By Praveen Swami
05 Jan 2011
Eight hours before an officer on Salman Taseer's security detail emptied a Kalashnikov into his back, the governor of the Pakistani province of Punjab posted his own epitaph on Twitter.
"I am unafraid of the embers that are flying through the darkness," reads the couplet by the poet Shakeel Badayuni (in translation), "but I fear that the flame-like bloom of my flowers might reduce my garden to ashes."
Mr Taseer's murder makes clear that Pakistan remains on the edge of the abyss. Thousands of lives, and billions of pounds, have been lost in an effort to defeat the insurgents who threaten to seize control of the nuclear-armed state. And it is becoming clear that the Pakistani state either isn't willing, or isn't able, to confront the Islamist movement that it has nurtured for decades – and which now threatens to turn the country into a burnt-out dystopia.
The police officer who killed Mr Taseer was enraged by his decision to seek clemency for an impoverished mother of five who is on death row for violating Pakistan's blasphemy laws. In June 2009, Asiya Noreen, a member of the only Christian family in the village of Ittan Wala, was asked to fetch water for a group of women working in the blazing sun. Some of the women refused to accept the water, because of her low caste, sparking off an argument. Mr Taseer, who visited Mrs Noreen in prison, said she was beaten and gang-raped.
Later, the other women involved claimed that she had blasphemed the Prophet Mohammed, and in November, a judge handed down a death sentence. Pakistani liberals were appalled. Shahbaz Bhatti, the minorities minister, said the charges were "baseless". Sherry Rehman, an influential politician, sought to amend the blasphemy laws, a move backed by Mr Taseer, who said they were "man-made, not God-made."
But the religious Right hit back. The ultraconservative Deoband movement allied with clerics from the Barelvi sect, often claimed to represent a tolerant, anti-Islamist tendency in south Asian Islam. In December, the alliance was able to bring tens of thousands of people on to city streets in defence of the blasphemy laws.
Fearing the clerics' wrath, Pakistan's government panicked. Babar Awan, the justice minister, announced that he would not countenance amendments to the laws. Days before his death, Mr Taseer complained that the government was "not willing to face religious fanaticism head on".
It isn't hard to understand why. Pakistan's political system, regularly disrupted by military rule, long failed to address the need for development, or to improve the chronic inequality that besets the country. Instead, says the Pakistani scholar Ayesha Siddiqa, the politicians sought the clerics' support, in an effort to legitimise their position.
In 1956, Pakistan's first constitution decreed that the country would be an "Islamic Republic", in which no laws could contravene religious practice. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto's father and, ironically, Mr Taseer's mentor – went further, declaring Islam the state religion and setting up a council to bring secular law in line with sharia. In 1974, he made it illegal for Ahmadis, an Islamic movement founded in the 19th century, to describe themselves as Muslims.
Over the years, the process continued. Zia-ul-Haq, who deposed and later executed Mr Bhutto, mandated harsh punishments for "whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed". Nawaz Sharif, the subsequent prime minister, made this offence punishable by death.
Pakistan is reported to have prosecuted 1,276 individuals for blasphemy between 1986 and 2010 – up from nine cases in the period from 1929 to 1982. No death sentences have so far been carried out, but several people have been murdered while on trial. Last summer, Rashid Emanuel, a Christian pastor, and his brother were shot as they emerged from court. In 2003, Samuel Masih, was beaten to death while on trial by a police officer who wanted "to earn a place in heaven".
Efforts to reform these laws have been fitful. General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's former military ruler, sought to sidestep the Hadood laws, which require rape victims to find four male witnesses, but the federal sharia court recently struck down his reforms. The government has also failed to repeal the Qisas and Diyat Laws, which treat murder as a civil offence – allowing influential perpetrators to buy their way out of prison.
The events this week, following Mr Taseer's death, illustrate how toxic the climate has become. The clerics representing the purportedly moderate Barelvi tradition ordered that there "should be no expression of grief or sympathy" over his death. Even within Mr Zardari's cabinet, the pro-Islamist voices are becoming stronger. Last month, Attaur Rehman, the tourism minister, described the Taliban as "true followers of Islamic ideology".
"Fighting terrorism isn't just about drones and troops," says Rafia Zakaria of Amnesty International. "It's about ensuring respect for the law and human rights. Here, you have people inciting assassination, and others applauding them – and the state refuses to act."