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The Assassination of Salman Taseer

To say that Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was equally controversial and courageous when he expressed his views is an understatement. The story of his assassination reads truly like a chronicle of a death foretold, and brings to the fore the demon that’s been eating away at the soul of Pakistani society: religious intolerance. It was a demonstration of bigotry and hatred at its worst as the killer security guard kept smiling before the cameras, showing off his pride at what he had done. Condemnations of the murder by fellow politicians, Taseer’s own party leaders and opponents, came equally reluctantly.

While the mullah brigade won another day on Tuesday in Islamabad, the vernacular media also came out as a party to their culpability in which the two sinisterly rejoiced. How can anyone dare defend a poor Christian woman convict accused of having blasphemed against the Prophet of Islam? The question was asked repeatedly. No prizes for guessing the unanimous answer. The stage was being set to kill Taseer and to make a horrible example of anyone else who dared tread the same path.

A sizeable section of the media gave enough coverage to obscure prayer leaders from here and there who announced head money for killing Taseer. Others demanded his dismissal from the governor’s office and declared him murtid (a lapsed Muslim). The state watched as the threats were issued; no action was taken to apprehend those who openly incited the faithful to murder. Even in his own People’s Party, no one came forward to defend Taseer’s views on the very controversial blasphemy law that was enacted by the dictator Zia-ul-Haq and further strengthened by Nawaz Sharif when he was last the prime minister. PPP MP Sherry Rehman is the only other courageous politician in the entire party who has drafted a new law and deposited it in parliament, seeking to amend the blasphemy law that has now claimed several lives. Unfortunate as it is, she is seen to be acting alone, with no other ruling MP openly coming to her aid in the crucial matter.

A sustained media campaign was mounted by Taseer’s arch enemies, the Sharif brothers and their minions, to smother his image. His opponents often struck the Punjab governor below the belt by releasing his family members’ pictures to the media in which they appeared partying, as proof of their waywardness and “un-Islamic” behavior. The hate campaigns were unending, yet Taseer had the dignity to walk away with grace, issuing no denials whatsoever. Responding in kind was way beneath the man.

Taseer was groomed in the enlightened, progressive tradition of his father’s house where poetry and the arts had made home. His father, professor M.D. Taseer, was a well-reputed and respected man of letters, who had also served as the principal of M.A.O. College, Amritsar, before independence. His mother, (Christabel) Bilquees Taseer, was the elder sister of Alys who married the poet laureate Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Together, M.D. Taseer and Faiz were the shining stars and pioneering members of Urdu’s (leftist) Progressive Writers’ Movement of the 1930s, alongside Syed Sajjad Zahir, alias Banne Bhai, of the Communist Party. Taseer’s and Faiz’s wives too were steeped in leftist ideology, and had come to India from Britain to see and support the Indian freedom movement against the Raj.

Raised in such informed company, Salman Taseer got a head start that many from his generation envied. He wore his inborn secularism and often contradictory Muslim credentials with equal ease. If being secular was his inner conviction, being a culturally proud Muslim was perhaps a corollary, and not entirely his political compulsion. His youthful exuberance and flamboyance attracted many, including the dashing journalist Tavleen Singh by whom he had a son, Aatish Taseer ? now a writer in his own right. Walking away from Singh and his son, he went on to take two wives, one after the other, to eventually settle down in Lahore and raise a family in an open, progressive home environment that can be said to be at odds with what Pakistan as a society has become over time; but which many urban Pakistanis continue to hold on to as their little secrets that are jealously guarded against the bigotry surrounding them.

Taseer’s lifestyle and the open manner in which he conducted his controversial personal and business affairs and politics upset many people, but none enough to kill him. His remorseless killer had to be a religious fanatic; the 26-year-old Mumtaz Qadri of Bara Koh, a small settlement outside Islamabad, fitted the profile. The muted reaction to Taseer’s killing is also symptomatic of the sickly, hypocritical society Pakistanis live in today, which allows little room for debate on any issue tainted with religion, let aside dissent against popularly accepted formulations based largely on myths or sheer ignorance.

This is a society that courts one disaster after the other, with a repulsive appetite that refuses to be satisfied. Islam in Pakistan is certainly not in safe hands, and has become a tool in the hands of a growing number of people to settle personal scores, hurl abuses and threats or simply to kill to ostensibly please Allah. The all-pervasive state of denial on the part of the leadership to come forth and say that there is a problem that must be fixed is equally repulsive and leaves one with little hope. To put it crudely, it’s a dog-eat-dog world.

Whether or not this newfound world of bigotry consumes another celebrity like Salman Taseer who’s willing to stand up and say what must be said, it will surely continue to consume many more Aasia Bibis, average citizens, Muslim and non-Muslim, who keep falling easy prey to what Taseer courageously called a “black” law. This is because many in the media and from their pulpits in the mosques will keep inciting the faithful to murder and mayhem. Pakistan indeed is a dangerous place to be.

Murtaza Razvi is an editor with ‘Dawn’, Karachi.

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