The Jan. 4 assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who angered Islamists by calling for a revision of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, reveals escalating polarization between secular and fundamentalist forces. Shahbaz Bhatti, federal Minister for Minorities, said Taseer sacrificed his life for religious freedom and equality. “Those who issued [the] decree for killing should be investigated and blasphemy laws should be reviewed to control the increasing intolerance in society,” Bhatti said. (Associated Press of Pakistan, Jan. 5)
But Pakistan’s religious parties openly applauded the murder, and his accused assassin was showered with rose petals by supporters as he appeared in court in Islamabad. Others in the crowd slapped his back and kissed his cheek as he was led in and out amid heavy security. Numerous fan pages for the suspect have appeared on the Internet, with one Facebook page attracting over 2,000 followers before being taken down,
The accused, Mumtaz Qadri, was one of Taseer’s police bodyguards. “This is a political murder,” said a senior member of the Pakistan Peoples Party, Fauzia Wahab. “There will be an investigation. It is a conspiracy.”
Taseer had used his position to warn about the “Talibanization” of Punjab province, telling The Guardian last year: “The Sharifs are creating a potential bomb here in Punjab.”
Taseer’s call for the blasphemy law to be reformed or abolished united rival Islamic schools of thought against any change—the moderate Barelvi and the fundamentalist Deobandis. Qadri was himself in the Barelvi sect.
The statute, ostensibly meant to protect Islam and the prophet Muhammad from “insult,” is used to convict dozens of people each year—mostly from religious minorities. The controvery was sparked by Taseer’s championing of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death for blasphemy late last year.
“Salman Taseer was himself responsible for his killing,” said Munawar Hasan, the head of Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the two major religious political parties. “Any Muslim worth the name could not tolerate blasphemy of the Prophet, as had been proved by this incident.” (The Guardian, Jan. 5)
Amid growing claims of a high-level conspiracy on Taseer’s life, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported that Qadri’s superior in the regional police force—which is closely overseen by the national military headquarters at Rawalpindi—recently called him a “security threat” because of his extremist views, and one officer had recommended that he should not be cleared for security detail of public officials. (Dawn, Jan. 6)