By Ayesha Nasir
What struck me as particularly disturbing was that a day after roses and tulips were laid on the grave of former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, his assassin was welcomed with rose petals and slogans of Allah-o-Akbar or “Allah is great” at an anti-terrorist court in Rawalpindi.
The murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, was a member of the elite police force employed to protect Taseer from terrorists. But minutes after the terrorist within him riddled the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) governor’s body with 26 bullets, he surrendered with a smug grin and an explanation: Qadri assassinated Taseer because the governor had spoken out against the blasphemy law, which makes it illegal to speak ill of Islam (punishment can range from fines to death), and raised his voice in defense of a poor Christian mother of four, sentenced to death, who he believed had been wrongly accused of dishonoring Prophet Muhammed.
At least, this is the reason the young, bearded assassin gave at the time of his arrest. But as hours pass, conspiracy theories have started making the rounds, with members of the governing PPP wondering if their rival party, the PML-N, which controls Punjab, deliberately provided inadequate security to the governor. More vocal PPP members have gone so far as to call Taseer’s death a political murder.
Taseer, a businessman-turned-politician, endeared himself to the PPP faithful with his passionate pleas and field visits. During the floods, he visited devastated cities, laying down bricks himself to begin the process of rebuilding. When televisions reported on the rape of a young girl in a city close to his hometown, he took his daughter to the victim’s home and swore to avenge the injustice. But none of this endeared Taseer to the religious conservatives who form a good percentage of the population because the governor spoke about what few wanted to hear – democracy and liberal values.
Not too long before his death, the governor conducted one of his most memorable press appearances, taking his wife and daughter to a jail in Sheikhpura, about 40 kilometers from Lahore, to meet with Aasia Bibi, the woman accused of dishonoring the prophet.
Taseer knew he was being targeted. He had received many death threats, but continued to move freely; for instance, he chose to walk to a restaurant from his house instead of taking a car. His last Facebook and Twitter messages spoke about how standing up for what he believed in was more important than staying alive.
What was Taseer’s deadly sin? And why did his murder prompt some to distribute sweets and congratulate each other? To explain this, I need to explain the paradox that is Pakistan.
As a student, I attended the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Lahore, one of the country’s best schools, run by Christian nuns. In the morning I was taught by teachers whose names ended in King, Matthews or Cross, but in the evenings I socialized with those who would not drink water from the hands of a Christian. In the Aasia Bibi case, the dispute began over a water fountain, when a Muslim laborer refused to let a Christian “soil” her source of drinking water.
This paradox is reflected in the governor’s murder. Islam stresses tolerance, the same message echoed in the flamboyant politician’s pleas for tolerance for the accused blasphemer, for minorities, for women. Yet on the day Qadri was brought to court for remand, more than 300 lawyers offered to defend him, free of cost, all the way to the Supreme Court. And Taseer’s blood hadn’t yet been cleaned from the sidewalk when fan pages for Qadri were being set up on Facebook and hundreds of members joining almost immediately.
Since 9/11, Islamic fervor in the country has been at an all-time high. In the two decades I’ve spent in Lahore, never were beards and abayyas so common on the streets, and hardly were the words “Allah-o-Akbar” heard as they are today. Somewhere between former President Pervez Musharraf’s support of U.S. attacks in Afghanistan and the beginning of drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal agencies, the people of this country began to believe that their religion was under threat and their country’s sovereignty was being compromised.
In this time of uncertainty, Islam became more important than it ever was before, and mullahs assumed an importance they could only have dreamed of. While all this was happening, liberal values began dying a slow death. And in this changed environment, suddenly it made sense to many to celebrate the man who had killed his boss, a senseless act of cruelty against a sitting governor.
I am not sure what the future of Pakistan holds, but with Taseer dead it looks a whole lot bleaker than it did when he was among us, poking fun at the PML-N, throwing banquets at the Governor House and posting messages of optimism on Facebook.
Ayesha Nasir is a journalist living in Lahore, Pakistan.