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The Taseer Assassination And The Tyranny Of Fear

AERO Scouts shift the coffin of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer from a helicopter to the funeral location in Lahore, Pakistan, on January 5.
AERO Scouts shift the coffin of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer from a helicopter to the funeral location in Lahore, Pakistan, on January 5.
The killing of Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, is one of those epochal moments that we encounter in politics from time to time. It’s one of those moments that makes you realize that a fundamental shift has occurred, that something has broken beyond repair. I’m reminded of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s great reportage on the revolution in Iran, “Shah of Shahs.” In it, Kapuscinski describes that mysterious tipping point when a demonstrator loses his fear of the security forces and refuses to listen when the shah’s once all-powerful police order him to step back. Suddenly, all involved realize that the power of the state to cow people into obedience has been broken.

The murder of Taseer has the same quality -- though here the poles are reversed. In the case of modern Pakistan, it is now the tyranny of fear that is reaching into the heart of the political system. It has become extremely hard to see how anyone can pull the country’s political culture back from the brink. It’s not just that Taseer was an advocate of a secular, pluralistic Pakistan who stood up, on a number of occasions, to the forces of intolerance -- a man who was, on various occasions, imprisoned, tortured, and beaten for publicly defending the rights of minorities and the urgency of need for the freedom of expression. It’s not just that he was the head of Pakistan’s richest and most populous province. And it’s not just that he was an example of someone from humble origins who managed to rise to one of the highest offices in the country by dint of his own hard work.

No, what’s particularly worrisome about this case is the failure of the political system to protect one of its own. When the state surrenders its monopoly on violence to those who stand outside of it, it can no longer be described as a functioning state. Pakistan’s polity is supposed to represent the many different parties and groups that participate in it, yet now state power is succumbing to the demands of an exclusionist view of the world that can benefit only a particular few. No one within Taseer’s own political party -- supposedly a bulwark of this system -- was willing to come to his defense. Five hundred Barelvi scholars -- who have often claimed to stand for a more tolerant vision of Islam -- have greeted his killing and praised his assassin. His murderer, of course, appears to have been a member of his own security detail -- a man who decided that his oath to protect an official of the state was superseded by a “higher” oath that commanded him, instead, to kill. All of this is why I find myself agreeing with Huma Imtiaz: “This is the end. There is no going back from here, there is no miracle cure, there is no magic wand that will one day make everything better.”

I am not a Pakistani. But I can’t help feeling that the killing of Salman Taseer is a calamity for everyone who lives there -- including the people who are now strewing flowers at the feet of the man who allegedly pulled the trigger. Those who support the takfiri worldview don’t seem to understand that this is an ideology that cedes the definition of “true Islam” to the self-declared defenders of religion -- and that these definitions shift according to the political wind, to selfish agendas and narrow factional interests, rather than to the uncorrupted dictates of faith. And that means that those who consider themselves right-minded believers today can easily find themselves on the wrong end of the Kalashnikov tomorrow.

The West, and especially the United States, should also take notice. It is time for policymakers in Washington to understand that Pakistan is not simply a vexing sideshow to the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan -- populous, chaotic, and nuclear-armed -- needs to be taken seriously in its own right. An imploding Pakistan promises immense pain and turmoil to itself and the world at large. Let’s hope that this realization doesn’t come too late.

-- Christian Caryl