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What Will Become Of Pakistan's Moderates Now?

A woman lights a candle next to an image of the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, during a candlelight vigil near the site of his assassination in Islamabad.
A woman lights a candle next to an image of the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, during a candlelight vigil near the site of his assassination in Islamabad.
It has been three days since the killing of Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan's largest federal unit, Punjab, by a lone assassin in the country's fortified capital of Islamabad.

While the high-profile killing leaves a serious question mark hanging over the security arrangements for state VIPs and raises fears that the ranks of security agencies have been infiltrated by religious extremists, the most troubling aspect of the incident is the doubt it casts over the future of religious minorities and the vast majority of moderate and progressive elements that have been resisting the hard-liners.

Taseer's was not the first -- and almost certainly will not be the last -- voice to be hushed by an assassin's bullet. In the recent past, the 170 million Pakistanis -- the vast majority of whom despise the extremist agenda -- have already experienced the killings of: religious scholar Farooq Khan inside his clinic; young Mian Rashid Hussain, son of outspoken Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain, in front of his house; Asfandyar Wali Khan, leader of the secular Awami National Party; and the country's two-time prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.

Many liberal and moderate voices -- including writers, rights activists, civil-society leaders, and politicians -- are living on borrowed time, mainly because they resist the handful of extremists trying to impose their agenda on Pakistani society with guns and suicide jackets.

It has become a cliche in the Pakistan media to blame the violent extremism on "mistaken policies of the last 30 years," on the country's military governments and the nefarious secret services, on "foreign interference," and on Pakistan's involvement with the Afghan jihad.

But Taseer's killing solidly pits the country's moderates and progressives who believe in a country of law and dialogue as envisioned by founder Muhammad Ali Jinah against the religious extremists who have no compunction against imposing their agenda from the barrel of a gun.

An Assault On Moderation

Supporters of Islamic parties demand punishment for Aasia Bibi at a rally in Karachi last month.
The apparent motive behind Taseer's assassination is the controversial blasphemy laws, which have been under fire from secular elements over the years. However, it's likely that many formerly outspoken commentators, analysts, rights activists, and political leaders will choose their words more cautiously following the Islamabad bloodshed.

Even before Taseer's killing, many political and religious leaders were minding their words when speaking publicly against the Taliban and their suicide attacks. And for good reason: the murder of respected religious scholar Maulana Hassan Jan in Peshawar; the killing of religious scholar Sarfarz Naeemi in Lahore; and that of Farooq Khan in Mardan; the kidnapping and killing of hundreds of tribal elders in the tribal areas; the suicide attack on the house of the secular Awami National Party leader Asfandyar Wali Khan in Charsadda; and so on.

And while the voices of those who might condemn acts such as Taseer's assassination are growing softer, the baying of those who endorse such violence rings more loudly and finds increasing traction.

The head of the Central Ruet-e Hilaal Committee, Mufti Muneebur Rahman, said no one could be allowed to challenge the blasphemy laws. Without condemning the slaying, Rahman said, "Taseer had no right to call the blasphemy laws 'the black laws.'"

Muhammad Ibrahim, a central leader of the religious party Jamaat-e Islami, came out with a similar view when asked to comment on the widening gap between the secular and religious elements of Pakistani society.

"No individual has the right to take the law into his own hand," Ibrahim said, "but no one can challenge the laws of the land, either."

Speaking Peace

Such comments, however, merely reflect the blindness of the extremists and those who justify them. After all, Taseer only "challenged" the laws by calling for them to be amended by the country's elected officials. The extremists and their supporters say nothing about the "challenge" to Pakistan's laws that assassination and terrorist attacks pose.

Taseer was the first to visit Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death by a Pakistani court on charges of blasphemy. In comments to journalists later, Taseer made the "black laws" comment and stressed the need to amend the laws.

Taseer's killing is being mourned by moderates across Pakistan. But it has pushed them further into despair and it is correct to wonder if they will ever recover from the shock. "The progressive elements have no other option but to keep their mouths shut and sit inside their houses," Islamabad-based analyst Nusrat Javid has said.

One exception to this general despair among the moderates was parliament deputy Bushra Gohar, who said the violence must serve to strengthen and unite progressive and moderate elements.

"Moderates are not on their back foot," she said, "but they just seem to be because they do not hold guns and because they speak peace."

Daud Khattak is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL