If you did not get a chance to see the gruesome images from Pakistan when lawyers and educated youths showered rose petals on the murderer of a prominent governor, you are not too late. Thousands of Pakistanis are back on the roads supporting the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the liberal governor of the country’s most populated province of Punjab who staunchly stood for the rights of religious minorities.
Taseer’s murder offered everything that drama and tragedy required. A multimillionaire and westernized entrepreneur, Taseer was shot dead by his own security guard on January 4, 2011 in Islamabad. The smug murderer publicly defended his action. In his words, Mr. Taseer “deserved” death because he had committed “blasphemy” by criticizing certain Islamic legal provisions that punish any ‘blasphemous’ remarks about Prophet Muhammad.
Last week, an Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) sentenced to death Mumtaz Qadari, the twenty-six year old self-admitted killer of the progressive governor. The judgement, seen as a bold one in a country plagued with Islamic extremism, has sparked a massive wave of protests in major cities to denounce the verdict. Besides threatening to kill the judge who awarded death sentence, hardliners have pledged to overthrow the government if President Zardari does not declare the judgement null and void.
Urdu newspapers, which have a widespread readership, are endlessly glorifying Taseer’s murder and depicting him as a “hero”.
Nawa-e-Waqat, the nation’s second most widely circulated Urdu newspaper, flaunted in a front-page story that “religious leaders” in Pakistan had “widely appreciated” its coverage of pro-Qadri protests and regretted electronic media’s lack of interest in the unfolding developments.
A newspaper from the federal capital, Daily Ausaf, published five photos and the same number of stories on its front page in an attempt to present Qadri as a hero and condemn the verdict.
“Qadiri fulfilled his religious obligation by killing Taseer,” wrote Ausaf in an editorial, “he bravely defended his decision in front of the court. Our law punished him because it [the law] does not give importance to people’s religious sentiments… The lovers of the Prophet are such people that even they proudly tell the courts that they committed murder. Their lawyers beg them to at least once deny the charges but they continue to confess their involvement in the killings because they view this [murdering a blasphemous person] as a great honor for themselves.”
The paper further defended the protests, “people’s reactions are intense. They are expressing their feelings against the judgement.”
Daily Ummat, another right-wing newspaper, has been publishing special colorful editions since the verdict was given in order to facilitate Qadri’s release and encourage violent protests by his supporters. On October 2, the paper interviewed Qadri’s supporters, who said charges of terrorism against Qadri “had not been proven” yet and the judge had given a hasty decision. The newspaper quoted Taji Khokar, an Islamabad businessman, who offered “as much money as desired” by the slain governor’s family in exchange for forgiving the murderer.
The newspaper further reported that Qadri, soon after hearing the verdict, had suggested his father should distribute sweets [a mark of joy] among the people because he had been punished for a “good reason,” i.e. protecting the honor of the Prophet of Islam.
“Qadari’s wife says if she has to sacrifice her eleven-year old son, Mohammad Ali, for the honor of the Prophet of Islam, she will not hesitate from doing so,” reported Daily Ummat on October 3, “Qadri’s brothers are also determined to give the sacrifices of at least 72 more people if it is needed for the cause of the Prophet’s honor.”
Since the killing of Taseer because he publicly defended a Christian woman condemned for allegedly committing blasphemy, the Taseers have suffered immensely. This situation has been very accurately mentioned by Washington Post journalist Pamela Constable in her book Playing With Fire.
“In the days after the shooting, some Pakistanis expressed great emotional satisfaction, as if the killer, a twenty-six-year-old policeman assigned to guard Taseer, had defended a besieged faith and rid society of a moral menace. Lawyers, policemen, and clerics joined in the chorus. Bloggers circulated snapshots of Taseer’s wife and daughters in bathing suites at the beach, citing this as proof of ‘evil.’”
A son of Taseer was kidnapped from Lahore more than a month ago. His whereabouts are still unknown. It is very likely that the kidnappers will seek the release of Qadri in return of the junior Taseer’s freedom. Such fears were also echoed in an editorial of Express Tribune, which billed the judgement “a welcome verdict.”
“There is also the possibility that Qadri’s freedom will be used as a bargaining chip by those who kidnapped Taseer’s son Shahbaz more than a month ago and one hopes things do not come to that.”
Pakistan has become a battleground in the name of religion. An extremist segment promotes hate against non-Muslims in the name of religion while another group of people justifies the killing of ‘not so good Muslims” in a society that has become increasingly intolerant and violent since 9/11.
The journalist Constable aptly summarizes the current situation in Pakistan in the following words:
“A war for Pakistan’s soul is taking place today. It has been called Manichaean struggle between liberal and obscurantist notions of Islam, a contest between Sufisim and Salafism, an existential schizophrenia between South Asian and Middle Eastern ways. It is not only a war of violence, being waged by fanatics who bomb fashionable hotels or shrines where people come to pray for a saint to cure their cancer. There are also more subtle forces pulling the society in opposite directions. One set is pulling it forward toward a modern and internationalist era, the other back toward a traditional and ingrown world. One model is characterized by technology, analysis and global immersion, as exemplified by Turkey or Bangladesh. The other is characterized by normal absolutism, emotion and isolation, as exemplified by Yemen or Afghanistan under the Taliban.”
Pakistan’s liberal and progressive voices only come from rich and western-educated individuals and families. They only whisper liberal values into each others’ ears rather than ever attempting to reach out to the rural masses. This elite-driven drawing-room liberalism does not reach the common Pakistani.
“Pakistan today needs forces of rationality, humanity and good sense to come together throughout the country to roll back this tide that is threatening the nation as a whole,” stated an editorial in Daily Times, a liberal newspaper that was coincidentally founded by Governor Taseer. “Governor Taseer may not be amongst us today physically but his bold and rational stance for human rights, women’s rights, minorities’ rights and justice remains with us in spirit. Let us pay our tribute to Mr Taseer by realizing his dream of a democratic, secular and pluralistic Pakistan.”