My father’s assassination could teach us something.
My father, Salmaan Taseer, governor of the Pakistani province of Punjab, was murdered on Jan. 4, shot dead in broad daylight by the policeman tasked to protect him. Acting out of a twisted piety, the man—Malik Mumtaz Qadri—shot my father because of my father’s belief that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been misused to persecute religious minorities.*
Five days later the hardline Sunni Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party organized a rally in support of those blasphemy laws in Pakistan’s commercial hub, Karachi. This coming-out party put on display the ugly face of the tens of thousands of religious fanatics who wish to destroy Pakistan’s secular, liberal, progressive, and democratic forces.
In the days before his death, these same men had issued fatwas against my father, burned him in effigy, and put a bounty on his head. There could have been no plainer incitement to murder.
My father had spoken out repeatedly against the blasphemy laws after Aasia Noreen, a Christian farm worker in rural Punjab, was sentenced to death in November. These laws, which carry a mandatory life sentence, were enacted by the military dictator Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s.
Seeing these fanatics scream religious slogans and wave pictures of the killer Qadri, their latest messianic foot soldier, was sickening, as was seeing more than 200 lawyers—our vanguard of justice—garlanding Qadri and showering him with rose petals at his court appearance.
Sherry Rehman, a former federal minister and a current member of the National Assembly, who tabled a bill seeking to amend the blasphemy laws, has been declared wajib ul qatal—fit to be killed—by the religious fanatics.* I should mention—although I make no special claim of courage—that my own life has also been threatened. “She should refrain from issuing such statements and must remember her father’s fate,” the fanatics have warned, referring to me.
From 1986 to 2009, 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus, and 10 others have been charged with blasphemy, according to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, an advocacy group set up by Pakistan’s Catholic bishops. No one convicted of blasphemy has ever been executed by the state, but many have been mowed down by Islamist vigilantes.
The biggest danger faced by Islam comes from those who claim to serve it. Its first victims are its own adherents. But our fight against these forces of darkness—forces that seek to snuff out the voices they disagree with—must begin with the strengthening of basic law and order. The extremists are a small minority, but they’re raucously vocal, well armed, and well funded. They operate by instilling fear in those they oppose. This intimidation works all too well.
After evidence is presented in court, the fate of the men involved in my father’s murder will be decided by a judge. Yet because of poor prosecution, especially those in the antiterrorism courts, have a sorry record for convictions. I hope things will be different now, but in the past some judges have been easily threatened. This is not necessarily the product of cowardice. Poverty and lack of upward social mobility is a serious problem in Pakistan, and its consequences have infected the judiciary.
After the 2008 Islamabad Marriott bombing, the people arrested were acquitted of all charges. This is almost always the case in Pakistan. It shows a depressing inability to take on the extremists. Our judicial system needs to have a no-holds barred policy toward these terrorists, but I don’t see it yet.
It is unrealistic, however, to expect the judiciary to send a strong message when so many of our elected politicians consort with religious extremists. They provide them with logistical support, fund them, and give them a place to regroup.
A U.S. Embassy cable disclosed by WikiLeaks says President Asif Ali Zardari complained about Shahbaz Sharif, the current chief minister of the Punjab, to the then U.S. ambassador accusing Sharif of tipping off Jamat-ud-Dawah–the philanthropic front of terrorist organization Laskar-e-Taiba which was involved in the Mumbai attacks–about impending United Nations sanctions.*
Sadly, just eight days after my father was gunned down, a court in Punjab sentenced a Muslim prayer leader and his son to life in jail for blasphemy.
According to reports, they were found guilty of tearing down a poster of a gathering to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. They deny the charges, but we can only fear for their lives.
My father’s assassination could teach us something, if only we let ourselves be taught.
Taseer is a graduate of Smith College and a reporter for NEWSWEEK Pakistan.
*This story has been modified from the original which appeared in the January 24, 2011 issue of Newsweek.
In her first interview following the assassination of her father, Shehrbano Taseer tells Chanel 4 News she believes there are many “hidden hands” behind his murder.
Shehrbano Taseer believes the plot to kill her father, the influential governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, went far beyond the actions of his security guard, who shot Salmaan Taseer 27 times on a busy street in Islamabad earlier this week, writes Farah Qayum. “The assassin, the perpetrators, the planners, the financers – all the hidden hands – have a role here. I blame them,” she said.
Speaking from Lahore, she said her father was motivated by a desire to change Pakistan: “He (Salmaan Taseer) was not a coward or a hypocrite. He wanted a peaceful, progressive, secular, liberal, and egalitarian Pakistan; a Pakistan that belongs to the poor as well as the rich, the women as well as the men, the religious minorities as well as the Muslims, the oppressed as well as the free.
“Pakistan was not ready for him.”
Miss Taseer said her father had received constant death threats, and that although the death was “sudden and violent” her family was not “afraid” of any further repercussions from what she describes as “cowards” in support of violence.
The assassin, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, has been lauded as a hero by some in Pakistan, and was showered by rose petals when he arrived for his first court appearance. 500 religious scholars in Pakistan have noted the “courage” and religious zeal of the killer – and hundreds gathered outside Qadri’s house in Rawalpindi to show their support, earlier this week.
Qadri has said he shot the governor because of Mr Taseer’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The killing is the most high profile in Pakistan since the murder of Benazir Bhutto in 2007 – and has been condemned around the world.
An investigation has been launched, which will look at whether Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri was acting alone. Investigators have said they consider it suspicious that that none of the eight other Elite Force security guards there to protect the governor, intervened to stop Qadri.
Two police officials from the Punjab security branch have been suspended – locally named as Inspector Khalid Satti and Sub-inspector Aajab Khan.
This follows the discovery that a letter – stating Qadri did not have the required security clearance to protect guard a high-ranking politician – was not passed on to the security authorities.
Miss Taseer, one of seven children and an aspiring writer and charity worker, expressed difficulty in coping with the aftermath of the murder. She says she will dedicate herself to bringing change to Pakistan’s struggling political system. She described her father as “larger than life” and her “hero and best friend”.
“It sounds odd, but he was so dynamic and strong that I can’t imagine him being sick or ill or dying of old age.
“There is no other way he could have gone. He lived and died for Pakistan. He wouldn’t have wanted to go in any other way.
I refuse to live in fear in Pakistan says Shehrbano Taseer