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

Pakistanis mourn Salman Taseer . Click image to expand.
Pakistanis mourn Salman Taseer

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan—In the busy commercial market of Rawalpindi, Islamabad's twin city, the narrow alleyways of cloth dyers, jewelers, and shoe peddlers are crammed with shoppers. At a roadside food stall, men sitting at small, rickety tables warm themselves with steaming cups of chai.

Amid the swirling chaos on a frigid Sunday afternoon, everyone at the makeshift tent unanimously agrees: Mumtaz Qadri, the 26-year-old security officer who killed Punjab's governor, Salman Taseer, is a hero.

"It was the perfect action," says Malik Khan as he flashes me a thumbs up, "any Muslim would do the same thing." The bundled-up patrons clustered around us nod in agreement. And they aren't the only ones; I've been hearing the same refrain all afternoon as I traversed the bustling market.

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It is aresponse that hasshocked the country's liberal elite. A member of Taseer's own security team has repeatedly confessed to killing him, yet Qadri has been rewarded with a national outpouring of approval—including garland-throwing and public praise, with fawning YouTube videos and Facebook fan pages appearing within hours of the murder.

The response has been so overwhelming that authorities furtively moved up Qadri's hearing to Monday to pre-empt more gatherings of adoring crowds. (It was originally scheduled for Tuesday.) This weekend in Karachi, 50,000 people came out in support of the blasphemy law Qadri was supposedly defending when he shot Taseer more than 20 times in the back.

Taseer's assassination has illuminated the stark divide between liberals and religious extremists in Pakistan, and it has demonstrated who is winning. The response from politicians and the general public has shown the power religious extremists wield over the public discourse in this devout Muslim country of approximately 170 million. Almost everyone I speak to here agrees that extremism and polarization are on the rise.

Taseer, the appointed governor of Pakistan's largest and richest province, made headlines prior to his Jan. 4 assassination when he took up the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sitting on death row after being convicted of blasphemy. He called a law that sentences anyone who insults Islam to death a "black law."

The result was that the outspoken liberal politician and personal friend of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was shot outside an upscale market in Islamabad. In the days since his murder, a dwindling group of supporters have held a daily vigil a mere 10 feet away from the green tarp that covers the spot where he last stood. "Where are moderate Muslims? Right here," reads a handwritten placard,tellingly written in English rather than Urdu, the country's national language.

Pakistan's small liberal elite has gathered to light candles in memory of their hero. "Among people who are sort of progressive and liberal in this country, this really hit home," Reehana Reza told me. Her face is etched with worry as she discusses the ramifications of Taseer's murder. "People feel discussion space is disappearing," she said. "He's a politician—if he can't say it, who can?" she says, referring to any criticism of the blasphemy law.

Reza thinks the blame partially belongs to people like her, those lucky enough to be born into elite circles in a country where about 40 percent of the population lives below the global poverty line and the sharp divide between rich and poor is one of the main issues bedeviling the country. "The alternate side can at least provide God," she muses about the religious establishment. "They provide God, and we provide nothing."

At first, politicians were hesitant to condemn the attacks, but when I met Marvi Memon, a national assembly member from the opposition party PML-Q in her office across from the parliament, the diminutive firecracker had just put forward a motion signed by 21 members condemning Taseer's murder—something that had yet to be done a week after the assassination. Think how different this is from the outpouring of condemnation from both sides of the political aisle in the United States following the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

The problem according to many here, including Memon, is not Pakistan's piety, but the power of the minority of religious extremists—and their control over politicians.

"I see extremist elements taking control of the thought process of common Pakistanis, and that is what's dangerous. Politicians have also been told by religious elements to take the same position as them. So they are being coerced and threatened," she says about the blasphemy law. And, Memon admits,the threats are working.

"Anyone who is not a religious cleric is extremely worried about taking positions on religion and gets cornered very easily by the religious clerics. That needs to be stopped now, before it's too late," she told me, gesturing passionately during our interview.

But that time may have already passed. In an indication of the sensitivity of the debate here, Memon's solution to the ongoing crisis over the misuse of the blasphemy law is to propose an entirely separate law to regulate how the blasphemy law can be used.

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.

"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.

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