I have been wondering for months how obfuscated the discourse on Taseer’s murder is. The popular narrative suggests that a high ranking public official and a politician was shot on January 4, 2011 by one of his guards who took umbrage at his views on amending the blasphemy laws. It is simplistic to ascribe the act of Mumtaz Qadri to an individual act of moral righteousness. In precise terms, Taseer became a victim of a dysfunctional state, which has allowed itself to wither away over the decades.
The so-called Islamic laws inserted by Zia ul Haq have acquired a sacrosanct status as if they were Divine decrees. There can be no debate on them let alone amendments as the popular constituency for these laws ie clerics, right wing media and sections of middle class will prevent any course correction. A miniscule sign of progress was visible under Musharraf’s era when laws relating to women were amended. However, the Federal Shariat Court recently reversed some of the minor steps taken.
Taseer, as the Governor of the Punjab province articulated the forgotten cause of reforming the Pakistani society. Prior to his active defence of Asia Bibi, a poor Christain woman booked and then sentenced under the blasphemy law, Taseer was a major voice against religious extremism often dwindling that of his pragmatic and compromised party leadership. His views against the rise of Taliban, the palpable signs of Talibanisation of a province such as the Punjab and the spread of Al-Qaeda narrative were clear. His political opponents criticized him for his stance but the truth of the matter is that within weeks he gained a niche in the media which was busy justifying the growth of militancy, rationalizing extremism in the name of anti-US sentiments.
While Taseer became a challenge for the right wing political opinion and its backers embedded in the media, his popularity grew within the moderate and progressive sections of Pakistani society. After the death of Benazir Bhutto and the political hibernation of Aitzaz Ahsan, there was no other voice so clear and firm against the rising tide of sectarianism and the use of violence to promote a particular religious worldview. However, he miscalculated the extent of support his party and its leadership would provide to his active pursuit of defending minority laws, calling for a parliamentary debate on blasphemy laws and raising public awareness on the challenge of extremism.
Like a character from the Greek tragedies, Taseer was pitted against strong forces. He fought, shone and redeemed himself. His personal flaws and the mistakes he committed during the political career now pale into oblivion for the rare display of courage during his stint as the Governor who actually had no executive powers but immense conviction and moral clarity.
Taseer’s murder and silencing has to be viewed in the larger context of the state that is reaping what is has sown over the years. There are hundreds of Qadris belonging to various schools of thought who roam at large on the streets or hide within the security agencies meant to provide ‘protection’ and enforce the law. The inability of federal and provincial governments to even take basic measures of institutional accountability against Qadri’s peers and seniors remind us of the way our elites have almost surrendered to Zia’s Pakistan.
The police and paramilitary forces comprise personnel from a society where hatred in the name of religion is not uncommon. The mosque-sermons continue to promote violence against non-Muslims and even fellow Muslims who may not belong to the ‘right’ sect. The unregulated growth of the pure-faith-industry has found its way into mainstream television programming and once again there seem to be few checks on that.
A state that actively promotes or is incapable to check indoctrination via schools and madrassa curricula therefore undermines its writ and becomes an irrelevance. Taseer tried to reverse the trend, he garnered the support of Pakistan’s moderate constituency but the power of the Mullah is overarching. The judiciary disallowed a pardon for Asia Bibi, the media went into a frenzy thinking that it would pander to the religious passions (and earn more advertising). Ultimately Taseer was left alone to face dozens of bullets in a security obsessed capital.
Despite the sentencing of Qadri, the battle continues. Taseer’s son was abducted in August 2011 as the family refused to leave Pakistan and decided to fight for justice and rights in the country. Ironically, late Taseer was fiercely nationalistic and believed in the Pakistan “project”. However, the definition of patriotism has changed over the years. It is now firmly rooted in an imagined militaristic-Islamic nationalism which at best remains a contested terrain due to the pluralism within Islam.
Taseer’s murder has drawn lines between the two Pakistans. One that wants to survive as a tolerant and inclusive polity; and the other, which legitimizes use of violence to establish a xenophobic state. The battle continues.