‘Covered in the righteous cloak of religion… even a puny dwarf imagines himself a monster. Important to face. And call their bluff.’
The man who tweeted the above sentence was shot in the head from behind by his own body guard.
Two other armed guards, who knew of the impending murder, violated standard operating procedure and stayed quiet, their guns hanging limply by their sides while the assassin shot 27 times at the now lifeless, punctured body of Salman Taseer, the governor of the Punjab province of Pakistan.
The governor was given a state funeral, but the reactions from sections of the Pakistani society were more than jubilant.
An uneasy disquiet hung over the country’s democratic credentials as hundreds of lawyers showered the unrepentant body-guard with rose petals as he was being taken to court. The Rawalpindi District Bar Association, a body ostensibly designated to uphold the rule of law, has even pledged to fight his case for free.
A statement by 500 clerics of the Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat religious group commended the bodyguard for what they proclaimed was a righteous killing.
“We pay rich tributes and salute the bravery, valour and faith of Mumtaz Qadri,” they said of the assassin, who shot the unarmed 66 year-old governor from behind.
The incident has brought into sharp focus the tenuous democratic freedoms and fragile rule of law in Pakistan – a country that ranks 10th in the Foreign Policy magazine index of failed states.
Mr Taseer, an outspoken liberal and fifth-most senior member of the ruling PPP, had been the most vocal proponent for repealing Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy law, which was in the news recently following the death sentence awarded to Aasiya Bibi, a Christian woman, for ‘insulting the Prophet’ – an allegation she strongly denies.
The blasphemy law was introduced by former Pakistani dictator General Zia-Ul-Haq, whose military regime oversaw Pakistan’s decided swing towards a more hardline wahhabi religious state.
The law has been criticised by Human Rights groups in Pakistan for allegedly being abused to settle scores against minorities.
In December 2010, an Ismaili Muslim doctor, Naushad Valiyani, was charged with blasphemy after he threw away a business card belonging to a man whose first name was Mohammed – an exceedingly common first name for many Pakistanis.
In the past, accused blasphemers have been lynched inside court premises; at least one Judge has been killed after acquitting an alleged blasphemer.
Pakistan appears to be caught in a vicious battle between the pro-democratic voice of liberal Muslims, who espouse an Islam of reason and tolerance – and religious hardliners who promote an Islam of fear and supremacy, which rejects the rule of law and democracy. After Salman Taseer’s assassination, the scales have decidedly tipped in favour of the latter.
Mumtaz Qadri revealed that he was inspired by a sermon from Sunni cleric, Mufti Hanif Qureshi, who preached that anyone who killed Salman Taseer would be granted Heaven, and become a hero of Islam.
“After the motivation I decided to kill the governor,” Qadri told investigators.
Section 503 of the Pakistan Penal Code makes it an offense to threaten any person with injury. Nevertheless the law appears to not be enforced when it comes to public remarks by religious conservatives.
There have been attempts in the past to curb the trend of religious right-wing parties using mosques to incite violence, especially against minorities.
In 2007, MP Minocher Bhandara presented a bill to Pakistani parliament to include Mohamed Ali Jinnah’s famous August 11, 1947 speech to the Constituent Assembly, as part of the Constitution.
In his speech, the founder of Pakistan had famously proclaimed that ‘in course of time, Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense… but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”
According to Bhandara, “The speech has been consistently downplayed by the government of Pakistan since 1949. Parts of the speech have been materially altered, or omitted altogether, in the past… On the one hand tremendous respect is shown for the memory of the Quaid-e-Azam, but on the other hand his political thoughts are desecrated to appease religious groups.”
In an almost parallel narrative, the ideals envisioned by founder Mujibur Rahman proved to be short-lived in the overwhelmingly Muslim-populated Bangladesh.
Right wing fundamentalist General Ziaur Rahman rewrote the constitution and declared Bangladesh an ‘Islamic’ state, following the overthrow of a democratic government in 1975.
His widow, Khaleda Zia, who took over the reins of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), flirted dangerously with Islamist parties in the years following Zia’s assassination.
Over 8000 madrassas sprouted in Bangladesh – many of them Saudi-funded and promoting the rigid, literalistic Wahhabi school of thought, while terrorist groups like Harkat-ul-Jehad-al-Islami (HuJI) and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen mushroomed under her government’s rule.
As with Pakistan, the experiment in home-brewed radicalism blew up in the government’s face when, in the span of half an hour on the morning of August 17, 2005, nearly 530 bombs exploded across the country.
There have been stirrings in Bangladesh in the past year. Following a series of assassinations that took out many of its top leaders, the secularist Awami League stormed into Parliament in late 2008, winning 263 out of 300 parliamentary seats.
In October 2010, the country’s Judiciary struck down the fifth amendment of the constitution and invalidated the military regimes of the 1970s, thereby re-declaring Bangladesh a secular state and realising Mujibur Rahman’s long lost dream.
Indeed, the battle between democratic ideals and religious dogmatism has followed a familiar script in the Maldives, following the rapid rise of wahhabism in the last decade.
Censorship and religious intimidation appears to be taking root in the country. Soon after the first multi-party elections, the newly instituted Ministry of Islamic Affairs controlled by the Adhaalath Party banned DJs, blogs and websites critical of them.
In an article on their website, a local Islamic NGO openly denounced democracy as a decadent, evil, western system incompatible with their version of Islam.
Islamist preachers have made anti-Semitic speeches in public, justifying their positions with highly literalistic interpretations of the scriptures. In an unprecedented move, religious conservatives recently took to the streets of Male’, yelling anti-Semitic slogans.
Among the many frictions between Islamism and democratic ideals, liberals would contend that the Religious Unity Regulations drafted by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, if imposed, would be an unheralded victory for Islamists: the Maldives would then have its own blasphemy law.
Notably, the liberal voice that lies buried in Pakistan is deafeningly silent in the Maldives.
In a chilling replay of Pakistan and Bangladesh, mainstream politicians and the public appear to have chosen to ignore the tide of Islamism – despite the Sultan Park bombing and a very visibly-changing Maldivian identity.
Liberals continue to await a Maldivian counterpart to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the young chairperson of PPP, who has vowed to take up ‘jihad’ against Islamist forces.
Referring to violent Islamists in a speech mourning Taseer’s death, he said: ‘Allah has promised them hell, and we shall send them there.’