Pakistani lawyers, clerics and politicians from religious parties defended the policeman who killed a provincial governor for opposing an Islamic blasphemy law in what secular leaders and analysts called an unprecedented show of militancy.
Lawyers rallied in Islamabad, the capital, to support policeman Malik Mumtaz Qadri, 26, a day after his backers honored him with flower garlands during his first court appearance. The head of Pakistan’s main association of Islamic schools said Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, one of Pakistan’s most outspoken secular politicians, had provoked his own assassination.
“We announced free legal support for Qadri yesterday with a few lawyers, and now we have over 400 lawyers,” said Muhammad Farooq Sulehria, a member of the Islamabad High Court Bar Association. He said Taseer’s assassination was justified because his effort to repeal the blasphemy law could have permitted people to insult the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam.
Taseer’s killing and the expressions of support for it has dramatized an expansion of Islamic militant views throughout society, including once-secular bastions such as the security forces and legal profession, said Ghazi Salahuddin, vice-chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
“The kind of fanaticism this incident has exposed is what we have been talking about for years,” Salahuddin said in a phone interview. “The impact is so shattering because not many people were aware of this reality, which is unbearable,” he said.
Qadri was serving as a bodyguard to Taseer and shot him in the back 27 times with an AK-47 rifle after he left a restaurant a mile from the Islamabad office of President Asif Ali Zardari, The News newspaper reported. The policeman surrendered, telling authorities he killed the governor for his campaign to repeal the blasphemy law.
Taseer, 65, prompted his assassination by speaking “hard words” against the blasphemy law, said Mufti Munib-ur-Rehman, the president of Tanzeem-ul-Madaris Pakistan, the nation’s largest association of religious schools. In November, Taseer called for the law’s repeal after making a jailhouse visit to Aasia Bibi, a Catholic woman sentenced to death under the statute.
Taseer’s assassination “is an example for all those who hurt sentiments of Muslims by promoting so-called liberalism in Pakistan to please America,” said Liaqat Baloch, deputy leader of the main religious party, Jamaat-e-Islaami. He and Rehman spoke in phone interviews.
Other leading lawyers and members of Taseer’s Pakistan Peoples Party, the main secular political party, have condemned the attack. Thousands attended Taseer’s funeral yesterday.
The killing is the latest attack on Pakistani leaders who have confronted religious extremism since the 2007 assassination of Taseer’s ally and leader, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Suicide bombers killed prominent Lahore cleric Sarfraz Ahmed Naeemi in 2009 and a university vice-chancellor from the northwestern city of Mardan, Mohammad Farooq, in 2010 after each man publicly condemned the country’s Taliban guerrilla movement.
Targeting of public figures has accompanied a rise in overall deaths in militant violence, from 189 in 2003 to more than 6,000 in each of the past two years, according to the New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. Pakistan’s economy may have lost $26 billion over six years of the conflict from 2004, according to Finance Ministry figures cited by the Center for Public Policy Research in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
Taseer’s slaying in an Islamabad neighborhood of diplomats and business executives, may deepen investors’ hesitations about putting money into Pakistan, said Ishtiaq Ahmed, a Pakistani fellow on South Asian politics at Oxford University.
The ultimate impact of the murder “will depend on whether our top political leadership can capitalize on the opportunity to build a popular revolt against Islamic extremism, as it did after Bhutto’s death,” which led to the Peoples Party winning elections two months later, Ahmed said.
It’s unclear whether Zardari, the current Peoples Party leader and Bhutto’s widower, will be able to mobilize a strong secularist response. “The PPP is fighting for its survival right now, and it’s unrealistic to expect it to force radical changes,” Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director of the International Crisis Group, said from Islamabad yesterday.
Zardari and his government have been weakened by public discontent over inflation, which at 15 percent is Asia’s highest, plus electricity shortages and perceptions of deep corruption in public life.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani lost his parliament majority on Jan. 2 after a second allied party left its coalition. Nawaz Sharif, leader of the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League, later issued an ultimatum for the government to take steps against corrupt officials and rising prices or face a campaign for its removal.
“We’ve been thinking we could root out the extremism in our country, but this assassination makes people fear it may not be true, because it shows how deeply embedded the extremists are” in Pakistan, said Zafar Moin Nasser, research director at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics in Islamabad.