Kiran Omar


The barrage of bullets that fatally ripped through the body of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer murdered more than a political and public figure. They rent apart the lingering myth that space still existed in Pakistan for liberal thought, religious tolerance and inclusive politics.


The gunman, a police security guard, saw himself as performing a religious duty, and of upholding his faith, but his action negated totally, the very fundamentals of the faith he sought to defend. He saw himself as the deliverer of one who challenged the man-made blasphemy law and sought to modify its harshness and injustice. In guard Qadris mind, Governor Taseer had crossed the boundary from belief to heresy, so must be punished publicly to set an example.


Governor Taseer, his politics and personality traits aside, was seeking to focus the debate on the draconian and unjust blasphemy law that has been eroding minority rights. This law was put into effect during the rule of General Ziaul Haq, the military dictator who seized power in Pakistan after a bloodless coup in the 1990s. Haq managed to put Pakistan on a part of ultra-conservatism and his rule saw the growth and spread of religious state instigated religious and social intolerance of minorities, women and other marginalized groups.


In this case, a poor, illiterate peasant woman, Aasia Bibi, was accused by some hostile neighbours of uttering blasphemy and was incarcerated as a result. The judge she appeared before, passed a death sentence in accordance to the existing blasphemy law, which has no basis in the Quran or other religious texts. Governor Taseer verbalized boldly, what other civic society members and moderate thinking people have silently urged all along, is that draconian and extreme laws, that promote hatred and intolerance must be modified and a debate ensue to examine and discuss them and their disastrous effects on civilized society.


More than the assassination, which in itself was unpardonable and barbaric, Qadri ripped open the schisms that exist in Pakistani today, and brought to surface a deeply divided society. A society and people polarized along religious lines and the varying shades of interpretations of religious doctrines. These interpretations inform and decide the politics and positioning of political parties and pressure groups and continues to fuel the frenzy of religious intolerance and biases.


According to the interpretation of clerics who influenced guard Qadris beliefs, there was absolutely no room for any debate or discussion on the existing law and it must stand unaltered if the sanctity of religion is to be guaranteed. The violence and barbarity of the assassination, pumping 26 bullets into Taseer at close quarters and the muted official response that followed , has traumatized moderate voices into silence. The message is clear: the genie of fundamentalism that was unleashed during the Zia years, and which was cultivated during General Musharrafs time in office to  fight the US war on terror , refuses to get back into its bottle. It has turned against its handlers and effectively changes irrevocably, the tone of discourse in the country. A virulent and destructive brand of religious ideology permeates all segments of society, not just the less educated and economically marginalized segments as was previously thought, but is reflected in the strident voices raised by the upper middle classes as well.


A clear indication of this ethos was demonstrated at the tumultuous – 40,000 strong – crowd that turned out to glorify and lionize Qadri and condemn any modification in the blasphemy law, as opposed to the few hundred brave souls that held candle-light vigils and prayer meetings for Taseer. The message again is, clear – the space for minority voices has shrunk along with those who would champion their rights. The religious right dictates state policy strengthened by lethal fire power. The level of civilians bearing arms is overwhelming, and the proliferation of private militia is growing at frightening speed.


The onus of this apparent lawlessness falls squarely on the government and its inability or unwillingness (?) to decisively address the problem of home-grown militancy and to curb the rising tide of intolerance. It is the responsibility of the state to actively embark on serious education reform, to examine and eliminate from existing curricula, material that incites religious intolerance and prevent critical thinking. It must make clear its own position with regards to religious intolerance, minority rights and most urgently, its intolerance of citizens taking the law into their own hands. The states weakness in asserting the rule of law is  very evident in cases of criminal activities where citizens are forced to take up arms against criminals and gangs and mete out their own punishments in the absence of police action. In no civilized society is such behaviour allowed or tolerated.


The vision of a secular, moderate and religiously tolerant Pakistan is fast becoming a distant dream. The opportunity to de-link state from religion is lost, and religious ideology and dogmas inform all and every avenue public life. The right to practice faith as an individual act has been undermined, and religious observance has morphed into an garish and often violent public show.


Along with Taseer, the hopes of a more moderate Pakistan lie buried in the ground. It may take a few generations to purge the poison that has infiltrated Pakistani society, along with a government that is willing and able to pursue this end with decisiveness, commitment and vigour. Unfortunately, one does not see that happening any time soon. 

Top - Home