Taseer Murder Reveals Depth of Pakistan's Extremist Drift

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K.M. Chaudary / AP

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, center, surrounded by officials and members of his government, offers a prayer during the funeral procession for Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in Lahore, Pakistan, on Jan. 5, 2011

A week after the murder of one of its most prominent officials, Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, the government of Pakistan has staved off its collapse — but at a considerable political cost. The shaky coalition led by President Asif Ali Zardari's ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) managed late last week to restore its narrow parliamentary majority by coaxing a junior partner that had walked out back into the fold. But the concessions required to maintain the government's parliamentary majority will make governing more difficult, and will appease the extremism that claimed Taseer as a victim. Washington has reason for concern about the stability of a key ally ahead of Vice President Joseph Biden's visit to Islamabad on Tuesday, and Zardari's visit to Washington the following day.

The first capitulation came over the country's blasphemy laws, which enable the persecution of Pakistan's Christians and other religious minorities. Taseer had been one of just a handful of prominent politicians willing to publicly demand changes to the laws, a stand that prompted one of his bodyguardsto shoot him dead last Tuesday. Human rights groups note that the vaguely worded laws have been repeatedly invoked as a tool of social and political coercion against the country's most vulnerable communities. But in order to shore up his fragile coalition, PPP Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and his ministers have vowed not to touch the law. Interior Minister Rehman Malik went as far as saying he would shoot any blasphemer himself.

"We will not allow the misuse of the blasphemy law against the minorities and vulnerable sections of society, " said government spokesman Farhatullah Babar. "But we have to look at the timing. In this charged atmosphere, it is not possible to review these laws." The political calculations of the leadership had left Taseer isolated within the PPP before his murder, say government critics.

The toxic political environment cited by Babar was much in evidence last weekend. On Saturday, 4,000 supporters gathered at the home of Mumtaz Qadri, Taseer's confessed assassin. Sunday saw 50,000 supporters of Islamist parties rallying in the street of Karachi, where Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the leader of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam party, which recently walked out of the coalition, told the crowd that Taseer was responsible for his own death because of his criticism of the blasphemy law.

The rally also escalated the threat against Sherry Rehman, the liberal parliamentarian who has proposed amendments to the blasphemy law aimed at protecting Pakistan's minorities. The imam at the largest mosque in south Karachi has declared her an infidel and worthy of killing. While no action has been taken against those making such threats, Rehman has not left her home since Taseer's slaying, and senior ministers have urged her to leave the country for her own safety. But Rehman refuses to be hounded out of the country. "The situation is very hairy," she told TIME from her home, around which a fresh security cordon has been placed. "I am being careful. There's no reason to be foolish, but I am not going to be silenced by intimidation."

The Taseer murder and its aftermath have raised troubling questions about Pakistan's future. The lionizing of Qadri, the confessed assassin, not just by fringe fundamentalists but by large swathes of mainstream opinion in Pakistan, has underscored the political marginalization of more secular liberal elements. "The silent majority we used to speak of has become a silent minority," one politician laments. Others suggest the episode has laid bare a cultural and class war between the urban, English-speaking elite and an increasingly conservative majority drawn to more fundamentalist readings of Islam.

And then there's the economy, strapped to an IMF life-support package but continuing to deteriorate. Washington has long urged Islamabad to broaden its tax base to generate desperately needed revenue, discreetly warning that Pakistan should not expect bailouts from American taxpayers when less than 2% of the country's 180 million citizens pay any direct tax. But the current Pakistani government is too weak to undertake desperately needed reforms.

Plans for a revised general sales tax have been shelved, and the government last week was forced into a humiliating retreat on plans to cut fuel subsidies. Junior coalition partners and opposition parties had threatened to vote down the government if those reforms had stood. But maintaining the massive fuel subsidy in the face of rising global oil prices will simply plunge Pakistan deeper into debt. "The shortfall means that they're going to have to borrow or print money," says economist Akbar Zaidi. "The fiscal deficit may rise to twice what it ought to be for economic stability."

The IMF has given Pakistan an extra nine months within which to find a way of generating the needed revenue. But most of the avenues for doing so will result in hikes in the cost of food and fuel that will fuel popular discontent. "It's not a pleasant scenario," says economist Zaidi. "Nor is it sustainable."

Pakistan's political turmoil augurs poorly for Washington's plans in the region: A government lurching from crisis to crisis, always on the brink of collapse, will struggle to make the painful economic changes necessary to stabilize the country's course, much less to tackle the Islamist militancy that remains Washington's primary concern. Indeed, the murder of Salman Taseer may have have sounded a death knell for hopes that Pakistan will, for the foreseeable future, be the country that Washington hopes it will be.