What Salman Taseer's assassination could mean for Pakistan

The outpouring of praise for the killer of Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab who was assassinated in Islamabad Tuesday, is intensifying concerns in Pakistan about deeply rooted religious intolerance.

By , Correspondent

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    Protesters blacken and beat a poster of the governor of Punjab Province, Salman Taseer, during a rally to condemn the Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi in Multan, Pakistan, Nov. 25, 2010.
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Hundreds of Pakistan’s leading clerics have signed a statement condoning the killing of a powerful politician who opposed the country’s blasphemy laws. Those laws recently led to a Christian woman being sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the prophet Muhammad.

Experts believe the outpouring of praise for the killer of Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab who was slain by his own security detail in Islamabad on Tuesday, reflects deep support for religious intolerance and will have a chilling effect on reform-minded public figures.

“It’s highly dangerous for these religious scholars to say things that do not fit into the legal context of [an] issue. Are they saying Taseer was guilty of blasphemy simply by criticizing a law? In that case, hundreds of thousands are guilty. This is a clear incitement to violence,” says Badar Alam, editor of Pakistan’s Herald magazine and an expert on Islamist groups.

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Taseer spoke out

According to the statement issued by the Jamaat Ahle Sunnat Pakistan (JASP) body of Barelwi sect religious scholars, Governor Taseer’s critique of blasphemy laws made him responsible for his own death.

“We pay rich tributes and salute the bravery, valour, and faith of Mumtaz Qadri,” the statement adds, referring to the alleged killer. The Pakistan daily Dawn reported that the alleged killer, Malik Mutaz Qadri, is also a member of the Barelwi sect, which could explain the strong support from a school of Islam that has often spoken out against militancy.

Other leading religious figures also blamed Taseer for inviting his own death. Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, leader of the JUI-F, the country’s most powerful Islamic political party, told Dawn that the murder was a result of a failure to implement Islamic laws in the country.

Funeral prayers were held for Taseer in Lahore on Wednesday amid reports that at least two local imams refused to conduct the sermon, possibly fearing violent reprisal.

Taseer was among a handful of Pakistani politicians who had dared criticize blasphemy laws, which were created by the former dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. His support of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman currently facing the death penalty on what many legal observers believe to be trumped up, draconian charges, earned him the wrath of the religious right.

Sahabzada Abul Khair Zubair, a leading scholar of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan-Noorani, an Islamic body that supported the petition, told the Monitor: “Taseer did not respect the law. The blasphemy law must be preserved at all costs and all cases must go through the courts. If the courts are bypassed like Salman Taseer was trying to do, then these killings will occur.”

Zubair adds: “It's up to the courts to decide what happens now, and decide whether [Taseer's killer] was backed by some outside group or if he did what he did solely out of passion and love for the prophet. If that's the case, we are hopeful he will receive justice."

Such rhetoric is reflective of deepening intolerance for progressivism that stretches back to the 1980s and makes criticism of religious dogma nearly impossible, says Alam, the magazine editor. Indeed, as of Tuesday evening, a Facebook group dedicated to glorifying Malik Mumtaz Qadri had attracted some 2,000 Pakistanis before it was removed by the site’s authorities.

Not likely to give up the fight

On the flip side, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined other world leaders in condemning the killing on Wednesday.

"I had the opportunity to meet Governor Taseer in Pakistan and I admired his work to promote tolerance and the education of Pakistan's future generations. His death is a great loss," she said.

According to lawmaker Sherry Rehman, who proposed an amendment to the blasphemy law in parliament and has been subjected to numerous death threats herself, Taseer’s killing “puts all of us who are at the front lines at risk.”

“Salman Taseer was not challenging the prophet, he was challenging an unjust law. It’s shocking they are condoning a murder, and I hope they realize that,” she says. But, she adds, "We can't turn back. The stance we took was not political and it can't really be changed."

For Ms. Rehman, the anger now felt by liberals could galvanize them. But first, she says, they must overcome their fear. "I hope it's a turning point.... We're looking for sane voices but they're being silenced."

Related: Assassination of Pakistani governor Salman Taseer rocks Islamabad

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