Last week, one of the guards of the governor of Pakistani Punjab turned his weapon on his boss at a market in Islamabad, killing him instantly. Pakistan, sadly, is no stranger to political assassinations. It has suffered them since the country’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was gunned down in Rawalpindi in 1951. Salman Taseer’s assassination, however, amounts to a more disturbing postscript for this deeply troubled state.
As is well known, Taseer was an outspoken and vocal critic of the country’s retrograde blasphemy laws, one of the many disturbing legacies of the military dictator, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq. Zia had introduced this law, amongst others, largely to try and curry favor with the Islamic zealots within Pakistan in an attempt to legitimize his regime. Unfortunately, once on the books, no politician or regime in Pakistan could dare to overturn them for fear of provoking the wrath of a growing swath of religious militants. The recent death sentence handed down to a hapless Christian convert, Aasia Bibi, for having putatively insulted Islam, had brought the matter to the fore. Taseer’s crime, in the eyes of the fundamentalists, was that he had dared to publicly side with her.
Despite an outcry from Pakistan’s beleaguered civil society and one courageous politician, Sherry Rehman, the political establishment — including President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani — have remained mute spectators. They’ve maintained a deafening silence and have failed to condemn the wanton killing fearing that they may alienate a segment of the electorate and also invoke their wrath.
The murder and the failure of the civilian political elite to denounce it is indicative of the burgeoning street power of religious militants. It’s true, as many analysts are keen on underscoring, that the religious have never fared well in free and fair elections in Pakistan. However, it’s also an irrelevant conclusion. Their steadily growing power to change the terms of political discourse, to silence critics and to cow the general populace into submission is a far, far more distressing feature of Pakistan’s political landscape.