x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Blasphemy and murder dominate Pakistan's conversations

The assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer by one of his own bodyguards has sparked debate about the country's controversial law against blasphemy and the steady weakening of the state's authority.

Activists of Majlisa Tahafuz Shayr Islam Pakistan shout slogans in Karachi in support of Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri. Qadri gunned down his boss, the provincial governor Salman Taseer, last week outside an Islamabad coffee shop.
Activists of Majlisa Tahafuz Shayr Islam Pakistan shout slogans in Karachi in support of Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri. Qadri gunned down his boss, the provincial governor Salman Taseer, last week outside an Islamabad coffee shop.

ISLAMABAD // Moosajee's, the favoured tailor of affluent and upwardly mobile Karachi residents, was humming with discussion over cloth, cut and delivery date on January 4.

Then, a customer, deep in debate with the master tailor, spied the news breaking on the muted, wall-mounted television set: Salman Taseer, the free-thinking and speaking governor of Punjab, had been cut down by a hail of automatic fire unleashed by a police bodyguard.

Faces froze in horror: Mr Taseer was one of them, a billionaire businessman-politician with whom they had rubbed shoulders at a dozen cocktail parties.

His signature swagger, notably his habit of wearing designer sunglasses at night, was as symbolic of Pakistan's privileged class as it was the cause of endless ribbing by old friends.

Mr Taseer, by trade a chartered accountant, also revelled in the romanticism of Pakistan's socialist movement, led by his uncle, the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, until his death in 1984.

The motive of the assassin, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, was clear to all, even before the cable news channels reported it. Mr Taseer's calls for reforms to Pakistan's tainted blasphemy law had cost him his life.

"If the governor of Punjab isn't safe, then who of us is?" remarked a middle-aged woman, breaking the silence at Moosajee's.

Then every BlackBerry and iPhone in the room sang out ring-tones, and customers began the same nervous conversation with their family and friends.

"Is it safe to go out?" the callers asked, as they had after every major terrorist attack since the outbreak of a militant insurgency in 2007.

The following weekend, neighbours in Korang Town, a suburb of Rawalpindi that houses Pakistan's traditionalist middle class, gathered for dinner.

As is typical of traditional Pakistani urban society, the fathers - a doctor, a police officer and this journalist - sat separately in the formal lounge, sipping fruit juice and discussing politics.

A tone of resignation, rather than fear, marked the conversation.

The men, practising but apolitical Muslims, agreed that there was no theological justification in Islam for the murder of Mr Taseer, and shared his disdain for the cleric-politicians who have since rallied in support of his assassin.

But they also agreed that the wider responsibility for the murder lay with the Pakistani state, which Mr Taseer had represented in his largely ceremonial role as governor.

"By law, the mullahs are not supposed to broadcast their sermons, but I hear them ranting when I leave work every Friday. If I can hear them, so can the government, but it does not act. Why? Because it lacks the moral authority to act," said Amir Meer, the doctor.

"As governor, Taseer knew he was provoking madmen, but he was cocky and it cost him his life."

The blasphemy controversy also dominated conversation last week on the sidelines of an urs, or annual commemoration, of a Sufi holy man buried at the foot of the Margalla Hills, which provide the scenic backdrop for Islamabad.

The hundreds of devotees in attendance were impoverished villagers from across northern Pakistan who had migrated to the capital in search of work in government offices and foreign embassies.

One group gathered around an open wood fire, sipping overly sweet milk tea and smoking hashish-laden cigarettes, their philosophical discussion contrasting with the fear of the social elite and apathy of the middle class.

Their examination of Mr Taseer's murder drew deeply from the cause of "injustice", as inspired by tragic accounts of the 7th-century death in battle of Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, at Karbala, Iraq.

Like their middle-class contemporaries, the devotees held poor opinions about the cleric-politicians who have rallied behind the assassin, frequently quoting verses by Abdullah "Bulleh Shah, an 18th-century Sufi poet renowned for mocking the politician-clerics of his day.

"The killing of Taseer is zulm [an act of cruelty]. It is not as if he personally abolished the blasphemy law," said Raja Mohammed Niaz, a military pensioner.

The devotees also disparaged the government for its action, citing the same grounds of corruption as the middle-class diners in Korang Town had days earlier. "The mullahs and rulers are two sides of the same coin. Both perpetuate cruelty and work only for personal benefit. Poor, uneducated fools like us are exploited by both," said Mr Niaz.

Social commentators said the varying perspectives within Pakistani society had not taken the form of a national public debate because of the resentment felt against "haves" by "have-nots".

"There is no doubt that the manifestations of extremism are cloaked in class constraints, but it is also easy to take that too far. Christians and others accused of blasphemy tend to be socially dispossessed," said Mosharraf Zaidi, an Islamabad-based public policy expert.

He said the rhetoric of cleric-politicians had dominated public discourse, and thereby international media perceptions of Pakistan, because of a steady weakening over the past 40 years of the government's administrative authority.

However, discontent with the negative international portrayal of Muslims since the September 11 terrorist attacks has also increased the desire among the social elite to reconnect with Pakistani culture, he said.

"There is a positive spin to the killing of Taseer and the [fundamentalist] reaction: they have caused a lot of soul searching among the westernised, socially possessed, spurring a desire to put in a much greater effort to connect with the rest of the country," Mr Zaidi said.