Pakistan: Punjab governor’s assassination silences another liberal voice

Religious extremism on the rise

The brutal murder of Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer, by a staff member of Punjab’s supposedly professional elite force, has exposed every fault line in contemporary Pakistan. It constitutes the most dramatic killing in the country since that of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.

The installation of the killer in the pantheon of heroes by Pakistan’s largest Muslim sect confirms the existence and further consolidation of the dangerous trends of rising religious militancy and extremism in society. Taseer was killed because he challenged extremist views and dared to show his dissent on blasphemy laws.

The well-organised, ruthless, very well armed and powerful extremist forces have jumped into the fray and challenged even the criminality of a cold-blooded murder. Religious clerics of all shades and varieties have tried to condone this act of barbarity and some reactionary lawyers have promised to defend the killer – free of charge. Some 500 lawyers have signed up to defend him in the courts. The religious parties are also organising big rallies and public meetings to show their support and solidarity with the killer.

Aftermath of assasination

Any unbiased assessment of the objective reality will prove that the state has lost the capacity to assert its authority against religious extremists. The largest Muslim sect, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat, or Braelvis, as they are variously called, has found in the defence of blasphemy a means to pressurise the state and also block the path of the Taliban who are led by the Deobandi-Wahabi axis.

In the Indian sub-continent, the Sunni Muslim sect is further divided in two sub-sects. One is Braelvis – a sect based on Sufi teachings and traditions and considered to be moderate. The other is Deobandis – a sect basing itself on jihadi ideology and considered very conservative. The Taliban belongs to the latter.

Muslims in the sub-continent do not recognise the Saudi brand of Islamists as Sunni and call them Wahabis. General Zia’s military regime in the late 1970s and early 1980s used the Deobandi sect for the Afghan jihad. All the jihadi groups were based on this sect and enjoyed state patronage. Later the Pakistani establishment formed Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), based on Wahabi sect.

But the present religious onslaught on the issue of the blasphemy laws is led by the Sufi-ist sect called Braelvis. The unprecedented edict issued by 500 clerics denying Salman Taseer the right to Islamic funeral prayers means that this sect, once considered moderate and more tolerant, has decided to take the extremist path. This sect, although the largest in the country, had previously been relegated to secondary status vis-à-vis the smaller but richer and better-armed Deobandi faction. Now it feels strong enough to claim overall leadership of the ‘faithful’.

The doctrinal disagreements between the main Muslim sects will eventually drive them towards bloody conflict. They may have to go a long way before the ordinary Pakistani Muslims confer the mantle of political leadership on them. But undoubtedly, they can exploit the religious sentiments of ordinary people in relation to sensitive religious issues.

However, there should be no doubt that an alliance of orthodox scholars and clerics will soon start bidding for political power. The threat to democratic rights, to the democratic foundations of society and also to the state has grown massively.

Salman Taseer

The wildly varying responses to the killing of Taseer prove clearly just how polarised Pakistani society has become. If it is disturbing to see how sections of the media, especially the Urdu media, and right wing intellectuals and commentators have made a hero out of the somewhat deranged man who killed Taseer, the reaction of liberals who feel besieged has been even more worrying. Those who project themselves as the progressive face of Pakistan are clearly becoming hostage to a siege mentality which augurs badly for the project of social transformation to which all progressives ostensibly subscribe.

1970s onwards

Pakistani society since the mid 1970s has been a laboratory for a form of cultural engineering designed and executed by the imperialist powers and the local establishment alike. Millions of young people have been bred on a selective history and a militarist ideology that promotes jihadism and religious hatred. A mind-set has been created that opposes every progressive thought and idea as being un-Islamic and western.

Ever since the 1970s, the ruling classes have used religion as a tool to suppress and repress any progressive movement in the country. Socialism was declared the prime enemy and a systematic propaganda campaign was launched against it. The Left was the main target of this vicious campaign sponsored by the Pakistani State and western imperialism. Progressive and left wing trade unions, students’ organisation and political parties were either destroyed or weakened and its leaders and prominent activists were killed or imprisoned and tortured and many more were forced to leave the country.

What is happening now in the country is the direct result of these policies. Although the Left was never able to organise itself in a mass left party, it dominated the trade union, peasant and students’ movements for more than four decades.

From the late 1970s the Pakistani state formed jihad groups and armed militant organisations to wage the Afghan jihad, with the help of the imperialist powers. Thousands of religious schools were established as a nursery for jihad and militant organisations. Thousands of young people were trained and armed for the Afghan and Kashmir jihads. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-haq blatantly used religion as a tool to repress the working and poor masses and to fulfil imperialist interests. General Zia-ul-Haq introduced many laws in the name of Islam just to please and strengthen the religious Right in the country.

General Zia’s eleven-year rule fundamentally changed the once-liberal, tolerant and progressive society. The subsequent elected civilian governments that came to power after the military dictatorship in the late 1980s and 1990s failed to stop this religious onslaught in the name of jihad. On the contrary, both the PPP, led by Benazir Bhutto, and the PML-N, led by Nawaz Sharif, followed the same old policies. Society at large has imbibed both an unrelenting orthodoxy and a ruthless competitive streak that gives rise to hypocrisy, wanton violence and the worst kind of mob behaviour.


After the United States and the so-called ‘coalition of the willing’ invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the polarisation between those who remain true to unending jihad and others who want mullahs magically exterminated from society grew increasingly acute. Nine years have passed but the suicide bombings and target killings continue. Each successive incident produces within the more liberal circles the same outrage and indignation that has followed Salman Taseer’s death. Yet, the refrain of this segment of the so-called progressives continues to include a refusal to mention the word ‘imperialism’. They do not recognise that blasphemy and other such laws cannot be considered separately from the class exploitation to which the majority of this country’s people, the working masses, are subjected.

As the so-called ‘with us or against us’ trend intensifies, the role of the state’s coercive apparatus, and in particular, the all-powerful military, increases. The ‘expediency’ demonstrated by mainstream parties, including the PPP, is of major concern. As many have noted in recent days, the leaders of the ruling PPP have been hesitant about articulating a clear position on the question of blasphemy (even while their sloganeering against terrorism is heard endlessly). But why is no real attention given to the fact that the military establishment has still not abandoned its jihadi proxies entirely? ‘Strategic depth’ remains a cherished goal and an alarmingly large number of state functionaries are as committed to a militarist ideology as ever.

Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of governor, was part of the elite force of police escorts that are supposed to protect the life and liberty of Pakistani citizens, especially VIPs such as Taseer. He is one of many individuals within our state agencies who barely subscribe to the post 9/11 policy of the government. Even if the elected civilian government is committed to some change of policy, there is limited evidence that the coercive apparatus of the state is abandoning its historic posture.

The character and ideology of the state is the real problem and no amount of invoking America or calling on the army to do the right thing will change this historical-structural fact.

Attitude of workers and poor of Pakistan

Despite what is happening at the moment, it would be a mistake to really think that religious extremism enjoys the support of the broad masses. Perhaps the siege mentality of a segment of the liberal ‘progressives’ does reflect a resignation, even a sense of defeatism, about the extent to which retrogressive ideas have penetrated into homes, workplaces and the consciousness of working people.

However, the majority of Pakistani people do no not condone random acts of violence against perceived enemies of Islam. The media, certain intellectuals and scores of religious leaders are playing with the religious sentiments of the ordinary people. They are giving the impression that the government and western powers are trying to change or amend the existing blasphemy laws. They are trying to stoke up the emotions of the ordinary people with the idea that the dignity of the Holy Prophet is in danger. Their campaign is around the question of protecting it and this is indeed a very sensitive issue in the overwhelmingly Muslim majority society. The dignity and honour of the holy prophet is more important for ordinary Muslims than anything else, including their own lives. The religious leaders and militant groups are using this opportunity to garner support amongst the masses. They are giving misleading statements and emotionally charged sermons to exploit the situation.

The government is in no position to oppose head on the phalanx of orthodox forces. It is likely to surpass its predecessor in buying security through more vigorous policies of appeasement. The government also faces increasing isolation from other institutions of the state. The political parties in opposition have already demonstrated their lack of interest in resisting the surge in influence of religious bigotry. The armed forces and perhaps the judiciary too are acting in a similar fashion.

The only force that can fight against religious bigotry is the working class. Only mobilising on the day to day ‘evils’ of poverty wages, rocketing prices and mass unemployment on a clear programme against the ‘evils’ of capitalism, landlordism and imperialism can it, with its colossal power, defeat religious extremism. A mass party of the working masses needs urgently to be built.

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January 2011