Asian Conversations - an online magazine to explore Asia's future

Darkness in Pakistan

1 FEBRUARY, 2011: Pakistan remains in turmoil following the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer. The staunchly secular and outspoken Taseer was gunned down by one of his bodyguards on 4 January, 2011, apparently for daring to campaign for a repeal of the blasphemy laws.

Shehrbano Taseer, the governor’s daughter and a reporter, later wrote: “Twenty-seven. That’s the number of bullets a police guard fired into my father before surrendering himself with a sinister smile to the policemen around him”.

The most alarming fact is not that this happened without one member of the security detail raising a finger. More chilling is the reaction from varied echelons of society, including common people, “moderate” clerics, and even politicians and lawyers, many of whom congratulated the self-confessed assassin, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, with garlands, rose petals, and beaming smiles during his court hearing. Marches took place on the streets lionizing Qadri, and Facebook pages pronouncing him a "hero" and a "son of Pakistan”, were soon doing the rounds.

Many believe that secular and liberal minds in Pakistan are being marginalised, as anyone can be targeted and intimidated, with little or no consequence.

Pakistan daily Dawn reported in its online edition that Christians felt besieged and under threat. It spoke out strongly, saying, “If Pakistan and Pakistanis do not try to excise the cancer within, the future of this country is very bleak.” Across the border in India, The Hindu opined, “Taseer's death has focused that ideological fight around blasphemy… it is a crime where no proof is required. The religious slander allegedly uttered by Aasia Bibi, for instance, has never been repeated by her accusers – to do so would be to blaspheme again. As a result, she has been convicted on the say-so of her neighbours, with whom she was having an argument in a field… The question now is who will speak up for her. For liberals, Taseer's death is a sign that their political space, already highly constrained, is becoming impossibly small.”

Writing in The Guardian, Michael Nazir-Ali added that “also glaringly visible is the government's failure to act against those clerics who [offered] rewards for the extrajudicial killing of Aasia Bibi and the governor himself.”

Favouring a more conservative line, writing in, columnist Abdul-Majid Jaffry said, despite Taseer’s “openly and publicly impious” manner and his “extra judicial campaign to secure the release of the blasphemer”, his “cold calculated murder in the vigilante style is not only regrettable but also highly condemnable. His murder is morally and legally wrong, the cheering should stop.”

There is little disagreement that Taseer’s murder has left Pakistan’s democracy teetering on the edge. A leader in the Khaleej Times summed it up thus: “This new trend of target killings, in the midst of terrorism all around, can come as a deadly blow to the social fabric and infant democracy in Pakistan.” TIME magazine concurred. “While underscoring the parlous state of Pakistan, where even the powerful are vulnerable, Taseer's death also highlights how religious extremism has pervaded deep into the ranks of the very men who are supposed to be fighting it.

Wrote political commentator B G Verghese, “By volunteering to defend [Qadri], members of the Bar (who fought Musharraf’s tyranny not so long ago) and powerful sections of the media have virtually upheld the assassin.” He concluded, “Radical Islam has displaced the humanistic sufi, syncretic Islam of the sub-continent, as in J&K too. Rival fanaticisms feed on one another and threaten peace and social harmony. This was not the Pakistan Jinnah envisaged.” – Kanishk Verghese