‘Somebody has to stand up,’ Salman Taseer had responded in a television interview last December, after being reminded that challenging Pakistan’s rightwing Islamists over the controversial blasphemy laws would involve great risk. Weeks later, fears over this risk were proved correct. On 4 January, Taseer’s official bodyguard emptied two gun magazines into the governor, killing him in the centre of the federal capital.
The bodyguard, a reportedly unrepentant 26-year-old named Malik Mumtaz Qadri who served in Punjab’s Elite Force, has since confessed to the murder. Calm and composed during his production before a magistrate, he received a warm reception from a group of bystanders who showered rose petals on him. Among those praising Qadri’s actions were lawyers.
| Salman Taseer, 1944-2011
The police are now investigating whether Qadri acted alone or was part of a wider plot. Either way, it appears that his bosses failed to scrutinise his links with extremist 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 drag the country back to the politics of confrontation last 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 strikes on 31 December. This was organised to warn the government against any amendment to the blasphemy law. 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. The country’s clerics had increasingly made him the focus of vehement criticism.
Taseer’s killing was followed by another tragedy, which unfolded later in the day of his death, when reporters and TV anchors found political leaders running away from commenting on the situation. It is understandable that 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. Most worryingly, the incident has silenced the critics of the blasphemy law. Sherry Rehman, a member of Parliament, who had been seeking amendment to the law, has now gone underground.
One thing is clear, though. Post-Taseer Pakistan will find it even harder to rationalise the act. Taseer’s assassination has sent shock waves among religious-minority groups and liberal Muslims alike, building anxiety that such attacks might increase. The murder has also made Aasia Bibi even more vulnerable (see pic, with Governor Taseer), and the possibility of President Asif Ali Zardari granting her clemency is now remote. Even if the president pardons her, the Islamists will almost certainly demand similar pardon for Taseer’s killer, despite his own admission of guilt.
Today’s Pakistan is being torn apart by years-long militancy and one natural disaster after another. 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 the society deeper into crisis.
Iqbal Khattak is a Contributing Editor to Himal Southasian and the Bureau Chief of Daily Times based in Peshawar.