Pakistan's Pols Paralyzed by Religious Extremism

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Asif Hassan / AFP / Getty Images

Pakistani Islamists attend a rally supporting the blasphemy law on Jan. 9, 2011, in Karachi

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari will visit the White House on Friday, amid growing U.S. concern that his country is drifting into the embrace of Islamist extremism. The brutal assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, over his moves to reform a blasphemy law used to persecute religious minorities, has been a shocking indicator: Taseer was shot 27 times by one of his own bodyguards, while the others looked on. The murder was widely celebrated in Pakistan, and its confessed perpetrator, Mumtaz Qadri, has been lionized by tens of thousands of demonstrators on the street, while the liberal element personified by Taseer has been marginalized. The unrestrained march of extremism in the world's second largest Muslim nation — the only one with nuclear weapons — and on whose support the U.S. is depending in Afghanistan is a clear cause for anxiety in Washington. "Societies that tolerate such actions," Vice President Joe Biden told reporters during a brief visit to Islamabad on Wednesday, "end up being consumed by those actions."

Still, despite worrying signs, it's easy to overstate the Islamist challenge. Pakistan's religious parties remain at the political margins, usually sharing between them less than 10% of the vote. "It's the secular forces that have always been in power, whether it was the military or the main political parties," says opposition lawmaker Ayaz Amir. "The clerical forces are entitled to articulate whatever they want to. But who's been succumbing, who's been doing the backtracking? It's the secular forces." Successive governments have attempted for political reasons to placate the religious right with concessions. The same principle was evident in the current government's capitulation to the conservatives on the blasphemy law, making clear in the wake of Taseer's murder that it has no intention of pursuing his effort to reform the measure.

Taseer's assassination certainly presented a formidable challenge, by bringing together erstwhile enemies in the religious camp in a rare show of unity. The crowd of 40,000 on the streets of Karachi last weekend celebrating Taseer's murder included such sects as the typically moderate Barelvis, their more hard-line rival Deobandis, the even more extreme Wahhabis, and even the Shi'ites so often targeted by the more extreme Sunni sects. Groups that are more inclined to fight one another than to pray together have found common cause on blasphemy. "It's the one issue where you can put together more people on the streets than are willing to vote for you," says analyst Mosharraf Zaidi. The religious right now feels emboldened by the impassiveness of secular parties and the state: no one who threatened to kill Taseer and other like-minded politicians has been arrested.

Among the keenest supporters of Qadri was the Sunni Tehreek, an armed group headquartered in Karachi that opposes the Taliban and related extremists. The group has donated a reward to Qadri's family and issued threats against Taseer's daughter. "Qadri did what he did out of his religious conviction," says Fahimuddin Sheikh, a spokesman for the Sunni Tehreek. But, he adds, "We are very much against the Taliban and the terrorists. We haven't just supported the army's offensives against them, but mounted rallies in support of them. These are people who want to use the gun to impose their views." Which, of course, is exactly what Taseer's assassin appears to have been doing.

Like Qadri, the members of the Sunni Tehreek are drawn from the Barelvi sect, estimated to make up 80% of the population. In recent years, Barelvi shrines and leaders have been attacked by Taliban-affiliated militants who deem their practices heretical. But when it comes to defending the "honor of the Prophet," the Barelvis can be fiercer than other sects, and Taseer's opposition to the blasphemy laws was cast as an act of blasphemy. It was always misleading to cast the Barelvis as exemplars of tolerance, says lawmaker Amir. "This impression really comes down to the Barelvis' support for our recent wars against the Taliban," he adds. "Otherwise they've been involved in the spread of religiosity in Pakistani society. That's the problem with Pakistan: too much religion."

The spread of religiosity has created a sense of religious guilt and shame in much of mainstream Pakistan, analysts say, pulling the consensus in a more conservative direction. Within hours of the killing, some 2,000 Pakistanis, most conversant in English, had joined a Facebook fan page dedicated to Qadri before it was shut down. They were not fundamentalists, nor were they averse to Western culture. "If you go through the profiles of Qadri supporters on Facebook, you'd think Justin Bieber was the cause of extremism in Pakistan," tweeted the Pakistani blogger Kala Kawa. Says analyst Zaidi: "Articulating love for the Prophet is a way people purge their guilt. They see blasphemy as a red line, and if it's seen to be crossed, they say they're on board."

Pakistani tensions over religion don't exist independently of the tensions of social class in this grotesquely unequal society. After Taseer's assassination, many liberals discovered to their horror that their domestic staff didn't share their grief; some smiled at the news. Even though the governor had come from a modest background, many Pakistanis saw him as epitomizing a wealthy, English-speaking, liberal elite. "If you're from the Urdu-schooled mainstream of the country, the assertiveness of the class rubs you the wrong way," says Zaidi. "And it's easy to depict someone who's outwardly Westernized as being distant from religion." Taseer's status as a high-profile politician also diluted any sympathy for him from those sections of the population resentful of a political class they perceive as being inept, distant and venal.

Opposition to the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the Taliban's claim to represent a purer form of Islam made it difficult for the Pakistani authorities to rally public support against the domestic extremist challenge. It was only after the Pakistani Taliban revealed its brutality in parts of the country over which it had gained control that public support swung behind a military offensive to drive them out. But Taseer's assassination is an uncomfortable reminder of a religious intolerance deeply embedded within the country's mainstream, which no Pakistani government is likely to risk confronting head-on.