Posts Tagged ‘ MQM ’

Saving Pakistan’s Face?

By Huma Yusuf for The New York Times

On Monday morning, Pakistanis awoke to news that their country had just won its first Oscar. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and her co-director Daniel Junge received the award for best documentary in the short-subject category for “Saving Face.” The film chronicles the work of the British-Pakistani plastic surgeon Mohammad Jawad, who performs reconstructive surgery on women who were attacked with acid.

The media in Pakistan couldn’t get enough of the story. Television channels repeatedly broadcast footage of Obaid-Chinoy receiving her award. Fans posted on their Facebook pages pictures of the filmmaker on the red carpet. Her acceptance speech was tweeted and retweeted: “To all the women in Pakistan who are working for change, don’t give up on your dreams — this is for you.”

Politicians tried to share the limelight. Altaf Hussain, the head of the Karachi-based M.Q.M. party, congratulated Obaid-Chinoy publicly. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani announced that she would be given a civilian award for making Pakistan proud and catalyzing social change.

The chain restaurant Nando’s, which specializes in grilled chicken, even designed an advertising campaign riffing on the documentary’s name: “From one hot chick to another: Thanks for Saving our Face.”

But Obaid-Chinoy’s triumph, a rare piece of good news out of Pakistan, also reveals the extent to which Pakistanis have become accustomed to feeling dejected.

For once, Pakistan is making headlines for a positive achievement, not another terrorist attack, political squabble or natural disaster. For Pakistanis who have been struggling to restore their country’s flailing image, it’s a relief to see a talented, young Pakistani woman receiving a coveted international award — and hobnobbing with George Clooney. As the cultural critic Nadeem F. Paracha put it in a tweet, “Viva la @sharmeenochiony! The pride of Pakistan is in their artistes & intellectuals. Not in bombs and bans!”

But what does it say about a country that it would rejoice at attracting global attention for rampant violations of women’s rights?

Pakistan is the world’s third-most dangerous country for women. Over 150 Pakistani women are the victims of acid attacks each year. Activists for women’s rights claim that only 30 percent of acid cases are reported and that this form of violence is extremely widespread because acid is easily available and inexpensive. Last year, the government passed the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill, which imposes on attackers prison terms from 14 years to life and fines of up to one million rupees (about $11,000). But the new law has yet to be rigorously implemented, and attitudes toward women’s rights are far from reformed.

Obaid-Chinoy’s film highlights these problems — hardly a point of pride for Pakistanis.

Once the Oscar high subsides, Pakistanis will have to contend with the fact that their nation remains notorious for its challenges, violence against women included. Then the question will be, can the hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis who rooted for Obaid-Chinoy at the Academy Awards muster the same enthusiasm to tackle the problems that her work exposes?

Huma Yusuf is a columnist for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn and was the 2010-11 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

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Early Elections Seen as Possible Solution to Pakistan’s Political Crisis

By Saeed Shah for The Miami Herald

Pakistan’s political crisis, which pits its president against determined opponents in foes in Parliament, the Supreme Court and the military, is likely to reach fever pitch on Monday with a confidence vote scheduled in Parliament and hearings scheduled in two critical court cases.

The crisis is so intense that President Asif Zardari’s administration may be willing to call elections for as soon as October, according to members of his ruling coalition and its advisers. But that may not be enough to mollify the opposition, which wants earlier elections, or the country’s powerful military establishment, which is believed to be trying to force a so-called “soft coup,” under which Zardari, a critic of the military’s traditional dominance of Pakistan, would be forced out by Parliament or the courts.

The threat of an outright coup also hangs over the crisis, if the politicians cannot find a way out or the court proceedings reach absolute stalemate.

Whether the government can reach agreement with opposition leader Nawaz Sharif is unclear. Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party doesn’t want to announce elections until after voting in March for a new Senate, which the PPP is widely expected to win. But Sharif would like the new elections to be in the summer, perhaps June, which would require an earlier announcement.

“There is no other option for the government to come out of the current crisis without elections,” said an adviser to the PPP leadership, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, as did the other coalition members. “It is in the interests of the PPP to reach an agreement with Nawaz.”

The PPP rules with three major coalition partners, but the alliance is looking shaky. Two of the parties, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, have distanced themselves somewhat from the government.

A senior member of the coalition said the parties so far have agreed internally only to a general election to be held in October. That would be just a few months before the February 2013 date when Parliament would complete its five-year term and elections would have to be held anyway.

An early election should also placate the courts and the military. A supposedly neutral caretaker government would have to be installed to oversee a three-month electioneering period.

Another coalition member said: “It is 100 percent certain that there will be elections in 2012. The only solution is elections. It doesn’t matter whether they are held in June or October.”

Zardari’s coalition itself brought Monday’s confidence vote resolution to Parliament, cleverly wording it so that it asks for support not for the prime minister or even the government, but for democracy. That makes it difficult to oppose.

But the PPP’s troubles in Parliament are only one of the fronts in its battle for survival. The courts and the military are both maneuvering against the party’s leaders, with two explosive cases coming up for hearings Monday.

The first stems from a 2007 decree by President Pervez Musharraf that granted immunity from prosecution to Zardari and other exiled PPP politicians in an effort to persuade them to return to Pakistan to participate in elections that Musharraf was being pressured by the United States to hold.

The Supreme Court later ruled, however, that the decree was illegal and demanded that the government reopen corruption charges against Zardari stemming from the time when his wife, the assassinated PPP leader Benazir Bhutto, was prime minister.

The government declined, however, and now the court has summoned the government to explain its actions. The court could declare Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in contempt of court, which would in effect remove him from office.

The other case involves the the scandal in which a judicial commission is investigating allegations that Husain Haqqani, a close Zardari adviser and former ambassador to the U.S., wrote a memo that was passed to U.S. officials in May. That memo offered to replace the Pakistan military’s top officials in return for U.S. support should the military attempt to push Zardari aside.

Haqqani, who was forced to resign, says he had nothing to do with the memo, which the military has said amounted to treason.

The judicial commission may take testimony this week from an American businessman, and occasional news commentator, Mansoor Ijaz, who claimed that he had delivered the memo to U.S. officials, in a column that appeared in the British newspaper the Financial Times in October. Ijaz has said he will show up as a witness, though he apparently has yet to receive a visa to enter Pakistan.

Pakistan Issues Shoot-On-Sight Order as Karachi Violence Escalates

As Reported by The Voice of America

Pakistani security forces have been ordered to shoot on sight when confronting disorders in Karachi, where days of political and ethnic violence have left up to 85 people dead.

About 1,000 additional police and paramilitary forces were deployed in Karachi on Friday with new orders to shoot any armed “miscreants” they encounter.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters that dozens of suspects have been detained in connection with a series of targeted killings since Monday. At least 34 people died on Thursday alone when gunmen opened fire on buses.

Police say the killings are part of clashes between political groups in Sindh province, including the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and its rival, the Awami National Party (ANP).

The MQM largely represents the Urdu-speaking community, and until last month was part of the ruling coalition in Sindh. ANP represents ethnic Pashtuns. Both those groups and the ruling Pakistan People’s Party are believed to have links to armed groups in Karachi.

Shops were closed and streets were deserted in the southern port city Friday after the MQM called for a day of mourning and protest rallies.

MQM leader Raza Haroon has said his movement’s supporters are being targeted because the party quit the coalition.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says 490 people were victims of targeted killings in Karachi in the first half of this year.

On Friday, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani appealed for peace and security in Karachi, saying it was important for the economic development of the country.

U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter called on all parties to refrain from further violence and work toward a “peaceful resolution of differences.”

Amnesty International criticized the government’s order for security forces to “shoot on sight” armed men involved in the violence. The rights group said Friday that by giving troops such power the government is effectively declaring Karachi “a war zone” and encouraging further lawlessness and violence, citing what it said was the army’s record of human rights violations.

About 18 million people live in Karachi, the country’s economic hub. The city also has been the scene of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and militant attacks.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan’s northwest, military officials say troops backed by jets have killed 11 militants in the Kurram tribal region along the Afghan border. Officials say nearly 50 militants have been killed in Kurram since a military operation began there this week.

Afridi Asks Zardari For Help

As Reported by The AFP

Former captain Shahid Afridi appealed to President Asif Ali Zardari for help on Wednesday after his central contract was suspended when he announced his retirement from international cricket. “I have appealed to the president to intervene urgently, also deal with other issues and save the game from getting into more crises,” Afridi told AFP by telephone from Southampton.

Afridi confirmed that the England and Wales Cricket Board stopped him from playing after the PCB revoked its permission.
“The captaincy was not an issue as I have already played under senior players, but it was a matter of self respect and honour which was hurt,” said Afridi who refused to speak about the PCB sanctions.

The opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N party has already submitted an adjournment motion in the national assembly against Afridi’s punishment.
Former Pakistan captain Imran Khan, who now heads his own opposition party, said the PCB was not run professionally.
“The board is not run like an institution,” Khan told a television channel. “Afridi feels injustice is done so he has taken a decision and you don’t change four-five captains in a year.”

“Just recently everyone was praising Afridi after he led Pakistan to the semi-final of the World Cup and then suddenly this happened,” said Khan. “The board is also run on ad-hoc basis like the country,” he added.
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which belongs to the coalition government headed by Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party, also objected to the sanctions on Afridi. “President Zardari should take notice of the biased attitude of the board,” said MQM leader Farooq Sattar. “You don’t treat national heroes like this.”

Sports Minister Shaukatullah Khan lashed out at PCB chairman Ijaz Butt over the “injustice” and said he would discuss the matter with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Abdul Ghaffar Qureshi, who heads the sports committee in the upper house of parliament, demanded Butt’s sacking.
“A change in the PCB is imperative,” said Qureshi. “Butt has not allowed any captain to settle so it will be better to sack him.”

The 31-year-old all-rounder, dumped as one-day captain following a row with coach Waqar Younis last month, quit international cricket in protest at his treatment by the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB).
In response, the PCB suspended his central contract and revoked all his no-objection certificates, meaning he will not be officially permitted to play overseas.

The move will stop him from playing for Hampshire in England’s Twenty20 league and in next month’s Sri Lankan Premier League.
Afridi said that he came to know about his removal from the team’s captaincy through media and the board did not bother to inform him about that decision.

Sindh Saves the Day

By Nadeem F Paracha for Dawn

Plans are afoot to build the world’s first ever international Sufi university near Bhit Shah in Sindh. The main purpose of the institution would be to promote interfaith and intercultural education to tackle extremism in the country.

Such a thought and project could only have come about in Sindh. Especially in the context of what Pakistan has beengoing through in the last many years.

Not only have the country’s other provinces – especially the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) – become central targets of horrid terrorist attacks by extremist organisations, the Punjab in particular has also been witnessing a steady growth of faith-based conservatism within its urban middle and lower middle-classes.

When extremists (calling themselves ‘Punjabi Taliban’) attacked the famous Sufi shrine, Data Darbar in Lahore late last year, economist and political analyst, Asad Sayeed, made a rather insightful observation.

He said that had such an attack on the Darbar taken place twenty years ago, thousands of Lahorites would have poured out to protest.

But not anymore. The attack on one of Punjab’s most popular Sufi shrines was simply treated as just another terrorist attack.

Though it is now clear that the Wahabi/Deobandi extremists have been going around blowing up Sufi shrines frequented by the majority Barelvi Muslims, the Barelvi leadership has looked elsewhere, putting the blame on the ever-elusive ‘foreign hands.’

Journalist and intellectual Khaled Ahmed once wrote a telling tongue-in-cheek article about the annual gathering of the Dawat-i-Islami in Multan.

The Dawat is the Barelvi equivalent of the Deobandi Tableeghi Jamat. Both these outfits are considered to be non-political organisations who are more interested in evangelizing their respective versions of Islam and its rituals. One should also mention that both these (sub-continental) strains of Islam accuse one another of being ‘flawed Muslims.’

Ahmed wrote how after Dawat’s huge congregation in Multan, when police found some bullet-riddled bodies of Dawat members, the outfit’s main leadership simply refused to acknowledge the glaring evidence that pointed towards the involvement of an opposing Sunni sect’s organisation in the murders.

Ahmed adds that Dawat leaders began babbling about ‘outside forces (RAW, CIA, Mossad)’ who wanted to create disharmony between Pakistan’s Barelvi majority and the Deobandi and Wahabi sects.

Barelvis: From moderate to militant

One can understand the above-mentioned episode as an example of the confusion Barelvi spiritual leadership has gone through since the 1980s.

From its inception in the 18th century and until about the mid-1980s, the Barelvi sect was largely apolitical in orientation, non-Jihadist and followers of some of the most relaxed dictates of the Hanafi madhab – the first of the four main Islamic schools of law that is also considered to be the most moderate.

‘Barelvi Islam’ (as it is sometimes called) is purely a sub-continental phenomenon that fuses elements of Indian Sufism with the folk and populist strains of various cultures that exist in the sub-continent.

It is also called the ‘folk Islam’ of the region in which a high degree of tolerance exists between various faiths, sects, classes and ethnicities and in which the puritanical aspects of other Islamic sects are eschewed and even rejected.

The Sufi shrine and an intense reverence of the Prophet (PBUH) play a central role in Barelvi Islam. Its populist and moderate make-up helped it become the majority Sunni sect amongst the Muslims of the sub-continent.

Two of its leading opponents have been the Sunni Deobandi sect (also a product of the subcontinent) and the Saudi-inspired Wahabism.

Both have accused Barelvis of ‘adopting Hindu rituals and practices’ and assorted ‘heresies.’

In spite of being the majority sect amongst Sunni Muslims in Pakistan, ‘Barelvi Islam’ hardly ever had a coherent political expression in shape of a mass-based political party or organisation.

Its spiritual leadership remained pro-Jinnah (unlike Deobandi organizations of undivided India), and various Pakistani political leaders have continued to appeal to the symbolism and lingo associated with various populist aspects of Barelvi-ism.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) was the most successful in this respect.

Bhutto was also one of the first leading Pakistani political figures to undertake the act of regularly visiting various famous Sufi shrines in Sindh and Punjab.

Barelvis are in the majority in Sindh and the Punjab, whereas Deobandis are largely centred in Khyber Pakthunkhwa and in the Pushtun-dominated areas of Balochistan.

Until the 1970s Barelvi-ism also prevailed among many of Sindh and Punjab’s urban middle-classes, especially those who considered themselves to be progressive and likely supporters of secular politics.

However, the arrangement in this context was suddenly disturbed with the arrival of the Ziaul Haq dictatorship in 1977.

Dipped in the political Islam of scholar and Jamat-i-Islami (JI) chief Abul Ala Mauddudi, Zia soon moved towards infiltrating the spiritual and political nerve centres of Barelvi-ism in an attempt to ‘reform’ them.

Barelvi dominance across the country’s religious landscape reminded him of Z A. Bhutto’s populism (which he, like JI, considered to be ‘vulgar’ and ‘un-Islamic’), and from 1979 onwards Pakistan under Zia also became one of the leading client states of Saudi-generated Wahabi propaganda and aid.

Stunned by the ‘Islamic revolution’ in the Shia-dominated Iran in 1979, Saudi Arabian monarchy and its Wahabi Sunni religious elite began seeing Pakistan’s Barelvi-dominated make-up as venerable to Shia-ism’s revolutionary symbolism and also of socialist propaganda, especially with the arrival of Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

At least that was one of the reasons used by Zia and his Saudi allies to draw the United States into giving Pakistan billions of dollars worth of aid and arms.

With the aid also came Wahabi propaganda literature and preachers who along with Pakistani Deobandi and Wahabi spiritual and political groups began setting up madressas and mosques.

These madressas operated as institutions that would indoctrinate young Pakistanis – most of whom were immersed in the non-Jihadi traditions of Barelvi-ism – and prepare them for Jihad against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

Bralevi tradition had also not been very kind to the ulema and the clergy.

To address this, Zia also began describing famous Sufi saints as ulema and banned (in the media) all criticism and humour aimed at the clergy.

The Afghan war, Saudi propaganda, the mushrooming of Deobandi and Wahabi madressas and televangelists, and a concentrated campaign by the Zia regime to equate the dictatorship’s capitalist-Islamist makeup as something in accordance with the Shariah and with ‘Jinnah and Iqbal’s vision,’ had a telling impact on Pakistan’s religious sociology.

In the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa many moderate and progressive Deobandi strains that had prevailed in the province began sliding into the sect’s more radical dictates, coming closer to the puritanical Wahabi and Salafi ideas about faith.

This slide was celebrated by the Punjab-dominated military as a successful blow to the secular and ‘treacherous’ Pukhtun separatist tendencies.

In the Punjab, the province benefited the most from Zia’s Punjab-centric capitalist maneuvers. This coupled with unprecedented remittances coming from Pakistanis who had begun going to Arab Gulf states to work from the 1970s onwards, gave birth to new moneyed classes.

Many from the petty-bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie sections began moving away from their Barelvi heritage and towards more puritanical strains of faith.

Their Barelvi past now reminded them of their lower status and economic modesty, whereas they began relating their enhanced economic standing with the adoption of the more puritanical strains of Islam.

That’s why the growth of puritanical Islamist and sectarian organizations that Punjab saw under Zia, a lot of their local funding came from Punjab’s nouveau-riche and petty-bourgeois trader classes.

Interestingly, it was also the same classes that also pushed the Barelvi leadership to become more conservative and radical. Those sections of the Punjabi petty-bourgeoisie that stuck to Barelvi-ism encouraged their spiritual leadership to compete with the Puritanism and radicalism of the growing number of Deobandi and Wahabi groups.

This trend saw the first ever emergence of radical Barelvi groups. In the early 1980s, the Dawat-i-Islami was formed to counterbalance the growth of the Deobandi Tableeghi Jamaat that had begun making deep inroads into Punjab’s bourgeoisie and the military.

The Dawat discouraged the Barelvis from indulging in antics associated with the region’s folk Islam, emphasising an increased reverence of holy personalities and encouraging holding of recitals of naats and milads instead of quwalis and dhamals. The last two became associated with the practices of the lower-class Barelvis.

In 1992, emerged the Sunni Thereek (ST). A Barelvi outfit that emerged from the splintering of the oldest Barelvi Islamic political party, the Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP).

Such occurrences did not really help the Barelvi sect defend its traditions in the face of the state-sponsored Deobandi and Wahabi onslaught –  rather, these organisations began turning Barelvi-ism into an equally anti-pluralistic and militant political phenomenon.

Sindh saves the day?

By the 1990s, Zia’s manoeuvres and Saudi involvement in reshaping Pakistan’s religious tradition had seen Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab become hostage to various violent Deobandi/Wahabi outfits and new-born Barelvi reactionary-ism.

The Punjab also saw a rise in the use of reactionary political and religious narratives within its lower-middle and middle-classes, whereas in Balochistan attempts were being made (by intelligence agencies) to neutralize secular Baloch nationalist militancy with the help of puritanical evangelical outfits. The agencies had already done this successfullyin Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the 1980s.

But what happened in Sindh? Barelvi-ism in Sindh (outside Karachi) has always been a lot more secular and pluralistic than the Bareilvi-ism in the Punjab.

Its  sociology  in Sindh heavily revolves around the staunchly secular historicity that the province’s famous scholar, GM Syed’s literary work generated.

He described a highly pluralistic and secular reading of Sufism as being the cultural and religious make-up of the Sindhis and it is this narrative that still rules the roost in the province’s social and religious psyche.

This is one of the reasons why Zia completely failed to impose his version of Islam here. Also, just like the majority of the Baloch who equate puritanical Islam with the ‘Punjabi civil-military elite,’ so does the socio-political discourse in Sindh.

On the other hand, in Karachi, though Zia-backed Deobandi and Wahabi radical outfits did manage to find a foothold, two things have always worked against these outfits here.

The first is the fact that the sprawling ethnic, sectarian and religious diversity found in Karachi actually absorbs and neutralizes any attempt by an outfit to impose its version of Islam.

Secondly, MQM, a party that first emerged as a mohajir nationalist group, adopted almost the same populist Barelvi symbolism and lingo as Bhutto did in the 1970s.

Also, the other two big political parties in the city too are secular: the PPP and ANP.

Though the Sunni Thereek (ST) has managed to infiltrate some sections of MQM’s support, ST is Barelvi and anti-Taliban (albeit reactionary).

In spite of the rampant crime and ethnic tensions that are a constant in Karachi, it will not be an overstatement to claim that Karachi along with the rest of Sindh today stands to be perhaps the only (ragged) sanctuaries in present-day Pakistan that are (comparatively-speaking) largely free of the factors that have created opportunities in the Punjab and KP for violent extremist activity as well as for reactionary conservatism to now become a mainstay in Punjab’s bourgeois psyche.

Salman Taseer Assassination Points to Pakistani Extremists’ Mounting Power

By Karin Brulliard for The Washington Post

One of Pakistan’s most openly progressive politicians was gunned down Tuesday in an act that violently highlighted extremists’ tightening grip on the country even as the beleaguered government struggled to stay in power.

The killing of Salman Taseer, apparently at the hands of one of his own guards, marked the most prominent political assassination in Pakistan since former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s death three years ago.

The razor-tongued governor of Pakistan’s most populous province was known for speaking out on behalf of women and religious minorities, and his slaying stunned the nation and alarmed U.S. officials. It also further rocked Taseer’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party, which is desperately trying to keep its government afloat following a key ally’s defection to the opposition Sunday.

The secular PPP condemned the killing and promised a swift investigation, but its weakened position undermines its ability to crack down on religious extremists.

In timing that underscored those limitations, Taseer was shot in an upscale area of Islamabad as Pakistan’s main opposition party was across town demanding that the government agree within three days to implement a list of reforms, or risk collapse.

After the killing, the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif said it would allow three additional days for the changes, including a slash in government spending and the reversal of unpopular fuel price increases.

Taseer was a chief ally of President Asif Ali Zardari, who in 2008 appointed him governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s wealthiest province. But Sharif’s party rules the province, making Taseer’s assassination a blow to the federal government’s influence there.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the killing in a statement Tuesday, saying she had met Taseer and “admired his work to promote tolerance and the education of Pakistan’s future generations.”

Taseer’s apparent killer cited his boss’s stance against a controversial anti-blasphemy law in justifying his actions. As the embattled, pro-U.S. PPP sought in recent days to win back defecting allies that also include a small Islamic party, it had already said it would not support a proposal to change the blasphemy statutes. That left Taseer one of the few vocal champions of the move, which hard-line religious organizations had labeled a Western conspiracy.

The laws have drawn scrutiny since a Christian woman was sentenced to death in November for allegedly criticizing the Muslim prophet Muhammad. Taseer had called for her pardon, leading religious groups to denounce him as an “apostate” and burn effigies of him during a nationwide strike last week in support of the law. One Muslim cleric has offered $6,000 to anyone who kills the woman, who remains in jail.

Even as Pakistani television stations were dominated Tuesday by commentators condemning rising religious intolerance, supporters of Taseer’s arrested guard, Mumtaz Qadri, 26, created a page for him on Facebook. Page visitors called him a “hero” and praised his “awesome job.” No major unrest over the killing was reported, but authorities said they were on high alert.

“This shows how the religious extremists want to impose their agenda to terrorize the society,” Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minorities affairs and also a proponent of changing the laws, said in an interview. “This cowardly act cannot stop us who are raising our voice.”

Yet in a country where Taliban militants increasingly flex their muscles through bombings, religious hard-liners have great power to intimidate even though polls show that their views are not widely shared. Last week’s strike by Islamic organizations drew few supporters to the streets, but shops in major cities closed – and many merchants said they did so under threat.

Human rights activists say the blasphemy laws are also abused by extremists, who use them as a tool to persecute minorities or opponents by bullying police and courts into arrests and convictions. The laws were strengthened during the 1980s rule of Islamist military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq.

Taseer lamented the power of the religious mob in an interview last summer following bombings of mosques belonging to the Ahmadi sect, whose members identify themselves as Muslims but are barred by the constitution from “posing” as such. Taseer – whose appointed position gave him little direct power in Punjab – condemned the provincial government of Sharif’s center-right PML-N for what he called its tolerance of radical religious groups.

“Extremist people are not in the majority,” Taseer said at the time. “This is a very narrow minority, but . . . they are always prepared to do and die. That is their strength.”

On Dec. 24, he had posted on his Twitter account: “My observation on minorities: A man/nation is judged by how they support those weaker than them not how they lean on those stronger.”

Authorities said Taseer’s guard, a member of an elite Punjab provincial police force that provides VIP security, shot the governor multiple times outside the Kohsar market in Islamabad, a small shopping plaza near his residence that is frequented by foreigners. The guard proudly surrendered to police afterward, according to local news reports.

Most political parties condemned the killing, and the government announced a three-day mourning period, during which political activity would be suspended. Zardari, to whom Taseer was close, called the assassination “ghastly.”

“The governor of Punjab was the bravest person in our government, and the stands he took for women, minorities and on the blasphemy law were incredibly brave and will never be forgotten,” Farahnaz Ispahani, a Zardari spokeswoman, said in an interview.

Taseer, who began his political career as a PPP student activist, was a successful businessman who played polo and smoked heavily. With his flashy sunglasses and frequent Twitter dispatches, Taseer, 66, cut a rather shocking figure in a country dominated by conservative social mores.

Critics assailed him for fathering a child with an Indian journalist while he was still married to the mother of his other children. In 2008, minor scandals broke out when opponents published photos online of him holding wine glasses at parties and of one of his daughters wearing shorts and dancing.

Despite the alleged gunman’s confession, Taseer’s killing was sure to be swept up in the conspiracy theories that permeate Pakistani politics, particularly in times of turmoil. Interior Minister Rehman Malik said investigators would seek to determine whether the suspect acted alone or was “asked” to carry out the attack.

In the hours after the killing, some criticism centered on the PML-N-led Punjab government, which provided Taseer’s police guard. There was no indication Tuesday night that the party played a role.

But the PML-N might yet bring down the PPP, whose government faces growing criticism over corruption, a floundering economy and a ham-handed response to last year’s devastating floods. The ruling party’s coalition partner, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, withdrew from the government Sunday, weakening its mandate by depriving it of a parliamentary majority.

A united opposition could pass a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, leading to his ouster and potentially triggering early elections. That has appeared unlikely, because of divisions among opposition parties. But Sharif threatened Tuesday to “ask the opposition parties to come forward and we will give them our full support” if the government does not show progress on reforms within 45 days, according to the Associated Press.

Like many in the PPP, Taseer often criticized opposition parties for stoking political instability in a country that has been ruled by the military for half its 63-year history and where an elected government has never completed its term.

Religious extremism, Taseer said last summer, would be quashed only by the “continuous, functional position of a democratic system.”

A Brave Man Killed

A New York Times Editorial

Some twisted person has created a Facebook page in support of Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, the bodyguard accused of assassinating Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province. Mr. Taseer was a brave man who had called for the repeal of Pakistan’s outrageous anti-blasphemy law.

Whoever killed Mr. Taseer must be condemned and repudiated, not extolled. Otherwise, Pakistan will certainly continue on a downward spiral in which intolerance and self-destruction triumph.

The governor’s death is a tragedy not just for Pakistan but for all who understand that just and stable societies need honest debate and full respect for minorities. Pakistan cannot afford to lose any fair-minded leaders, especially at a time when it is struggling with a virulent insurgency, an unraveling economy and an unraveling central government.

Mr. Taseer — a longtime ally of President Asif Ali Zardari and his wife, Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007 — was Pakistan’s most prominent defender of the rights of women and minorities. He had pressed hard for repeal of the blasphemy law, which imposes a mandatory death sentence on anyone convicted of insulting Islam.

The law is popular with the Muslim majority but is routinely manipulated to settle personal rivalries and persecute minorities. And Mr. Taseer had been particularly outspoken, calling for leniency for a Christian mother of four who was sentenced to death under the law, in a case that stemmed from a dispute in her village.

Pakistani officials, who have the bodyguard in custody, say he killed Mr. Taseer because of the governor’s opposition to the blasphemy law. But there are far too many unanswered questions: Did the suspect act alone? Why did the Punjab police assign a religious conservative to protect Mr. Taseer? News reports first said nine bullets were fired into Mr. Taseer, and hospital officials later said he was hit 24 times. Yet other members of the security detail did not shoot to stop Mr. Qadri, who surrendered with his hands up.

Pakistani authorities need to investigate thoroughly and share their full findings with the Pakistani people.

The United States and the international community must make clear their outrage over this killing. So must every Pakistani. The country’s political leaders and the Pakistani media also need to consider whether the way they have shaped the debate on the blasphemy law — some have argued that mentioning reform is blasphemy punishable by death — is further fueling conflict.

Ultimately, only Pakistanis can save their nation, and they must answer the more profound questions: Do they want a country in which Muslims and non-Muslims can peacefully co-exist? Or one in which religious zealots, espousing the most intolerant interpretation of Islam, kill anyone brave enough to defend the defenseless? That would be the true blasphemy.

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