'Somebody has to stand up,' Salmaan Taseer had responded in a television interview last December after being reminded that challenging Pakistan's strong and powerful rightwing Islamists over the country's longstanding, controversial blasphemy law would involve great risk for him. Weeks later, fears over this risk were proved correct. On 4 January, Taseer's official bodyguard emptied two gun magazines in the governor, killing him in the heart of the federal capital.
In so doing, the assassination also deepened already-stark social divisions over a law that the late military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq, introduced in an attempt to 'Islamise' Pakistan during the 1980s. Pakistan's blasphemy law carries the death penalty for any individual found guilty of using derogatory remarks against Islam, the Quran or the Prophet Muhammad. Since its inception, many accused have been tried and convicted under this law by the lower judiciary – although the higher courts have often set aside such convictions.
The bodyguard, a reportedly unrepentant 26-year-old named Malik Mumtaz Qadri who serves in Punjab's Elite Force, has since confessed to the murder. Calm and composed during his production before a magistrate for physical remand, he received a warm reception from a group of bystanders who showered rose petals on him. Among those praising Qadri's actions included lawyers.
The police are now investigating whether Qadri acted alone or was part of a wider plot. It appears that his bosses had failed to scrutinise his links with religious, extremist or other militant groups for security clearance. If investigators find that Qadri did not act alone, the political fallout – in Punjab province in particular and the country in general – will be massive. Punjab, the country's largest and most influential province, is ruled by a coalition government of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif (PML-N). Recently, these two main political forces have been drifting away from each other, and a war of words between them could quickly revert the country to politics of confrontation seen during the 1990s.
Qadri's actions seem to have been instigated by the rightwing Islamist parties – Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazlur Rehman group) and Jamaat-e-Islami, which led countrywide shutter-down strikes on 31 December. This was organised to warn the relatively liberal PPP-headed federal government against any amendment to the blasphemy law through the Parliament. The liberal voices have also held the otherwise independent media responsible for playing a role in silencing the most liberal voice in the country, by not initiating a debate on whether a manmade law could be subject to amendment through a democratic process.
Taseer's killing came four days after the strike – importantly, the governor had been talking openly against 'misuse' of the blasphemy law, and had begun to urge procedural changes to stop the law from being used for personal reasons. 'What we want [are changes in] the law … to keep innocents from being victimised … by rivals or vested interests,' Taseer had said, explaining why he had taken a firm stand to help Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman facing the death penalty in Sheikhupura district, in Punjab, after being convicted under the blasphemy law. The country's clerics had increasingly made him the centre of vehement criticism.
The blasphemy law targets both religious minorities and Muslims alike, though its effects on the former have long come under strident criticism. Critics say the state is increasingly failing to protect Ahmedis, Shias, Barelvis, Christians and other religious minorities from attacks by extremist groups. The All Pakistan Minority Alliance (APMA) has demanded the scrapping of laws that discriminate against religious minorities, particularly referring to the blasphemy and Hudood laws, which put Pakistan's non-Muslim minorities under threat simply for asserting their religion.
Opponents of the blasphemy law cite many instances in which the law has been used as a tool by extremists. The Christian population in Gojra, in Toba Tek Singh district of Punjab, an area with a high number of extremist groups, was attacked in 2009 after reports surfaced of alleged desecration of the Quran at a Christian wedding ceremony. Youths, their faces covered, attacked the Christians, setting 40 houses ablaze. Eight minorities, including four women and a child, were killed. Promises were made to punish the perpetrators of the crime, but this has yet to happen.
Taseer's cold-blooded murder is nothing less than a tragedy. Yet an even greater tragedy unfolded later in the day of his death, when reporters and TV anchors found political leaders running away from commenting on the law. It is understandable why the religious parties' leaders were unwilling to record any sadness over the governor's killing, but it is thoroughly disconcerting why the reactions of others have been so quiet.
One thing is clear, though. Post-Taseer Pakistan will find it even harder to balance the act. The murder has sent shockwaves among the religious-minority groups and liberal Muslims, building anxiety that such attacks may increase. The murder has also made life for Aasia Bibi even more vulnerable, and any possibility of President Asif Ali Zardari granting her clemency will be far more difficult. Even if the president pardons her, the Islamists will almost certainly demand similar pardon for Taseer's killer, despite his own admission of guilt.
Perhaps most worryingly, the incident has silenced the critics of the blasphemy law. Sherry Rehman, a member of Parliament, has been seeking amendment to the law, but has now gone underground to escape the potential wrath of zealots.
Today's Pakistan is being torn apart by years-long militancy and natural disaster after disaster. Its economy is struggling to stand up, a solution to poor governance is still far from sight, the democratic culture is still struggling to assert itself, and doubts persist over the military's intentions vis-à-vis wresting power from the civilian government. Needless to say, a fresh round of violence over the blasphemy law would only sink it deeper into crisis.
Iqbal Khattak is a Contributing Editor to Himal Southasian and the Bureau Chief of Daily Times based in Peshawar.
Post Salmaan Taseer's murder, Sherry Rehman withdraws her bill seeking amendment to the blasphemy law. For the news article, click here.
For Prashant Jha's review of Stranger to history: A son's journey through Islamic lands by Aatish Taseer, son of the slain Governor Salmaan Taseer, click here.