On the 4th of January 2011, Salman Taseer, then Governor of Punjab, was assassinated by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, having been shot 27 times as he returned to his car after having lunch with one of his friends in Kohsar Market, a picturesque marketplace and café spot often frequented by expatriates. In the months before his death, the Governor had angered religious conservatives for his support of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who had been sentenced to death under the blasphemy law for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law, a remnant of British rule in the subcontinent, prohibits blasphemy against any recognized religion, though it is mostly used against non-Muslim religious minorities.
Though the murder was heavily condemned by most political parties in Pakistan, hundreds of lawyers offered to represent Mumtaz Qadri pro-bono upon his first appearance in court and showered him with rose petals. Garlanded with flowers, and lionized as a defender of Islam and Muhammad, Qadri quickly amassed innumerable followers across the nation.
After the President of Pakistan rejected his mercy appeal, Qadri was hanged on February 29, 2016. While moderate Pakistanis around the nation rejoiced at the state having effectively exercised its writ in the face of the religious conservatives, his death was unsurprisingly met with nation-wide protests, including a strike by legal functionaries in Islamabad. His funeral was attended by hundreds of thousands of supporters, (including the head of one of the largest political parties in Pakistan, the Jamaat-E-Islami), though media channels were banned from airining his funeral, resulting in a much appreciated veil of normalcy for everyday Pakistanis.
Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani civil-military scientist, geo-strategist and former bureaucrat argues that the hanging of Qadri and other events, such as the rescue of Shahbaz Taseer, the slain governors son who was kidnapped in late-2011, the passage of the Women’s Protection Bill by the Punjab Government, and the Pakistan army’s operation against militant groups, do not necessarily show Pakistan eschewing violence and conservatism, but is instead a “mirage”. A new shrine that is built around Qadri’s grave to which throngs of supporters flock every day is further emblematic of this deep-seated, ideological problem.
It is clear that the state of Pakistan has ceded too much ground to the religious conservatives. Asia Bibi remains languishing in jail for her alleged crime, and religious groups have launched fresh calls for her hanging after the execution of Qadri, who also has a mosque named after him in the capital. Islamic scholars have rejected calls for amendment of the blasphemy law, and religious parties are currently warning the government of nationwide protests if recently-enacted pro-woman legislation is not withdrawn. Many representatives of the same religious parties have also condemned the execution of Qadri.
Time will tell whether or not Pakistan is finally moving to redefine its ideology, which, as Michael Kugleman argues, has provided an enabling environment for extremism for decades. Pakistan has kept looking the other way when it comes to cracking down on hate speech, and if the public school curriculum is taken as an indicator, impressionable young minds are being saturated with intolerance.
While Qadris hanging will likely deter citizens from taking the law into their own hands, this is but a tiny step on a long, arduous journey the state of Pakistan must take if it wants to effectively challenge extremist narratives. The government must have a zero-tolerance policy towards divisive ideologies at all levels, and should push for legislative reform, supplemented by counter-narratives that promote pluralism and tolerance. This should include clamping down on madrasas and mosques which preach and promote intolerance, as well as to enforce sentencing on hate crimes.