Mumtaz Qadri shot Salman Taseer 28 times; in Pakistan, he's a hero.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 10 2011 5:29 PM

In Pakistan, the Shooter Is the Hero

The depressing public reaction to the assassination of Pakistani politician Salman Taseer.

Elsewhere in Slate, Christopher Hitchens writes about the shameful response to Mumtaz Qadri's assassination of Salman Taseer

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In a sign of how deeply rooted the submission to the religious establishment is, Memon doesn't want to dictate what the new law will say. "We want the religious clerics to get back to us on this, because we want them to take ownership on this," she says when I ask why her co-signers won't draft the new law themselves.

Following the murder, 500 Pakistani religious scholars issued a statement saying that anyone who expressed grief over Taseer's death could suffer the same fate.

For their part, Pakistan's religious parties have also been reticent to assign complete blame to Qadri. In his reception area, Khurshid Ahmad, the vice president of Jamaat-e-Islami, does not "condone" Taseer's murder, but he is ready to acknowledge that the governor might have had it coming.

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"It is an action taken in provocation" he says. "The governor has violated the law of the country and had provoked the feelings of the people and went beyond his legal authority," he told me.

According to Ahmad, Taseer broke the blasphemy law by questioning it and subverted the legal system by championing Bibi's cause. "To take the law into one's own hands is wrong both for the governor and for the policeman or for anyone else," drawing equivalence between the assassin's and the victim's actions.

The murder, he said, could have been avoided if Taseer had been relieved of his post for his efforts to defend Bibi.

But human rights activists in Pakistan have no patience for the supposed outrage over Taseer's criticism of the blasphemy law. Marvi Sirmed, a blogger and activist, is vitriolic in her condemnation of Pakistani society after the murder. "It's not only one person, it's a whole mind-set, a mind-set that puts garlands around his neck, the mind-set that offers him flowers, the mind-set that makes him a hero,"she tells me.

Sirmed's voice drops as she talks about the governor and her country's fate. She repeatedly apologizes for lapsing into profanities. Ultimately, she surmises, whichever figure Pakistanis choose to coalescence around will speak volumes about the country's growing divide. "It's very important for us to know: Who is our hero? Salman Taseer—who stood for the rights of human beings—or the person who madly killed him?"

But in Rawalpindi's market, where open gutters and cracked pavements seem like an entirely different country compared with the plush offices of Islamabad's politicians and elite, the decision seems to have already been made.

"Nowadays, he's perfectly heroic," says Imran Shiekh, the owner of a small jewelry store tucked away in the market's depths. "Qadri did the right thing, and he did it well. Ninety-nine percent of Pakistanis would agree."

And for Pakistan's liberals, therein lies the problem.

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Sarah A. Topol is a journalist based in Cairo. She has reported from Yemen, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, and the New Republic, among others.