Support for governor's assassin unsettles Pakistan

Last Updated : 12 January 2011, 14:51 IST
Last Updated : 12 January 2011, 14:51 IST

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Cheering crowds have gathered in recent days to support the assassin who riddled the governor of Punjab with 26 bullets and to praise his attack — carried out in the name of the Prophet Muhammad — as an act of heroism. To the surprise of many, chief among them have been Pakistan’s young lawyers, once seen as a force for democracy.

Their energetic campaign on behalf of the killer has caught the government flat-footed and dismayed friends and supporters of the slain politician, Salman Taseer, an outspoken proponent of liberalism who had challenged the nation’s strict blasphemy laws. It has also confused many in the broader public and observers abroad, who expected to see a firm state prosecution of the assassin.

Instead, before his court appearances, the lawyers showered rose petals over the confessed killer, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a member of an elite police group who had been assigned to guard the governor, but who instead turned his gun on him. The lawyers have now enthusiastically taken up his defence. It may seem a stark turnabout for a group that just a few years ago looked like the vanguard of a democracy movement, waging months of protests in 2007 and 2008 to challenge Pakistan’s military dictator after he unlawfully removed the chief justice.

But the lawyers’ stance is perhaps just the most glaring expression of what has become a deep generational divide tearing at the fabric of Pakistani society, and of the broad influence of religious conservatism — and even militancy — that now exists among the educated middle class.

They are often described as the Zia generation: Pakistanis who have come of age since the 1980s, when the military dictator, Gen Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, began to promote Islam in public education and to use it as a political tool to unify this young and insecure nation.

Today, the forces he set loose have gained such strength that they threaten to overwhelm voices for tolerance in Pakistan’s feeble civilian government. They certainly present a nagging challenge for the United States.

Washington has poured billions of dollars into the Pakistani military to combat terrorism, but has long neglected a civilian effort to counter the inexorable pull of conservative Islam. By now the conservatives have entered nearly every part of Pakistani society, even the rank-and-file security forces, as the assassination showed. The military, in fact, has been conspicuously silent about the killing.

“Over time, Pakistani society has drifted toward religious extremism,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political and defence analyst from Lahore. “This religious sentiment has seeped deep into government circles and into the army and police at lower levels.”
“The lower level are listening to the religious people,” he said.

Indeed, the Pakistan of today, and the brand of Islam much of the nation has embraced, is barely recognisable even to many educated Pakistanis older than the Zia generation. Among them is Athar Minallah, 49, a former cabinet minister and one of the leaders of the lawyers’ protest campaign against Gen Pervez Musharraf in 2007 and 2008.

Minallah studied law at Islamic University in Islamabad from 1983 to 1986, and the first lesson any student learned in his day was that the preservation of life was a pillar of Islamic law, he said.

Support for Islamic warriors

But under Zia in the 1980s, the government began supporting Islamic warriors to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the Indian control of Kashmir, and the syllabus was changed to encourage jihad. The mindset of students and graduates changed along with it, Minallah said.

That change is now no more apparent than among the 1,000 lawyers from the capital, Islamabad, and the neighbouring city of Rawalpindi, who have given their signed support for the defence of Qadri, who has been charged with murder and terrorism.

Their leader is Rao Abdur Raheem, 30, who formed a lawyers’ forum, called the Movement to Protect the Dignity of the Prophet, in December. The aim of the group, he said, was to counter Taseer’s campaign to amend the nation’s strict blasphemy laws, which promise death for insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Raheem and six of his colleagues insisted they were not members of any political or religious party, and were acting independently and interested only in ensuring the rule of law.

All graduates of different Pakistani universities, they insisted they were liberal, not religious conservatives. Only one had religious training. They said they had all taken part in the lawyers’ protest campaign in 2007 and 2008, and that they were proud that the movement helped reinstate the chief justice.Yet they forcefully defended Qadri.

“I felt this is a different society,” said one former law enforcement official when he saw the lawyers celebrating Qadri. “There is a disconnect in society.”

Mass rallies championing him and the blasphemy laws have continued since then. This conservatism is fuelled by an element of class divide, between the more secular and wealthy upper classes and the more religious middle and lower classes, said Najam Sethi, a former editor of ‘The Daily Times’, a liberal daily newspaper published by Taseer. As Pakistan’s middle class has grown, so has the conservative population.

Besides his campaign against the blasphemy laws, it was Taseer’s wealth and secular lifestyle that made him a target for the religious parties, Sethi said. “Salman had an easygoing, witty, irreverent, high-life style,” he said, “so the anger of class inequality mixed with religious passion gives a heady, dangerous brew.”

Government officials, analysts and members of the Pakistan Peoples Party, the secular-leaning party to which Taseer belonged, blame the religious parties and clerics who delivered speeches and fatwas against Taseer for inciting the attack. On Monday, Qadri, who confessed to the killing, provided a court with testimony saying he was inspired by two clerics, Qari Hanif and Ishtiaq Shah.

The police say they are now seeking the clerics for questioning, but with the growing strength of the conservative movement on the streets, religious leaders — even those who incite violence and terrorism — are nearly untouchable to the authorities and are almost never prosecuted.

A dark presence in the background is the military establishment, which has sponsored the religious parties for decades, using them as tools to influence politics and as militant proxies abroad. The military also has a heavy influence on much of Pakistan’s brash media, which fanned the flames of the blasphemy issue with sensationalist coverage.
“Democracy has brought us a media that is extremely right-wing, conservative,” Sethi, 62, said. “Most are in their 30s and are a product of the Zia years, of the textbooks and schools set by the Zia years, which are not the sort of things that we were taught.”
“The silence of the armed forces is ominous,” Sethi added.

Indeed, whether on the military or civilian side, the government has failed to act forcefully on the case at every stage, the former security official said. Whether through fear or lack of policy, it has done little to challenge the ideology behind the attack or the spreading radicalism in Pakistani society.

“The entire state effort has been on the capture and kill approach: how many terrorists can you arrest and how many can you kill,” the former security official said. “Nothing has been done about the breeding ground of extremism.”

“Unless the government does something serious and sustained,” the official warned, “we are on a very dangerous trajectory.”

Published 12 January 2011, 14:48 IST

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