Mumtaz Hussain Qadri was grinning minutes after he ripped twenty-seven bullets through Salmaan Taseer, the liberal governor of Punjab, last month. He was not alone. While Taseer’s funeral was sparsely attended, Qadri was embraced as a national hero by many, showered with garlands before his first court appearance, and offered free council by a large association of Islamabad lawyers.
A little over three years ago, it was lawyers like these who played a much-trumpeted role in the opposition to Pervez Musharraf, sparking a movement that led to a rebuff of both the general’s Pakistan Muslim League (Q) and the hardline Islamists to its right. But the past three years have not been kind to democratic forces within the country. Back in power following the February 2008 elections, the avowedly left-wing Pakistan Peoples Party fell into a familiar waltz of corruption, nepotism, and incompetence. Drone attacks rain death—disproportionately on civilians—on the country’s western frontier. Public institutions and social services remain in tatters and unemployment endemic. Put simply, the conditions could not be better for the country’s Islamists.
But Taseer was not martyred for his struggle against what was going to befall the nation; he died because of his opposition to Pakistan’s already existing infringements upon free speech and religious expression. Taseer came to the defense of Aasiya Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death under the country’s blasphemy law. Bibi, a laborer from the village of Ittan Wali in northeastern Punjab, was asked to fetch water for other farm hands, but when workers refused to drink water collected by a Christian, an argument erupted. Several Muslim laborers reported to the village imam that she made blasphemous comments about the Prophet Mohammed. The cleric assembled a mob to assault Bibi’s house, brutally attacking her family before being stopped by local police. The police decided to take action not against the mob, but rather against Bibi for her alleged remarks. Awaiting execution or the suspension of her sentence, she has already spent a year and a half in jail.
What would have once evoked condemnation from all but the most fanatical quarters has now exposed the weakness of much of the ruling “liberal” elite. Though certain segments of civil society and a handful of politicians from within the ruling PPP have rallied to her defense, Pakistan’s legal minister, formerly associated with the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami, ruled out a repeal of the blasphemy laws. And while President Zardari was initially supportive of Taseer’s campaign, he has succumbed to pressure from conservatives in the Lahore High Court and religious leaders throughout the country, backtracking on an earlier indication that he would issue a pardon if the high court doesn’t suspend Bibi’s sentence. Even more callously, in the immediate wake of Taseer’s assassination, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani reassured jubilant Islamists that not a word of the country’s legal code would be amended.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, among the strictest in the world, did not emerge in a political vacuum. While enjoying American support in the late 1970s and 1980s, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq launched both a draconian “Islamification” program and a systematic dismantling of the state-sponsored social welfare schemes of the Bhutto era. Pakistan’s Anglo-Saxon-derived common law was amended to enforce Nizam-e-Mustafa (the “Way of Muhammad”). Sharia benches were put into place and prohibition of alcohol introduced, along with measures against petty theft and religious blasphemy. The “realpolitik” prerogative of combating the Soviets in Afghanistan meant siphoning aid to the forces of reaction. The region still bears the scars of this decision.
Never at a want for cliché, report after report in the Western press has taken to describing Pakistan as a divided nation. With the assassination of Taseer, perhaps we can reassess this as an optimistic appraisal. After all, it implies that there are still enough liberals visibly protesting conditions in the country to create this division, when so much evidence points to the contrary. This is not to say that Pakistan is on the verge of a jihadist takeover. It is, however, still caught in a cycle of military despotism and civilian malfeasance, a cycle many thought ended in 2008. The present conjuncture could hardly be bleaker. One of the few principled secular voices in the country has been lost. Even as a wave of democratic revolutions sweep across the Muslim world, many in Pakistan see a return to military rule as inevitable.