Murder in Islamabad: Pakistan's Deepening Religious Divide

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Arif Ali / AFP / Getty Images

Supporters of the Pakistan People's Party burn tires in Lahore, Pakistan, on Jan. 4, 2011, in protest of the assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer

The citizens of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, were in shock: their governor, Salmaan Taseer, had been shot to death, allegedly by one of his bodyguards, while walking through a marketplace in the country's capital, Islamabad. Minutes after the news got out, members of Taseer's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) took to the streets of the Punjabi capital of Lahore in anger. Protesters burned tires and shouted slogans against Taseer's assassin. One man wearing the PPP's red, black and green colors forced a shopkeeper to lower his shutters, screaming that no one would be allowed to do business on the day a party leader was killed. Besides grief, the furor stemmed from political frustration. Taseer was Punjab's most visible member of the PPP, which, under Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, slipped into crisis with a tenuous hold on the central government just before the outspoken governor was murdered.

Markets on the Mall Road and adjoining Hall Road close to Governor House, Taseer's official residence, were shut down as PPP loyalists gathered outside to mourn. "They've killed a great leader, a great politician," said Irfan Malik, 36, a PPP worker standing outside, wearing a black bandanna around his right arm as a sign of grief. "He was so loyal to Benazir Bhutto, so loyal to Zardari and so good to the party," said Muhammed Hanif, 43, wiping away a tear from his eye, referring to the legendary party leader assassinated in December 2007 (the Pakistani President is her widower; their son is being groomed as his political heir). Mourning for Taseer became an occasion to express loyalty to the Bhutto dynasty. Next to Hanif, two young men with PPP flags in their hands screamed aloud, "When you kill one Bhutto, another Bhutto is born." Chants of "Jiyo Bhutto" ("Long live Bhutto") and "Death to Taseer's killer" rang throughout Mall Road.

Even as an interim governor was appointed, Prime Minister Gilani announced three days of mourning for Taseer; the Punjab provincial government ordered all institutions and schools shut down on Wednesday, Jan. 5. Yet despite the official mourning, many Pakistanis were not saddened by his violent death supposedly at the hands of Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a bodyguard allegedly furious at Taseer's opposition to a blasphemy law that would punish apostates from Islam with death. One caller to a live TV show declared, "It was a glorious act [Qadri] did for Islam." A Facebook fan page for the accused was constructed within hours of the news of the assassination.

Raza Rumi, features editor of the weekly Friday Times, told TIME he thought the governor's murder would lead to a further narrowing of the liberal space in the country. "It's becoming more and more clear that only one kind of Islam is being allowed to flourish in this country," he said. "With Salmaan Taseer's death, a voice of reason and tolerance has been silenced forever." Shehla Akram, president of Punjab's Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who recently held an award ceremony at Governor House, said Taseer's murder would result in many steps backward for women's empowerment. "He was one of the most progressive leaders of Pakistan and one who was wholly committed to improving conditions for women in the country," she said. Indeed, Qadri's anger was allegedly ignited by Taseer's championing of the legal rights of a woman named Aasia Bibi who had converted to Christianity and had been condemned to death under the blasphemy law.

On Nov. 22, accompanied by his wife and daughter, Taseer visited Aasia, who sits in jail, to show his support. The gesture led to protests by conservative parties like the Tahafuz-e-Namoos-e-Risalat Mahnaz, which took to the streets to chant slogans against Taseer. Effigies of Taseer were burned during protests in Lahore and other cities, and slogans such as "Victory to Islam" and "Down with Taseer" were chanted on the streets. On the day of Taseer's death, Lahore remained divided on the issue of the blasphemy law, which he called the "black law."

One of the protesters, Tariq Ali, said the blasphemy law "abused human rights and human freedoms"; another demonstrator said the law was against the principles of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. But Lahore is a stronghold of conservative Islamic and traditional values. Mullah Muhammed Amir, imam of a mosque on Mall Road, while expressing his regret over Taseer's murder, said, "It is our job as Muslims to uphold laws that protect the sanctity of Islam. To safeguard the holy book is our duty as Muslims." A worshipper at the mosque agreed with him. "We are defenders of the holy Koran and the words of Allah and Prophet Muhammad," he said. "We need to condemn anyone who defiles Islam." But the imam insisted, "The killing of any innocent man is a sin in Islam, and I would like to express my regrets to his family." As the country tried to take in the assassination, television channels played footage of Taseer kissing a pendant with the word Allah worn around his knee, as if to impress upon viewers the late governor's piety. Said one of the commentators: "No mullah [should be the one to] decide if he was a good Muslim or not."

Outside Punjab, the mourning was more muted, though the political sentiments were still strong. In Sindh province, the traditional stronghold of the Bhutto family, Nadira Hanif, a resident of Karachi, the country's largest city, said, "Taseer was doing the right thing, even though he should not have challenged the law. The law should decide, and he should have waited for the Lahore High Court's decision. He should have hired a lawyer for Aasia Bibi. Where there are lots of extremists, you need to be more careful, especially if you take a bold position." Others, however, were not shy about declaring that Taseer "died for his sins."

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which recently withdrew from the PPP-led coalition, ending its fragile majority in Parliament and leading to the ongoing political crisis in Islamabad, expressed its condolences over the "martyrdom" of Taseer but made no moves to reconcile with Prime Minister Gilani. Gilani, however, received a reprieve from an imminent no-confidence vote; the chief opposition party postponed it by 72 hours to mark Taseer's death. Meanwhile, Aasia Bibi remains behind bars, her fate in limbo now that her greatest protector is dead.

With reporting by Miral Sattar / Karachi