The murder of Salman Taseer, longtime governor of the Punjab (the country’s dominant and richest province) and publisher of the Lahore Daily Times, is likely to have unnerved members of the Pakistani elite who assumed that the state’s security forces could and would protect them against fundamentalist violence.
However, there is genuine speculation in this part of the world — unexplored so far in the foreign press — that Taseer may not have been killed because of his opposition to Pakistan’s appalling blasphemy laws and the death sentence handed down to an illiterate Christian woman for that crime. (By the way, no one has ever been executed under these laws, but at least 30 people accused or convicted of blasphemy have been murdered by lynch mobs.)
Though the police guard who gunned down Taseer certainly seems to be a fundamentalist extremist, some have wondered if Malik Mumtaz Qadri found himself in a position to assassinate the governor thanks to a deeper conspiracy. After all, Qadri had already been identified as a security risk because of his (openly declared) extremist beliefs as early as 2002, but was nevertheless allowed to join the Punjab Police’s “Elite Force” and, even more surprisingly managed to get an assignment with the governor’s security detail.
Though anger and vengeance motivated the most important assassination of a South Asian leader by a bodyguard — Indira Gandhi by her Sikh protection officer in 1984 — it is not unknown for politicians and rulers in South and Central Asia, as elsewhere, to get rid of rivals and enemies by suborning their bodyguards. As a feudal landlord, ruthless power broker, and notorious bully, as well as a brave liberal and man of culture, Taseer had plenty of rivals and enemies. (Readers can get a sense of him by reading the book Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey through Islamic Lands by his half-Indian son Aatish Taseer.)
At one time there were rumors that he was trying to use his influence to shift the Pakistan People’s Party away from the control of the Bhutto family. They were probably untrue, but many believe it would be a dangerous thing in Pakistan for a Bhutto ally in such an important position to be perceived as disloyal to President Zardari — a man believed by his enemies to have had a hand in many murders, including those of Murtaza Bhutto and his own wife Benazir.
Nor is it impossible that elements in the army that believe Pakistan needs a return to military rule would be willing to foster a climate of violence and insecurity to gain public support for a coup.
Such speculation could simply be conspiracy-mongering nonsense of a kind all too common in countries with a democratic deficit and a tradition of real conspiracies. Or it could reflect the unwillingness or inability of the predominantly secular or moderate political class to understand how widely Islamic fundamentalism has spread or how implacable and impassioned the fundamentalist minority has become.
But whether Taseer was simply the victim of fanatics who genuinely believed that changes to the country’s cruel blasphemy law amounted to an assault on Islam, or met his end thanks to the machinations of other political actors, his murder makes it clear that Pakistan is a country in which politics has become a mortally dangerous pursuit.
With every disaster, every assassination, every horrific bomb attack, commentators announce the collapse of Pakistan, or declare that the country has joined the ranks of “failed states.” Yet, somehow, despite endemic political violence, the loss of control over parts of the northwest frontier, and economic trouble, the Pakistani state stumbles on. It is only if the morale of the country’s ruling elite begins to crumble, that things could really fall apart. It remains to be seen if the killing of a figure like Taseer might shake the confidence of that elite to the extent that its members would consider giving up their estates, their businesses, their parliamentary seats, and their tremendous power and wealth for the safety of London or the Gulf.
— Jonathan Foreman is writer-at-large for StandpointOnline.