ISLAMABAD – The increasing radicalization of Pakistani society was laid bare Wednesday when the nation’s mainstream religious organizations applauded the murder of provincial Gov. Salman Taseer this week, while his killer was showered with rose petals as he appeared in court.
Taseer, 66, the governor of Punjab, the country’s most heavily populated province, was assassinated Tuesday by one of his police bodyguards after Taseer had campaigned to ease Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Religious groups threatened to kill others who questioned the blasphemy statute, which is designed to protect Islam and the Prophet Muhammad from “insult.”
Pakistan is a key partner for the U.S. in the global fight against terrorism, but waves of fundamentalism have produced an increasingly intolerant and anti-American country, making the alliance with Washington hugely unpopular.
While terrorist acts are generally associated with an extremist fringe, the gunning down of Taseer appears to have significant support that reached into the heart of society.
And in an odd dichotomy, the slaying also is limiting the already restricted levels of free speech in Pakistan even as the hate speech by the clergy, including calls for Taseer’s murder before his assassination, goes unpunished.
For 30 years, Pakistan’s powerful military has had a policy of supporting Islamic militant groups and propagating a hard-line religious culture to feed the jihad. Some analysts think that protection has caused moderates to stay silent.
“The state has become weak because it has supported nonstate actors,” said Khaled Ahmed, an analyst based in Lahore. “There are many centers of power as a result.”
The accused killer, Mumtaz Qadri, appeared Wednesday in court, unrepentant, where waiting lawyers threw handfuls of rose petals over him and others in the crowd slapped his back and kissed his cheek, as he was led in and out of the court room under heavy security. The Internet had already been hosting fan pages for Qadri, with one page on Facebook attracting more than 2,000 followers before it was taken down. In addition, there were small demonstrations in northwest Pakistan in favor of Qadri.
While the regular big political parties strongly condemned the murder, and thousands attended the funeral prayers for Taseer Wednesday in his hometown of Lahore, both major religious parties declared that he deserved to be killed for his views.
The issue was sparked by Taseer’s championing of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death for blasphemy late last year. He said she was wrongly convicted.
“Salman Taseer was himself responsible for his killing,” said Munawar Hasan, the head of Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the two big religious political parties, in a statement. “Any Muslim worth the name could not tolerate blasphemy of the Prophet, as had been proved by this incident.”