Pakistan Elite Silent After Taseer Assassination

By Mosharraf Zaidi for CNN

The assassination of Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer by his bodyguard last week seems to confirm the prejudices about Pakistan as a country where moderate voices face danger, where violent extremism is widespread and where investors aren’t very safe.

Taseer, ever the entrepreneur, the tycoon and the irrepressible Pakistani patriot would resist vociferously. If he could tweet his thoughts from heaven, the prejudiced would have hell to pay. His plain-spoken manner and blunt were often a political liability. But for all his political faults, Taseer’s was a rare courageous voice.

He was murdered for speaking out in defense of a poor, defenseless Christian woman in a village — something few dared to do. It was Taseer’s unambiguous morality in his speaking out for the weak that captured imaginations of those neutral Pakistanis keen to see reason as a dominant force in their country.

Taseer was unique in life and stands virtually alone in death. The deafening silence among the pygmies that make up the rank-and-file of the Pakistani elite is the sound of fear and moral confusion.

The fear is genuine and real. More than the assassination itself, the mainstream reaction to Taseer’s murder exposes the cancerous immunity to reason in Pakistan’s Islamic discourse. Without expressing anything resembling blasphemy, educated and articulate Pakistanis chided Taseer, even in death, for writing his own death warrant. His crime? Asking for changes to the Pakistan Penal Code, whose blasphemy clauses have been regularly abused for social, political and economic gain.

The irrational right-wing Pakistani “Tea Party” is really no party at all. It is a lynch mob. And it isn’t tea that fanatics in Pakistan have been drinking for years. Instead, the Pakistani establishment has fed them a steady diet of nationalism, pan-Islamism and Takfirism [accusing a Muslim of apostasy.]

Unable to win elections, or compel social transformation on its own, the Pakistani right has always required the patronage of secret services and their financiers; American, Saudi or otherwise. It simply cannot survive without this patronage. The Machiavellian establishment, fueled by the clumsy intellect of military men and the dangerous cunning of civilian bureaucratic and political hatchet men, knows this. It is the only power base in the country that can truly respond to Taseer’s assassination.

In the heart of the most dynamic and exciting economic region in the world, Pakistan can still be a force for good. To do so, the Pakistani establishment has to take two sets of actions. The first and immediate is to mobilize the state machinery, swiftly and firmly, against those that openly call for violence.

This isn’t unprecedented. The Pakistani state has a long record of using busloads of cash, the British legacy administrative system of magisterial power, and a police force not entirely familiar with Miranda rights to obliterate dissent.

The second, the more complex and much longer-term task is the deradicalization of Pakistani Muslims. The religiously illiterate fanatic is a dangerous creature.

His blind rage is expressed in all kinds of wars that go far beyond religion. Pakistan’s class and caste wars are as old as the Indus River. Religious authority is merely an instrument of social mobility. Slaying members of the elite, even if it is not openly acknowledged, is seen as striking a blow for one’s oppressed class and caste sensibilities.

The 24-hour news media also feeds the rage, airing long and tortuous narratives that stimulate the indignities of being Pakistani in the 21st century. The U.S. war in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s tribal areas is at the top of the list of these indignities.

Deradicalizing Pakistani fanatics is not going to be easy, but it may not be as impossible as it seems. In essence, it needs to be seen as rerationalism. Too often, critics view deradicalization as an attempt to strip Muslims of their identity or as an attack on the fundamentals of a Muslim’s faith. On the contrary, fundamental Islamic values of reason, knowledge and mercy need to be included in the mainstream Islamic narrative. These qualities are facets of Islam that have become subservient to blind rage.

Luckily, there are glimmers of light. Civil voices across the country demonstrate the establishment will not be batting alone if it begins to take steps to fix its own mess. More than 60 organizations have signed up to a call for resistance by the Citizens for Democracy.

Recently, activists in Karachi, including one of Taseer’s six children, registered criminal charges against a mosque leader who was openly inciting violence against Sherry Rehman, a former journalist and now member of Parliament who has submitted a bill for an amendment to the blasphemy laws. These are reasonable people asking for reasonable actions.

Bringing reason into Pakistan’s public discourse is a critical prerequisite for a society based on the rule of law and a political process that enhances the dignity of people, rather than undermines it.

Pakistan is teetering on the brink of economic collapse and political failure. For decades, Pakistanis have rightly spoken with pride of their society’s strength and resilience. Now is the time for Pakistan to prove its resilience once more.

Civil society can take the brave first few steps, but this struggle is one that requires the assets and resources of the state. Taseer’s assassination is a test of the Pakistani state.

Mosharraf Zaidi has advised governments and international organizations, including the U.N. and the EU, on international aid and development. He writes a weekly column for Pakistan’s The News, and other publications.

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  1. January 11th, 2011

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