In the Telegraph

Rob Crily’s piece on the aftermath of Salman Taseer’s assassination

Salman Taseer murder sparks fear and loathing in Pakistan

After the murder of liberal politician Salman Taseer, Pakistan’s moderate, educated classes are growing ever more fearful.

Sana Saleem, 23, a human rights activist, has received threats after blogging about blasphemy Photo: Asad Zaidi
Rob Crilly

By , Karachi

7:04PM GMT 08 Jan 2011

With her frilly black hijab, eyeliner and Macbook, Sana Saleem does not look like a doughty human rights campaigner. Yet every day she shrugs off email death threats and sickening anonymous text messages, in order to champion progressive causes on her blog.

Even she, though, was unprepared for the outpouring of hate that has engulfed Pakistan this week, with the murder of a high-profile politician who was leading a campaign to reform the country’s draconian blasphemy laws.

“I was devastated, really shocked,” said the 23-year-old medical student. “They were celebrating his death, showering the killer with rose petals. I never expected this,”

This week has been a bad one for the small but dedicated band of liberals and activists that meet in the Second Floor coffeeshop – a funky hang-out in a Karachi suburb, where radical voices meet to discuss tactics, organise vigils and argue beneath psychedelic murals and posters of John Lennon.

This is the other Pakistan, far from the mountainous Afghan border where al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters find safe haven, or the radical madrassas in southern Punjab where Jihadi fighters are recruited to take on Indian troops in Kashmir.

The assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, by a police officer known for his hard-line religious views is another victory for the extremists and a reminder of how Pakistan is still struggling to come to terms with democracy after a decade of military rule that ended two years ago. And just like the murder of Benazir Bhutto, it has sparked a fresh round of soul-searching about what sort of country is left behind.

While crowds of hardliners threw rose petals on the road as an armoured vehicle carried Mr Taseer’s killer to court, newspapers pondered whether liberalism had died with Mr Taseer.

Analysts warn that dark forces threaten the very existence of the state, while customers sipping cappuccinos in the Coffeeshop talk about a new climate of fear.

“You can be silenced with a bullet if they don’t like what you say. That’s the message from this killing,” said Farieha Aziz, a journalist and blogger.

Already plans for a demonstration against the blasphemy laws next week have been shelved because of security fears. And Sherry Rehman, a member of Parliament and former Bhutto aide, who tabled a bill to reform the controversial legislation, has been forced into hiding.

Pamphlets declaring her an apostate and Wajib ul Qatil – “to be killed” – were circulated at mosques in Karachi after Friday prayers and thousands of people are expected to rally against her today.

Miss Saleem, a practising Muslim who has hectored radical imams for evidence of the Koranic verses that inform their sermons, said moderates would have to change their strategy.

“We will have to be much more cautious than we were before,” she said.

Anything that could provoke accusations of being anti-Islam would have to be carefully reconsidered, she added. After all, it is clear that Pakistan’s liberal cause does not need another martyr.

Mr Taseer was a larger than life character, known for his wraparound shades, dyed black hair and a combative manner exemplified by his often abrasive – and always witty – manner on Twitter. Countless political enemies were branded “retards” and he somewhat recklessly enjoyed poking fun at the conservative clerics who railed against him.

His crime was to take on the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman from a poor Punjabi village, who was sentenced to death for defaming the Prophet Mohammed. Her supporters say the law was misused to settle a personal score – one of dozens of similar cases of abuse.

On Tuesday, he had strolled from his Islamabad residence to a small shopping arcade just a couple of hundred yards away to take lunch with a business associate from Lahore.

It was afterwards, as he made his way to waiting car, that the killer struck. Mumtaz Qadri, a member of the security detail tasked to protect the Governor of Punjab, opened fire with his AK-47. None of the other guards intervened as he emptied one magazine, reloaded and started firing again before laying down his weapon and putting his hands in the air.

By then Mr Taseer lay dead.

Qadri was already known for having extremist views. He had complained when a VIP under his protection had stayed out late drinking and had been labelled a security risk, yet somehow still ended up protecting one of Pakistan’s most high-profile liberal leaders.

The motive soon became even clearer. After his arrest, images of a beaming Qadri were broadcast on television. “Salman Taseer is a blasphemer and this is the punishment for a blasphemer,” he said.

While Pakistani politicians lined up to pay their respects and world leaders expressed their outrage, another, darker response was gathering pace.

Within hours, a Facebook site celebrating Mr Taseer’s murder attracted 2,000 fans. It was soon taken down but other websites followed.

Populist pundits sprang up on the rowdy evening television talkshows to suggest that Mr Taseer was responsible for his own fate.

And the following morning, 500 clerics from the normally moderate Barelvi sect released a statement praising the actions of Qadri – saluting his “bravery, valour and faith” – and warned their followers not to pray for Mr Taseer or they would suffer the same fate.

The result is a nation left to wonder what has become of the tolerant, secular ideal set out by Pakistan’s founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who imagined a homeland for India’s Muslims, but where people of all faiths were welcome.

Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst based in Lahore, said the killing and public reaction were evidence of a country failing to control extremist thought.

“This is a real concern that the state is unable to protect even its senior officials, let alone ordinary people, so it creates an additional problem for the government. And then the assassination and the reaction to it highlights that religious extremism and intolerance has seeped deep into Pakistani society,” he said.

Any idea of a secular Pakistan disappeared in the 1970s as successive political leaders went down the road of Islamisation, in part to secure the support of religious leaders. The country’s blasphemy laws were toughened in the 1980s under General Zia ul-Haq, and historians point to his rule as the decade when extremism and intolerance prospered.

Qadri, the bearded assassin, was born in 1985 – making him a son of Zia’s ideological legacy.

Since then political leaders have frequently been accused of appeasing the extremists, for fear of provoking a backlash if they take on their anti-Western views.

Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia analyst of Human Rights Watch, said giving way to extremists merely stored up trouble for the future.

“It is now becoming clear that the state is in danger of crumbling irretrievably unless all the stakeholders in governance, which chiefly means the military, the judiciary and the political class, understand that appeasement of extremists is untenable. The idea seems to be ‘don’t take them on over the blasphemy law or they’ll kill you’ – well they’ll kill you anyway,” he said.

The murder of Mr Taseer has heightened awareness of the threats that campaigners face every day. But many are already used to dealing with constant fear of attack.

Sarah Suhail, editor of Chay, the first magazine in Pakistan to deal openly with issues of sexuality, feminism and gay rights, said there was an underground network of campaigners who would not be dissuaded from pushing progressive causes.

“It adds a dimension – we will be more cautious – but we won’t stop doing what we already do,” she said. “And the death of Salman Taseer might even become a rallying cry for more people to stand up and voice their moderate or liberal stand.”

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