January 6, 2011


[While thousands of top PPP officials and workers gathered for Taseer's state funeral in the eastern city of Lahore, lawyers showered rose petals on Qadri as he arrived at an Islamabad courthouse. A national group of 500 religious scholars praised him and issued a warning to those who mourned Taseer.]
By Karin Brulliard
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - A leading ruling party politician was buried amid tight security Wednesday, one day after his assassination, and he was lionized by supporters for his bravery and principles. 

But outside the confines of Salman Taseer's cordoned-off funeral, his suspected killer was also lauded as heroic - for having slain a liberal politician who had dared to speak out against Pakistan's stringent anti-blasphemy law.

The opposing responses underscored the deep cultural fractures in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where moderate voices are often drowned out by hard-line clerics, an increasingly intolerant public and a persistent Islamist insurgency. Though the weak government led by Taseer's secular Pakistan People's Party (PPP) regularly denounces religious extremism, it has done little to dampen it.

Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was shot more than two dozen times outside an upscale marketplace in a wealthy area of Islamabad, the capital. Authorities said Mumtaz Qadri, 26, a member of the elite police force assigned to Taseer's security detail, surrendered and confessed afterward. Photos taken at the scene showed him smiling.

While thousands of top PPP officials and workers gathered for Taseer's state funeral in the eastern city of Lahore, lawyers showered rose petals on Qadri as he arrived at an Islamabad courthouse. A national group of 500 religious scholars praised him and issued a warning to those who mourned Taseer.

"One who supports a blasphemer is also a blasphemer," the group said in a statement, which warned journalists, politicians and intellectuals to "learn" from the killing. "What Qadri did has made every Muslim proud."

Police said they were investigating whether Qadri acted alone. He was to appear before one of Pakistan's antiterrorism courts, which convict few suspects.

One Islamabad police official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said preliminary investigations revealed that Qadri had planned the attack for days. The official also said a top police official in Rawalpindi had previously rejected Qadri for assignment to a special counterterrorism police force because of concerns about his militant religious views.

That disclosure renewed questions about the vetting of security forces in this nuclear-armed nation, which the United States relies on - and funds with billions of aid dollars - to support the war in neighboring Afghanistan. One senior security official said there was no cause for concern.

"The presence of a few such people cannot be ruled out," the official said. "However, we believe a majority of the forces are not inclined towards extremism."

Taseer had called for leniency for a Christian mother sentenced to death under the blasphemy ban, and he supported proposed amendments to prevent use of the law as a tool for persecuting minorities or settling vendettas. But those efforts were met with threats by Islamic groups.

His killing stunned Pakistan - which has been embroiled in political crisis since a key coalition party defected to the opposition over the weekend - and was condemned by many newspapers, activists and politicians.

A headline in the Daily Times, a liberal newspaper published by Taseer, read: "A brave man cut down by fanaticism." About 150 people holding placards reading "We reject religious extremism" attended a candlelight vigil at the site of the slaying.

Yet as Dawn, another English-language newspaper, noted in a front-page article, few of Taseer's supporters defended - or even commented directly on - his views about Pakistan's ban on insults toward Islam. Nor did they focus on the violent rhetoric of some religious clerics.

Instead, most of Taseer's backers made vague statements about rising intolerance and plots. President Asif Ali Zardari, a close friend of Taseer's, said the killing might have been a "conspiracy."

"We need to find out whether it was a targeted killing or an attempt to destabilize Pakistan," said Babar Awan, the federal law minister.

One exception was the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Q, whose leader, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, said that the blasphemy law should stay in place but that a new law should be passed to prevent its being abused.

Conservative religious figures, meanwhile, implied that Taseer had tempted fate.

"Had President Asif Ali Zardari and others stopped him from speaking against the blasphemy law, such an incident may not have happened," said Mufti Munib ur-Rehman, chairman of a quasi-governmental religious committee, according to Dawn.

That view was echoed by several people interviewed in major Pakistani cities Wednesday.

"I would love to put my shoes on his grave," Muhammad Nawaz, 45, owner of a Lahore medical store, said of Taseer. "He deserved it."

In the northwestern city of Peshawar, student Ahmad Zada, 23, said: "No one will be supported for killing others on their own. But Salman Taseer should also be held accountable for issuing a highly irresponsible and objectionable statement on blasphemy."

Samina Khan, who attended the vigil for Taseer in Islamabad, scoffed at that. "The people who brainwash young lads like Qadri need to be taken to task," she said.

Special correspondents Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad, Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar and Aoun Sahi in Lahore contributed to this report.

@ The Washington Post

Extremists may target other moderate Pakistani leaders in wake of Punjab governor killing.


Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, wearing a garland, shouts, "We are ready to sacrifice our life for the prestige of the Prophet Muhammad" after appearing in court in Islamabad.

Within hours of the slaying of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer by Malik Mumtaz Qadri, people who supported it had built a social-media shrine to the assassin, lavishing praise on him on Facebook. “Those who dare to insult our prophet Muhammad MUST be killed…All he [Qadri] did was in good faith,” read one post. The comment was hardly shocking given the fury Taseer had aroused in Pakistan by daring to advocate reform of the Muslim republic’s strict blasphemy law, which punishes such insults with death.

When Qadri shot Taseer at close range in
Islamabad on Tuesday, he silenced one of Pakistan’s strongest and most strident voices confronting Islamic extremism in a strategic country that seems to be at war with itself. It is rare for a Pakistani politician to publicly and frequently take on the religious right and Islamists linked to armed militant groups. But what brought wrath down on him was his championing of the cause of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Islam’s Prophet, and proposing liberalizing the blasphemy law adopted during the regime of President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s.

Taseer’s assassination seemed almost inevitable. A Taliban commander in south Waziristan, told NEWSWEEK that the governor would have been assassinated even if he had not been shot by Qadri, a newly-assigned member of his own security detail.”After Taseer [supported] a woman guilty of using bad words for Prophet Muhammad and blasphemy, Taseer was going to be killed anyway, very soon,” said the official, who uses the nickname Abu-Jihad. And he lauded Qadri: “The guard who killed Taseer should try to escape after shooting [him] to Taliban territory, and we would love to kiss his holy hands [and] gun trigger-finger.”

If Abu-Jihad is to be believed, Taseer’s killing may launch a wave of attacks against other, like-minded Pakistanis. “The blasphemy case did not end with Taseer's murder,” he told NEWSWEEK by phone. “Blasphemy punishment will continue. We have seen huge anger among ordinary Pakistanis and Taliban and they have included [anger against] numbers of people including media men, and a woman in Parliament, [who] were [leaders] in the advocacy of the blasphemy case and defending the guilty woman.” Sheri Rahman, a member of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party and former minister of information in the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, has been a sponsor of a blasphemy-law amendment bill.

As the presidentially-appointed governor of Pakistan’s most populous and influential province, Punjab, Taseer was constantly at war with the province’s two most powerful politicians, Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister, and Sharif’s younger brother, Shahbaz, the province’s elected chief minister. Taseer never tired of pointing out what he called the Sharifs’s hypocrisy. He charged them with supporting the extremist forces that the brothers had said they opposed.

Early this year, he invited a group of foreign reporters to a lunch at Punjab House, the elegant building sitting on a hill overlooking Islamabad, and denounced Shahbaz Sharif for publicly campaigning alongside a known leader of Sipa-e-Sahaba, a notorious and violent anti-Shia organization that has been tied to assassinations and bombings of Shia mosques. This past November at a reception at Punjab House, he again decried the Sharifs’s tolerance of, and refusal to move against, extremist groups that he charged were proliferating in the province under the brothers’ rule.

Taseer’s stance on the blasphemy issue brought the revulsion of the religious right, which successfully mobilized large street protests last month in favor of the law and the death sentence. He also was inundated with death threats, which the Sharifs apparently ignored. His death at the hands of one of his own protectors is not terribly surprising. In
Pakistan, there seems to be no way to ensure that a politician’s bodyguards will actually protect him or her. Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto once told a NEWSWEEK reporter that ex-president Pervez Musharraf privately advised her that he could not guarantee her safety—nor provide a fully reliable bodyguard. He even suggested that she recruit Blackwater. Bhutto was assassinated in 2007.

Taseer’s assassination is another blow to the besieged Zardari government—the loss of one of the president’s most influential and vocal supporters in a key province. Zardari and his prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, are already reeling from the recent defection of two erstwhile political allies and the demands of the Sharif brothers that the administration either clean up its corrupt and inefficient ways or face a call by the Sharif-led opposition for a parliamentary no-confidence vote. Even though the government may survive by taking on other partners, it has been grievously wounded and does not seem to have the strength to pursue the necessary economic reforms, to impose new taxes, and to redouble the fight along the border and in
Punjab against armed extremist groups.

Thousands of mourners attended Taseer’s funeral on Wednesday, under extremely tight security in Lahore, Punjab’s capital, which is widely viewed as Pakistan’s most progressive city. With his violent death, it remains to be seen whether other moderate politicians and Islamic religious leaders will muster the courage to continue his campaign for a more tolerant Pakistan. Washington’s rocky alliance with Pakistan in the war against Islamic extremism in the region may depend on it.

With John Barry in

@ News Week