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Salman Taseer And An Increasingly Divided Pakistan

Pakistani paramilitary soldiers cordon off the area during the funeral prayer of slain Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in Lahore on January 5.
Pakistani paramilitary soldiers cordon off the area during the funeral prayer of slain Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in Lahore on January 5.
Pakistan's laws create division in the heart of its society. That fissure became a chasm with the assassination of Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, the country’s largest and most populous region.

Taseer was allegedly gunned down on January 4 by his own bodyguard, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, a member of the elite force in the capital, Islamabad. Qadri proudly confessed his crime in front of television cameras, saying that he killed the governor because of his support for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman facing the death penalty under Pakistan’s archaic blasphemy law.

Nasir Mohmand, an editor with Geo TV, told RFE/RL that both the grand khateeb of the Shahi Mosque in Lahore and the official imam of the Punjab governor’s house refused to lead the funeral prayer for Salman Taseer. They blamed a fatwa had been signed by 50 Islamists declaring that leading the funeral prayer for Taseer would be un-Islamic.

Taseer’s condemnation of the blasphemy law and his support for victims of that controversial legislation was both principled and brave. But he was alone.

Introduced in the 1980s by the military dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s blasphemy law (section 295c) stipulates that any derogatory remarks spoken, written, posted, or distributed regarding the Holy Prophet, either directly or indirectly, are punishable by fine, life imprisonment, or even death. The law was part of ul-Haq's efforts to Islamisize Pakistani society.

In Pakistan, the law of the land changes when one travels from the western mountains to the eastern plains. The tribal areas of the northwest are governed by the British-era frontier law; Gligit and Baltistan in the north have their own ways of doing things; in the Swat Valley, Shari'a courts dole put punishments and sentences; and the rest of Pakistan is still struggling with constitutional amendments.

Since independence in 1947, Pakistani society has been searching for even a casual consensus among the masses on the extreme right and the extreme left. Such consensus has been elusive. The murder of Salman Taseer does not make things any easier.

Over the last few months, Islamic political parties and various extremist groups repeatedly threatened the life of Salman Taseer, but none was taken seriously by law enforcement agencies. Interestingly, making threats against anyone in Pakistan is against the law.

It now seems only a matter of time before Pakistan’s liberals are engulfed by the country’s minority religious fanatics, and the already-fading culture of dialogue on issues related to the heart of society will be all but quieted. On Pakistani television, the process has already begun. In the day following Taseer’s murder, Pakistani TV has been rife with discussion; but none of the religious clerics or political leaders -- not even Maulana Fazal Rehman, an old ally of the Pakistan People's Party to which Taseer belonged -- has condemned the act.

There are now reports of Facebook fan pages for Qadri, with commentators praising him for killing “the blasphemer.” To Qadri’s name has been added the title “Ghazi,” which means that he is being revered as a Muslim who has returned alive from Islamic Jihad.

The ramifications for Punjab Province could be enormous. The region is home to at least 17 different militant Islamic groups, as well the oldest red-light district in South Asia -- where more than 35,000 female sex workers are said to be based. It is also an epicenter of culture and entertainment activities in Pakistan, playing home to the Lollywood film industry. But now the region looks too weak to encounter head-on -- both socially and legally -- growing Islamic extremism.

In 2007 -- when the sitting chief justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, was ousted by Pervez Musharraf -- a “black tie” movement hit the streets in support of the rule of law in Pakistan. Optimism abounded, Chaudhry was eventually reinstated, and at least a cursory faith in the rule of law emerged.

Less than four years later, the Pakistani Taliban and dozens of militant groups are in near-total control of the tribal areas with their own Shari'a courts -- chopping off hands, stoning adulterers, and beheading opponents. Now, as the Pakistani Army struggles to establish the writ of the Pakistani state in the tribal areas, Salman Taseer is shot dead by his own guard in the nation’s capital.

Islamic fanaticism is not confined to the tribal regions; it has permeated Pakistani society. The loss of Salman Taseer will make it all the more difficult for Pakistan to purge this ideology of hatred.

-- Majeed Baber