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What will become of Pakistan’s moderates now? -by Daud Khattak

A woman lights a candle next to an image of the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, during a candlelight vigil near the site of his assassination in Islamabad.

It has been three days since the killing of Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s largest federal unit, Punjab, by a lone assassin in the country’s fortified capital of Islamabad.

While the high-profile killing leaves a serious question mark hanging over the security arrangements for state VIPs and raises fears that the ranks of security agencies have been infiltrated by religious extremists, the most troubling aspect of the incident is the doubt it casts over the future of religious minorities and the vast majority of moderate and progressive elements that have been resisting the hard-liners.

Taseer’s was not the first — and almost certainly will not be the last — voice to be hushed by an assassin’s bullet. In the recent past, the 170 million Pakistanis — the vast majority of whom despise the extremist agenda — have already experienced the killings of: religious scholar Farooq Khan inside his clinic; young Mian Rashid Hussain, son of outspoken Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain, in front of his house; Asfandyar Wali Khan, leader of the secular Awami National Party; and the country’s two-time prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.

Many liberal and moderate voices — including writers, rights activists, civil-society leaders, and politicians — are living on borrowed time, mainly because they resist the handful of extremists trying to impose their agenda on Pakistani society with guns and suicide jackets.

It has become a cliche in the Pakistan media to blame the violent extremism on “mistaken policies of the last 30 years,” on the country’s military governments and the nefarious secret services, on “foreign interference,” and on Pakistan’s involvement with the Afghan jihad.

But Taseer’s killing solidly pits the country’s moderates and progressives who believe in a country of law and dialogue as envisioned by founder Muhammad Ali Jinah against the religious extremists who have no compunction against imposing their agenda from the barrel of a gun.

An Assault On Moderation

The apparent motive behind Taseer’s assassination is the controversial blasphemy laws, which have been under fire from secular elements over the years. However, it’s likely that many formerly outspoken commentators, analysts, rights activists, and political leaders will choose their words more cautiously following the Islamabad bloodshed.

Even before Taseer’s killing, many political and religious leaders were minding their words when speaking publicly against the Taliban and their suicide attacks. And for good reason: the murder of respected religious scholar Maulana Hassan Jan in Peshawar; the killing of religious scholar Sarfarz Naeemi in Lahore; and that of Farooq Khan in Mardan; the kidnapping and killing of hundreds of tribal elders in the tribal areas; the suicide attack on the house of the secular Awami National Party leader Asfandyar Wali Khan in Charsadda; and so on.

And while the voices of those who might condemn acts such as Taseer’s assassination are growing softer, the baying of those who endorse such violence rings more loudly and finds increasing traction.

The head of the Central Ruet-e Hilaal Committee, Mufti Muneebur Rahman, said no one could be allowed to challenge the blasphemy laws. Without condemning the slaying, Rahman said, “Taseer had no right to call the blasphemy laws ‘the black laws.'”

Muhammad Ibrahim, a central leader of the religious party Jamaat-e Islami, came out with a similar view when asked to comment on the widening gap between the secular and religious elements of Pakistani society.

“No individual has the right to take the law into his own hand,” Ibrahim said, “but no one can challenge the laws of the land, either.”

Speaking Peace

Such comments, however, merely reflect the blindness of the extremists and those who justify them. After all, Taseer only “challenged” the laws by calling for them to be amended by the country’s elected officials. The extremists and their supporters say nothing about the “challenge” to Pakistan’s laws that assassination and terrorist attacks pose.

Taseer was the first to visit Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death by a Pakistani court on charges of blasphemy. In comments to journalists later, Taseer made the “black laws” comment and stressed the need to amend the laws.

Taseer’s killing is being mourned by moderates across Pakistan. But it has pushed them further into despair and it is correct to wonder if they will ever recover from the shock. “The progressive elements have no other option but to keep their mouths shut and sit inside their houses,” Islamabad-based analyst Nusrat Javid has said.

One exception to this general despair among the moderates was parliament deputy Bushra Gohar, who said the violence must serve to strengthen and unite progressive and moderate elements.

“Moderates are not on their back foot,” she said, “but they just seem to be because they do not hold guns and because they speak peace.”

Source: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberaty

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  • Obituary: Salman Taseer
    FROM THE FINANCIAL TIMES, Published: January 4 2011

    Salman Taseer, the Pakistani politician assassinated on Tuesday, was deeply preoccupied with the consequences of his country’s support for radical Islamists in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

    Just a few weeks before his death he warned a visitor: “Beware of the mullahs. They have to be confronted or they will take over our lives.”

    An ally of Benazir Bhutto, the former premier assassinated in 2007, Taseer could talk for hours on his favourite subject: the price that Pakistan had paid for jihad and the need to turn back from this “deadly legacy”.

    Born in 1946, a year before the traumatic partition of the Indian subcontinent, Taseer was the son of an urban intellectual. He studied at the prestigious St Anthony School in Lahore and travelled to the UK for his higher education in chartered accountancy.

    Returning to Pakistan, he was an active supporter of Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the charismatic former prime minister, and his Pakistan People’s party. But when Bhutto was toppled in a 1977 military coup led by General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, the dictator, the young Taseer was arrested, kept in the dungeon of the magnificent Lahore fort and ­tortured.

    He did not like to dwell on his experiences as a political prisoner, telling friends they were the worst years of his life. After his release he went into exile in the UK, where he wrote a political biography of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, which was published in 1980.

    He had six children with his Pakistani wife. An affair with an Indian journalist, whom he met during a book promotion tour in India, led to the birth in 1980 of a son, now a prominent writer.

    Just a few weeks before his death Salman Taseer warned a visitor: ‘Beware of the mullahs. They have to be confronted or they will take over our lives’
    In Pakistan’s first free elections after Zia-ul-Haq’s death in 1988, Taseer won a seat in the Punjab provincial legislature, riding the wave of popularity for the young Benazir Bhutto. Throughout his life he remained a fierce PPP and Bhutto family loyalist, vehemently and vocally critical of opposition leaders Nawaz and Shabaz Sharif.

    After serving one term in the legislature, Taseer – known for his distinctive outfit of traditional shalwar and kameez with Savile Row-style jacket – turned his attention to business, founding various chartered accountancy and management consultancy firms, an equity brokerage and a leading mobile phone operator. He also owned a television channel and an English-language newspaper.

    In 2007 he was appointed as an interim cabinet minister for industry, and a year later was made governor of Punjab, the province bordering India, which has come under repeated attack by Islamist extremists over the past two years.

    Known as a committed secularist in a country where Islam remains both a unifying and a divisive force, Taseer was worried that US drone attacks on the Taliban and al-Qaeda were radicalising young Punjabis.

    But in a Financial Times interview in November he insisted – with both pride and defensiveness – that Pakistan would not go the way of Afghanistan. “Pakistan is a vibrant democracy,” he said.

    “It has an educated middle class, a civilian government and a free press.”

    He dismissed the foot soldiers of Pakistan’s own Taliban insurgency as “brainwashed, illiterate tribes”.

    At least twice Taseer brushed aside suggestions from aides that he turn his former dungeon in Lahore fort into a shrine recalling his time as a prisoner.

    “Let history speak for itself,” he told a friend. “What has jihad and military rule done to this country, other than bring us destruction.”