Deadly warning to Pakistan liberals

Assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer is indicative of deeper trends towards religious intolerance.

Arrested Pakistani bodyguard, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri
Taseer, right, vocally supported the amendment of a blasphemy law under which Bibi, centre, was convicted [Reuters]

Salman Taseer, the Pakistani politician who has been assassinated by his own bodyguard in the nation’s capital, Islamabad, was a man with many enemies.

In the political sphere of the country’s most populous province, Punjab, Taseer, a wealthy industrialist and businessman, was characterised by many as the “attack dog” of Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s president.

Zardari, also co-chairperson of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), appointed Taseer as governor of Punjab in 2008, in a province where the largest opposition party, the PML-N, was in power.

In the following years, Taseer used the largely ceremonial position to publicly criticise the PML-N’s leadership, often taking shots at Nawaz Sharif, the party leader, and Shahbaz Sharif, the Punjab chief minister and brother to Nawaz.

Tensions remained consistently high, and in 2009, Taseer was made head of the provincial government after Zardari imposed “governor rule” in the province in a bid to contain a growing protest movement against his government.  

The imposition left the provincial assembly temporarily suspended, and put power directly in the hands of the governor.

Ultimately, however, it was not Taseer’s brash, often confrontational, approach to politics that led to his death on Tuesday.

Mumtaz Qadri, the member of the elite force of the police deputed to protect Taseer who shot and killed him in a market in Islamabad, boasted to officers that he was proud to have killed a “blasphemer,” according to security officials.

Taseer had taken a vocal stand in support of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who was recently sentenced to death by a Pakistani court, following her conviction for blasphemy.

Bibi has pleaded her innocence, and human-rights activists used the case to highlight what they termed the misuse of the law to victimise minorities.

‘Radical elements’

Analysts say the assassination is significant not simply because of the person targeted and the reason behind it, but because of the broader societal implications.

“[It points to] the presence of radical elements inside the Pakistani state apparatus,” Cyril Almeida, an Islamabad-based analyst and columnist, says.

He says that the fact that Taseer’s own bodyguard shot him is not just worrying because it indicates a failure of the vetting process, but because it points to “the extent to which this poison has affected the Pakistani state. The investment in jihad has come home to roost”.

Preliminary investigations point to Qadri acting as a lone assassin, and Almeida says he likely picked up his religious ideas not from secretive radical groups, but from public discourse.

“He was probably just an average man, who would pick something from the mosque, from TV, from a newspaper, and then one day decides that ‘this’ guy is against Islam and that he must die,” Almeida said.

Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst, believes that it is an atmosphere of religious intolerance that allows such attacks to happen.

“In the public sphere you will find statements by religious leaders, and in this case religious leaders had specifically pointed to the governor as a person who was engaged in ‘un-Islamic’ activities, and they accused him of many things,” Rizvi told Al Jazeera.

“I think those statements definitely played a role [in the assassination].”

Moreover, religious leaders in Pakistan are not likely to condemn Taseer’s killing.

In the hours immediately following the killing, television anchors hosted several shows where guests, while stopping short of openly supporting the killing of Taseer, did speak out in support of killing those deemed to have blasphemed.

Some Pakistanis have also reported that they received text messages on their mobile phones praising the assassination.

State ‘incapable’

Asked if the Pakistani state could take action against public statements calling for the killing of those involved in blasphemy, Rizvi expressed scepticism that the state was in a position to do so.

“I don’t think the Pakistani state is powerful enough to …  take action against them,” he said.

“Had it been powerful enough, they [the religious leaders] could not have made such statements. I don’t think the state will do anything.”

For Rizvi, the problem, again, is that Qadri’s act, even if he was acting alone, is symptomatic of deeper intolerance.

“It is significant in the sense that it clearly shows that religious extremism has seeped deep into the state apparatus, at least at the lowest level,” Rizvi told Al Jazeera.

“Those people who are under-disciplined get more influenced by extremist groups outside their system.

“It’s a very serious matter … all those who are sympathetic to extremism may not pick up a gun, but the state of mind is a matter of concern.”

Almeida is particularly critical of Pakistan’s media, pointing to 24-hour television news channels and newspapers as being “populist, irresponsible, appealing to the lowest common denominator and reactionary. [This] has a broader impact on society”.

Amendment unlikely

What does this mean for those who have been calling for reforms to the blasphemy laws – to those who identify themselves as liberals in Pakistan?

“It creates a sense of insecurity,” Rizvi says, and leads to one of two reactions: either they use it as a lightning rod to ignite anger against violence, or it creates fear, making people more “careful not to make statements that may make people angry”.

Either way, the government is unlikely to touch the blasphemy law as it stands.

Already in the midst of a crisis with the break-up of its coalition leaving the PPP, to which Taseer belonged, in a minority government, it had earlier indicated that amendments to the law were off the table for the moment.

Given the controversial nature of the legislation, and the coalition crisis, Almeida thinks that the government is unlikely to go near the issue, though he says that he “hopes that the PPP would use [the assassination] to make a definitive stand on the blasphemy laws, to ‘honour the legacy’, so to speak, of Taseer”.

But “they have been quite depressingly quiet on this issue”, he said.

Little breathing room

Against this backdrop, Nawaz Sharif, the PML-N chief, gave the government on Tuesday a 72-hour deadline to commit to acting on certain grievances, or to face a vote of no-confidence.

While analysts say the assassination will give the PPP some breathing room, it will not be much, and it will not last long.

“Tough statements from the opposition may stop for two or three days,” Rizvi says, but then the PPP is likely to face renewed criticism on the security front.

“They will say: If the governor cannot be provided security, what about ordinary people?”

While a vote of no-confidence may be one step further than the opposition is currently considering, the assassination of the PPP’s governor in Punjab will likely be used as another argument in criticising a government that has grown largely unpopular in recent months owing to economic and security crises.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s society seems to be continuing to edge incrementally further towards the religiously conservative.

“Conservative forces,” Almeida says, “are not just on a roll in Pakistan, they’re pretty dominant. And liberal forces are not just on the back foot, but, really, they are extinguished.”

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera