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Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor who was gunned down by one of his bodyguards January 4, was a rare politician in Pakistan. He was an avowed liberal, a vocal opponent of extremism, and a courageous supporter of repealing the notorious blasphemy laws in Pakistan. But why was he killed? What was it that led his own elite bodyguard to shoot him
At the heart of Pakistan’s latest political crisis --where Taseer’s Pakistan’s Peoples Party (PPP) is desperately seeking a new partner to maintain its fragile coalition government--is the story of a Christian woman, Asiya Bibi. In June 2008, she offered water from a well to a group of fellow farmhands. The Muslim women refused to drink water from her water, saying she was a non-Muslim; she, in turn, allegedly said something insulting about the prophet Mohamed. The Muslim women informed the village cleric, who then alerted the police, who charged Bibi with blasphemy, punishable by death in Pakistan.
Something as innocent as Christian and Muslim women sharing drinking water turned into a national display of bigotry, intolerance, and fanaticism in Pakistan. Asiya Bibi’s case gained Pakistani national prominence because of brave, pluralist politicians such as Salman Taseer. He gave interviews saying that he had sought a presidential pardon for Bibi and appeared on national television with her.
In the eyes of the religious masses in Pakistan, stirred by clerics, Taseer was not viewed as the governor of Punjab coming to the aid of a woman from a religious minority community, who, whatever her alleged crime, did not deserve to be killed by the state or the mob. Instead, he was seen as a traitor. In Urdu media outlets, mosque sermons and in mass rallies, Asiya Bibi’s case became a national symbol of defiance and asserting Muslim supremacy over "the other." Christianity symbolized the West, the U.S. drone attacks, and Taseer was part of the English-speaking elite who were in cahoots with "the enemy." Taseer’s public support for a woman who insulted the prophet Mohamed was ample evidence, in their minds, of this global conspiracy against Islam and Muslims.
The local became the national, and soon the international--as is often the case in Pakistan.
I visited Pakistan last year. Hotels and government buildings were guarded by big-bearded, religiously observant military personnel. These same Muslims were on the frontline fighting the Taliban. In a country where there were over five hundred bomb attacks in 2009 and over four hundred in 2010, it was heartwarming to see mainstream, pious Muslims take up arms against the fanatical fringe. But this same religious majority can also be stirred against the Westernized, English-speaking, liberal elite.
Salman Taseer’s killer, Malik Momtaz Qadri, did not come from a Taliban-supporting group. He’s allegedly linked to Dawat-e-Islami, a Sufi organization committed to love and literalist emulation of the prophet Mohamed. They are opposed to the Taliban and the Deobandi school (a Sunni school that argues that Islamic societies have fallen behind because they’ve emulated the West), but the Taseer case proves that extremism can infect Sufi Muslim organizations, too. Their love for the prophet did not extend to compassion in Bibi’s case, but remained limited to religious literalism.
Underlying this literalism in Pakistan is a linguistic barrier to facilitating a secular and pluralist public space. The Urdu word for secularism is la diniya, or "no religion," sometimes extended to "anti-religion." Advocates of a religiously neutral space, therefore, are hampered by that neutrality’s perceived hostility to Islam. Indeed, op-ed pieces in Pakistan’s English newspapers seem to be reporting for, and about, a different country from that of the Urdu newspapers. This situation in turn continues to bolster the religious fundamentalist organizations, which continue to hold the state hostage over granting further rights to religious minorities as concessions to the West.
Pakistan continues to be in a deep identity crisis as a country. The ambiguous statements by its founder, the secular politician Mohammed Ali Jinnah, in favor of a pluralist Pakistan are cited by both sides of the false debate on secularism versus religion. Unlike neighboring India or Bangladesh, where pious Muslims advocate for maintaining a secular, religiously neutral political space, in Pakistan any mention of secularism is seen as loss of control by supremacist religious tendencies among Muslims.
In Urdu media outlets, mosque sermons and in mass rallies, Asiya Bibi’s case became a national symbol of defiance and asserting Muslim supremacy over “the other.”
The deep divide within Pakistani society between the ostensibly religious and avowedly secular, between the Westernized liberal elite and ordinary Pakistanis threatens to further destabilize Pakistan. Amid widespread corruption, poverty, natural disasters, political instability, religious extremism, a burgeoning youth population, and a national identity crisis, how will Pakistan become a stable democracy? Pakistan’s descent into chaos will continue this year. Malik’s bullets not only killed a prominent governor of Pakistan’s most powerful region, Punjab, but the hopes of greater pluralism in Pakistani politics. The clerics across Pakistan’s Muslim divides have issued warnings that Asiya Bibi must die and that politicians who oppose her death will meet the same fate as Salman Taseer. After the killings of other prominent leaders who opposed extremism, such as the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, prominent religious leader Sarfraz Naeemi, and now Salman Taseer, it is only a matter of time before further tension arises between Pakistan’s theo-political dividing lines.