrictions, which Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar said would “not affect terrorists but the victims of terrorism.”
Many Pakistanis agreed with that assessment. One analyst, Mosharraf Zaidi, wrote in the News International newspaper Tuesday that the ban “is going to launch a thousand narratives of victimhood, of seething rage, and of hatred.” He praised the American protesters who have criticized Trump, adding, “Tomorrow, the list may include our country too.”
Still, there was no clear explanation for the abrupt decision to confine Saeed, who has been arrested and released several times in previous years and accused but never convicted of extremist activities. He has regularly preached impassioned anti-government and anti-India sermons to large crowds without being stopped by police, and he has a wide popular following. His group’s assets were frozen two years ago, but it has never been banned, and Saeed could be freed in six months.
The news of his detention was greeted in India with a heavy dose of skepticism. Many on social media noted that Saeed had been previously detained and speculated that Pakistan was reining him in now as a sop to the new American president. Indian authorities have long demanded tougher action against him and others accused of carrying out or orchestrating anti-India violence.
“Only a credible crackdown on the mastermind of the Mumbai terrorist attack and terrorist organizations involved in cross-border terrorism would be proof of Pakistan’s sincerity,” said Vikas Swarup, the spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs.
Some Pakistani analysts also questioned the timing of the arrest and attributed it to pressure from Washington, noting that Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said the ban might be extended to Pakistan and other countries that have had “similar problems” with terrorism as the seven now on the list: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan.
But others said they doubted that the Trump administration would add Pakistan to the visa ban without first adding Saudi Arabia, another longtime U.S. ally that was the home country of most of the 9/11 hijackers. Instead, they suggested that Islamabad was looking for a way to improve ties with India after months of tension and violent episodes in Kashmir, which led to harsh accusations on both sides.
“This is something India has wanted for years, and it was a major stumbling block to resuming dialogue,” said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of government and public policy at the National University of Sciences and Technology. “There was also a feeling that Hafiz Saeed had gotten too big for his boots and was becoming a nuisance. This was mostly a desire for a restart.”
Up to a point, though, the rhetoric of Saeed and other anti-India agitators has long helped bolster Pakistan’s domestic crusade and high-cost military buildup against a country that it considers an existential enemy and nuclear rival. Pakistani officials are especially wary of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a lifelong Hindu nationalist, and are concerned about Trump’s substantial business investments in India.
Many Pakistanis would have little disagreement with the chants and arguments Tuesday of Saeed’s supporters, who denounced India’s military oppression of Kashmiris and cast its growing friendship with the United States as a conspiratorial alliance against Muslim interests.
“The new U.S. president has time and time again declared India a best friend of the United States and is following upon the desires of that friend,” Awan said. “But if our rulers want to please the United States, they can’t. Pakistan has done a lot for the U.S., but it always pressures Pakistan to do more.”
Annie Gowen in New Delhi and Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.