Washington Post Staff Writer
At a fashionable plaza in this serene Pakistani capital, a few dozen people gather in the evenings at the spot where provincial governor Salman Taseer was gunned down on Jan. 4. More than the man, their candlelight vigils mourn the open debate and religious compassion that have been lost with the assassination of the outspoken liberal politician.
Fifteen miles away, in a working-class alley of Rawalpindi, thousands of people flock each day to the home of Mumtaz Qadri, the elite police guard who killed Taseer. Qadri is in jail now, but the site has become a shrine to what many Pakistanis see as his heroic act against a blasphemer who insulted their prophet. Someone has even put up posters of Qadri riding a white horse to heaven.
In the days since Taseer’s death, Pakistan has become a different country. The veneer of Western democracy has been ripped away, the liberal elite has been cowed into silence, and the civilian government has beaten a hasty retreat from morality, authority and law. Islamic extremist groups, once dismissed as unable to win more than a few seats in Parliament, are filling the streets, with bearded acolytes waving flags and chanting like giddy crowds at a post-game victory rally.
Suddenly, a crucial U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism seems incapable of stopping a tide of intolerant and violent Islam at home - raising doubts about Pakistan’s ability to play a constructive role in the war against the Taliban or to help the United States extricate its forces from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s northern neighbor.
Qadri, who happily confessed to murdering the politician he was assigned to protect, has little chance of being convicted. Instead of suffering ostracism, he was greeted with handshakes and garlands by courthouse lawyers, who offered to defend him pro bono. The provincial court system, notorious for freeing radical Islamic leaders, is unlikely to condemn a national religious hero.
“There is no justice in our country for the common man, but Qadri’s act against a blasphemer has made all Muslims feel stronger,” a shopkeeper in Rawalpindi told me. “They can punish him, but what will they do with a million Qadris who have been born now?”
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, whose ruling coalition recently recovered from near-collapse, has reassured the restive Muslim masses that not a word of Pakistan’s blasphemy law will be changed. One of the harshest such statutes in the Muslim world, it makes any purported slur against the prophet Muhammad - even a misinterpreted remark or a discarded Koran - grounds for execution.
Taseer had proposed softening the law. Another legislator who did the same has received death threats. The police, whose ranks produced the killer, seem duped or complicit. The army, caught between fighting the Taliban and courting public opinion, has remained prudently silent.
Pakistani commentators have expressed shock at the public lionization of Qadri and the demonization of Taseer, who did nothing worse than criticize the blasphemy law and commiserate with a Christian peasant woman who was sentenced to death under it. The atmosphere is so charged now that most clerics refused to officiate at Taseer’s funeral, and the Christian woman’s prison warden said he may not be able to protect her even from the guards.
For the past several years, a few voices have warned against the growth of religious hatred in Pakistan. Columnist Kamila Hyat described a “Talibanization of minds” creeping across the country, emboldening extremist groups and censoring debate. Physicist and activist Pervez Hoodbhuy decried the quashing of critical thought in Pakistani schools and the rote Koranic learning that shapes many young minds.
But in Friday sermons and at many levels of Pakistani society, one hears warnings about creeping Westernization, secular culture and forceful aggression against Islam by America and its allies. When Pope Benedict XVI called for a repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy law this month, some Muslim clerics decried it as part of the foreign conspiracy and said the pope was inviting attacks on minority Christians in Pakistan.
Some observers here say it is unfair to tar millions of Pakistani Muslims as extremists just because they feel strongly enough about the sacred nature of the prophet Muhammad to justify killing someone who insults him. What is needed, they say, is stronger national leaders who will uphold the laws - against blasphemy and murder alike. “This is an Islamic republic, and people feel very strongly about the blasphemy issue,” said Hamid Mir, a leading television journalist here. “We have to respect that, but we also have to respect the law and the constitution, or we will be lost.”
Others argue that a mind-set that finds spiritual justification for shooting a government official 26 times will also accept the public flogging of drunks, the beheading of policemen and the stoning of unmarried lovers - all hallmarks of the Taliban forces that swept through Pakistan’s scenic Swat Valley two years ago.
Pakistan’s army, a close partner of the U.S. military, ultimately drove the Taliban out of Swat after cementing public opinion in its favor. Now Washington is prodding army leaders here to extend their campaign to other insurgent-infested tribal areas.
But public opinion in Pakistan today is not what it was a year ago, and no one wants to risk igniting popular wrath. Not the nuclear-armed security establishment, which still sees Islamic militants as a useful tool to harass arch-rival India. Not the weak, unpopular government, saddled by a secular past and still reeling from the slaying of its most charismatic leader, Benazir Bhutto, three years ago.
In recent days I have listened to Islamic activists rant about the sanctity of the prophet and the evil of those who offend him or dare to question any tents of Islam. They even have a label for such dangerous subversives, which translates roughly as “ought to be killed.”
But there is one conversation that haunts me in particular, an encounter I had with a young man on a flight between Islamabad and Karachi. He was neatly dressed and beardless, a recent science graduate on his way to a job interview. As I read through the morning papers and discarded them on the floor, I noticed him squirming.
“Madam, could you please pick up the papers?” he finally said. “The name of our prophet is on the front page, and it must not be on the ground.”
I complied, and we spoke cordially about our respective religions. But when I asked about Taseer’s murder, his tone changed. “They say he blasphemed against our prophet,” the young man said solemnly. “If this is true, then it would be my duty as a Muslim to kill him, too.”
Pamela Constable, a Washington Post foreign correspondent, is the author of the forthcoming “Playing With Fire: Why Pakistan’s Democracy Is Losing Ground to Islamic Extremists.”