Foreign Policy Blogs

On Governor Salmaan Taseer's Assassination: Causes and Likely Consequences

The recent tragic assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, must give pause to anyone concerned about the security and stability of the liberal and equalizing views of the government and state of Pakistan.

What actually happened here? And why does what happened matter to anyone outside of political Pakistan? The New York Times headlines telegraph the story of a respected leader’s assassination. A renowned liberal voice has been irreversibly throttled down, perhaps a hard-rightist plot, perhaps a move sprung by a sole intolerant, radicalized, soul, illiberal and unwilling to stand behind a view of a more liberal, tolerant and easy-going Pakistan. (Incidentally, a vision that the founder of this most pure country, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, would have supported.)

What happened? This: In the aftermath of the near government collapse brought on by the devastating summer floods, political incompetence and a threat to bring down the current government lead by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani –without any opposition party actually acceding to the duties of actual governance—a leading entrepreneur, publisher of a respected English language daily and sitting Governor of the State of Punjab, and a close confidant of President Asif Ali Zardari, Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by his own body guard for supporting the view that the blasphemy laws established by General Zia-ul Huq designed to uphold Islam supreme over any other religion, should be changed.

This is hardly the reason I am writing this piece. What transpired is a terrible enough thing. But of itself, it would not have triggered panic within Pakistan and in international diplomatic circles. It would not have brought tens of thousands out to mourn this rather wealthy man. In fact this assassination brought to the fore that Pakistan is a country at war with itself; the liberal side is losing out to an immoderate, radical partisan view of politics and society in Pakistan. Moreover—and perhaps for the politics of the day, more importantly, it brought out quite cleanly and clearly that there are serious costs attached to entertaining a more tolerant view of politics and society, a view that the ruling PPP claim to support.

Every major newspaper and political magazine is run through with stories about Pakistan’s rightward tilt. At least some of the turn is a jerked response to what the Pakistani public views as America’s intervention in Pakistan’s sovereign politics. Some of it is a matter of education and habituation to a narrative played out on television and city street-corners; politics and policy matters here, as much as, if not more than anywhere. Much of the turn is simply a move toward accepting a view on politics that upholds patria and elevates the patrimonial heritage of Pakistani daily life. Now that militantly self-righteous view used to dominate the North West tribal areas. The trouble for Pakistan today is that this view has been spreading farther South to the commercial and cultural hubs of liberal Pakistan. There is something of an interactive effect here, that given these dynamics a leader of Pakistan’s left can be assassinated, and in such a off-handed, anti-climactic manner. (There’s none of theater of Anwar Sadat’s assassination, here).

The fear that the liberal view on Pakistan is being choked off is the reason that thousands attended the funeral of Governor Taseer. That thousands more protested any move away from the illiberal and intolerant blasphemy laws might have provided added motivation for the demonstration in numbers. Indeed, the larger numbers of religious scholars who showed up to protest any change whatsoever in those blasphemy laws proves a point: that there is massive support for a male dominated, culturally radical view of the world that would retrace politics and sociology to that of the Caliphate. But by the looks of the views espoused by these religious isolationists, they do not seek the hegemony of Ummayad Caliphate or the Saffavid Dynasty or that of the monarchs of Al Andalus. It is rather an isolationist position on decision-making that has never really existed in political Islam until this very era of radical scholarly revisionism on the founding texts and acts of the Muslim world.

Moreover, Salmaan Taseer’s assassination shows another point: the radically isolationist view on Pakistan might come about because all those who care to uphold a more tolerant take on social exchange in Pakistan might now be scared off their public positions. Governor Taseer’s bodyguard–a man who presumably went through a duly diligent background check– assassinated him. Either this was a one-off; in which case no left-leaning leader need fear a similar action taken against her life. Or, as most leaders are likely to think, this was a planned move against one of the most recognizably anti-fundamentalist leaders in Pakistan. If this is true, then espousing a similarly liberal viewpoint on anything at all can only invite trouble.

If all this is feasible and therefore plausibly true, this also means that so-called liberals in Pakistan will act more rightward in their public views on policy. This means that members of the ruling People’s Party of Pakistan will act like their colleagues in opposition in say the Pakistan Muslim League-N, led by former right-leaning and ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. This means that politics in the PPP might well be over. Why? Because politics in Pakistan is dominated by clientelistic private exchanges between the leaders of the various parties and the coalitions that keep them in and out of power. If President Asif Ali Zardari’s best pledges for private compensation only yield right-leaning policy positions, it would be as if the PPP had never existed.

Happily for President Zardari, no single opposition party in Pakistan wants to own the mantle of leadership. Let the country fall under the PPP’s left-leaning rule. And let those on the right pick up the pieces when the government finally collapses, leading to the on-set of the country’s collapse, a people startled, looking for a savior. No doubt, that savior will come from the right. And that savior will chip away at whatever there is left of the left in Pakistan.

Though American lefties would do best not to intervene in this politics, and though the American government had best step away for a minute or two, nevertheless the school of ethics and politics that envisions equality, liberty and justice as commensurable values in any polity will have suffered a set-back if the lodestars of those values fall in Pakistan.



Faheem Haider
Faheem Haider

Faheem Haider is a political analyst, writer and artist. He holds advanced research degrees in political economy, political theory and the political economy of development from the London School of Economics and Political Science and New York University. He also studied political psychology at Columbia University. During long stints away from his beloved Washington Square Park, he studied peace and conflict resolution and French history and European politics at the American University in Washington DC and the University of Paris, respectively.

Faheem has research expertise in democratic theory and the political economy of democracy in South Asia. In whatever time he has to spare, Faheem paints, writes, and edits his own blog on the photographic image and its relationship to the political narrative of fascist, liberal and progressivist art.

That work and associated writing can be found at the following link:

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