26 shots that sent Pak­istan over the edge

Pamela Con­sta­ble has re­ported from South Asia for more than a decade

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - con­sta­blep@wash­post.com

At a fash­ion­able plaza in this serene Pak­istani cap­i­tal, a few dozen peo­ple gather in the evenings at the spot where pro­vin­cial gover­nor Sal­man Taseer was gunned down on Jan. 4. More than the man, their can­dle­light vig­ils mourn the open de­bate and re­li­gious com­pas­sion that have been lost with the as­sas­si­na­tion of the out­spo­ken lib­eral politician.

Fif­teen miles away, in a work­ing-class al­ley of Rawalpindi, thou­sands of peo­ple flock each day to the home of Mum­taz Qadri, the elite po­lice guard who killed Taseer. Qadri is in jail now, but the site has be­come a shrine to what many Pak­ista­nis see as his heroic act against a blas­phe­mer who in­sulted their prophet. Some­one has even put up posters of Qadri rid­ing a white horse to heaven.

In the days since Taseer’s death, Pak­istan has be­come a dif­fer­ent coun­try. The ve­neer of Western democ­racy has been ripped away, the lib­eral elite has been cowed into si­lence, and the civil­ian govern­ment has beaten a hasty re­treat from moral­ity, author­ity and law. Is­lamic ex­trem­ist groups, once dis­missed as un­able to win more than a few seats in Par­lia­ment, are fill­ing the streets, with bearded acolytes wav­ing flags and chant­ing like giddy crowds at a post-game vic­tory rally.

Sud­denly, a cru­cialU.S. ally in the fight against ter­ror­ism seems in­ca­pable of stop­ping a tide of in­tol­er­ant and vi­o­lent Is­lam at home — rais­ing doubts about Pak­istan’s abil­ity to play a con­struc­tive role in the war against the Tal­iban or to help the United States ex­tri­cate its forces from Afghanistan, Pak­istan’s north­ern neigh­bor.

Qadri, who hap­pily con­fessed to mur­der­ing the politician he was as­signed to pro­tect, has lit­tle chance of be­ing con­victed. In­stead of suf­fer­ing os­tracism, he was greeted with hand­shakes and gar­lands by courthouse lawyers, who of­fered to de­fend him pro bono. The pro­vin­cial court sys­tem, no­to­ri­ous for free­ing rad­i­cal Is­lamic lead­ers, is un­likely to con­demn a na­tional re­li­gious hero.

“ There is no jus­tice in our coun­try for the com­mon man, but Qadri’s act against a blas­phe­mer has made all Mus­lims feel stronger,” a shop­keeper in Rawalpindi told me. “ They can pun­ish him, but what will they do with a mil­lion Qadris who have been born now?”

Prime Min­is­ter Yousaf Raza Gil­lani, whose rul­ing coali­tion re­cently re­cov­ered

from near-col­lapse, has re­as­sured the restive Mus­lim masses that not a word of Pak­istan’s blas­phemy law will be changed. One of the harsh­est such statutes in the Mus­lim world, it makes any pur­ported slur against the prophet Muham­mad — even a mis­in­ter­preted re­mark or a dis­carded Ko­ran — grounds for ex­e­cu­tion.

Taseer had pro­posed soft­en­ing the law. An­other leg­is­la­tor who did the same has re­ceived death threats. The po­lice, whose ranks pro­duced the killer, seem duped or com­plicit. The army, caught be­tween fight­ing the Tal­iban and court­ing pub­lic opin­ion, has re­mained pru­dently silent.

Pak­istani com­men­ta­tors have expressed shock at the pub­lic li­on­iza­tion of Qadri and the de­mo­niza­tion of Taseer, who did noth­ing worse than crit­i­cize the blas­phemy law and com­mis­er­ate with a Chris­tian peas­ant woman who was sen­tenced to death un­der it. The at­mos­phere is so charged now that most cler­ics re­fused to of­fi­ci­ate at Taseer’s fu­neral, and the Chris­tian woman’s prison war­den said he may not be able to pro­tect her even from the guards.

For the past sev­eral years, a few voices have warned against the growth of re­li­gious ha­tred in Pak­istan. Colum­nist Kamila Hyat de­scribed a “ Tal­iban­iza­tion of minds” creep­ing across the coun­try, em­bold­en­ing ex­trem­ist groups and cen­sor­ing de­bate. Physi­cist and ac­tivist Pervez Hoodb­huy de­cried the quash­ing of crit­i­cal thought in Pak­istani schools and the rote Ko­ranic learn­ing that shapes many young minds.

But in Fri­day ser­mons and at many lev­els of Pak­istani so­ci­ety, one hears warn­ings about creep­ing West­ern­iza­tion, sec­u­lar cul­ture and force­ful ag­gres­sion against Is­lam by Amer­ica and its al­lies. When Pope Bene­dict XVI called for a re­peal of Pak­istan’s blas­phemy law this month, some Mus­lim cler­ics de­cried it as part of the for­eign con­spir­acy and said the pope was invit­ing attacks on mi­nor­ity Chris­tians in Pak­istan.

Some ob­servers here say it is un­fair to tar mil­lions of Pak­istani Mus­lims as ex­trem­ists just be­cause they feel strongly enough about the sa­cred na­ture of the prophet Muham­mad to jus­tify killing some­one who in­sults him. What is needed, they say, is stronger na­tional lead­ers who will up­hold the laws — against blas­phemy and murder alike. “ This is an Is­lamic re­pub­lic, and peo­ple feel very strongly about the blas­phemy is­sue,” said Hamid Mir, a lead­ing tele­vi­sion jour­nal­ist here. “We have to re­spect that, but we also have to re­spect the law and the con­sti­tu­tion, or we will be lost.”

Oth­ers ar­gue that a mind-set that finds spir­i­tual jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for shoot­ing a govern­ment of­fi­cial 26 times will also ac­cept the pub­lic flog­ging of drunks, the be­head­ing of po­lice­men and the ston­ing of un­mar­ried lovers — all hall­marks of the Tal­iban forces that swept through Pak­istan’s scenic Swat Val­ley two years ago. Pak­istan’s army, a close part­ner of the U.S. mil­i­tary, ul­ti­mately drove the Tal­iban out of Swat af­ter ce­ment­ing pub­lic opin­ion in its fa­vor. Now Washington is

prod­ding army lead­ers here to ex­tend their cam­paign to other in­sur­gent-in­fested tribal ar­eas.

But pub­lic opin­ion in Pak­istan to­day is not what it was a year ago, and no one wants to risk ig­nit­ing pop­u­lar wrath. Not the nu­clear-armed se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment,

which still sees Is­lamic mil­i­tants as a use­ful tool to ha­rass arch-ri­val In­dia. Not the weak, un­pop­u­lar govern­ment, sad­dled by a sec­u­lar past and still reel­ing from the slay­ing of its most charis­matic

leader, Be­nazir Bhutto, three years ago. In re­cent days I have lis­tened to Is­lamic ac­tivists rant about the sanc­tity of the prophet and the evil of those who of­fend him or dare to ques­tion any tents of Is­lam. They even have a la­bel for such dan­ger­ous sub­ver­sives, which trans­lates roughly as “ought to be killed.”

But there is one con­ver­sa­tion that haunts me in par­tic­u­lar, an en­counter I had with a young man on a flight be­tween Is­lam­abad and Karachi. He was neatly dressed and beard­less, a re­cent sci­ence grad­u­ate on his way to a job in­ter­view. As I read through the morn­ing pa­pers and dis­carded them on the floor, I no­ticed him squirm­ing.

“Madam, could you please pick up the pa­pers?” he fi­nally said. “ The name of our prophet is on the front page, and it must not be on the ground.”

I com­plied, and we spoke cor­dially about our re­spec­tive re­li­gions. But when I asked about Taseer’s murder, his tone changed. “ They say he blas­phemed against our prophet,” the young man said solemnly. “If this is true, then it would be my duty as a Mus­lim to kill him, too.”

Pamela Con­sta­ble, a Washington Post for­eign cor­re­spon­dent, is the author of the forth­com­ing “Play­ing With Fire: Why Pak­istan’s Democ­racy Is Los­ing Ground to Is­lamic Ex­trem­ists.”


Demon­stra­tors ral­lied this month in Is­lam­abad af­ter Pope Bene­dict XVI called for Pak­istan to get rid of its blas­phemy law.

A Pak­istani man lights can­dles at the site in Is­lam­abad where pro­vin­cial gover­nor Sal­man Taseer was killed. Taseer had ad­vo­cated eas­ing the nation’s blas­phemy law.

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