Assassination deepens divide in Pakistan
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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The funeral of the assassinated governor of Punjab province and the cheering of his killer in court Wednesday highlighted the intensifying struggle between secular and religious forces in Pakistan that has grown nastier than ever.
As the 26-year-old assassin, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, appeared before a magistrate in Islamabad, to be charged with murder and terrorism, hundreds of supporters showered him with rose petals and garlands. Moderate religious leaders refused to condemn the assassination, and some hard-line religious leaders appeared obliquely to condone the attack.
Meanwhile, thousands of mourners thronged to Lahore for the funeral of the governor, Salman Taseer, a prominent voice for secularism who had recently become the focus of religious fury for speaking out against the nation's strict blasphemy laws, which impose a mandatory death sentence on anyone convicted of insulting Islam.
Many of the nation's top politicians, including Mr. Taseer's chief rival in Punjab and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, did not attend the service. Neither did President Asif Ali Zardari, a friend and ally of Mr. Taseer, but out of concern for his own security.
Government ministers and party officials indicated that they were dropping the campaign to change the blasphemy laws that Mr. Taseer had championed. No senior official at the funeral could be drawn to comment on the religious-extremist aspect of the killing. Those who did comment indicated a shift in the government position, by suggesting that the killing was a political murder and a conspiracy, rather than a religiously motivated attack.
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi avoided all comment and merely expressed his condolences to the family when approached by journalists. Interior Minister Rehman Malik went as far as to say he would shoot any blasphemer himself.
"We have a very, very severe polarization in the country," said Ahmed Rashid, an expert on the Taliban and radical Islam. "We have a small minority of extremists and small number of liberals speaking out, but the very large silent majority are people who are not extremist in any way, but are not speaking out."
Yet as the economic, political and social problems mount and extremism spreads, there is no sign of leadership from the government, he said.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who did attend the funeral, was described by one national daily newspaper as "rushing from pillar to post" in his frantic efforts to keep his government from collapsing after two coalition partners withdrew from his government last weekend.
Certainly the assassination has thrown the government off balance, while the religious right -- as the conservative and religious parties are generally described -- remains unabashed in its loathing of Mr. Taseer and his opposition to the blasphemy laws, for which, apparently, he was killed.
The assassin, Mr. Qadri, hails from a suburb of Islamabad and lives with his family in Rawalpindi, the garrison town adjacent to Islamabad.
A follower of Dawat-e-Islami, a religious party based in Karachi, Mr. Qadri had joined the Special Forces branch of the Punjab police in 2002. At that time, after a routine check by his superior, he was declared a security risk because of his extreme religious views, according to a senior Pakistani police official.
In 2008, Mr. Qadri still managed to join the Elite Force of the Punjab police and had been assigned to guard the governor, raising questions about the vetting and screening of security personnel, said former police officials and associates of the former governor.
At a market in Islamabad on Tuesday, Mr. Qadri pumped more than 20 rounds into Mr. Taseer's back, Pakistani media reported, and yet was not fired on by any other security detail member, raising questions about whether any of the others knew of his plans.
Mr. Qadri immediately surrendered, called himself a "slave of the prophet," and indicated that he had killed Mr. Taseer because of the latter's campaign against the blasphemy law. Mr. Qadri so far has not been linked to any extremist religious organization, the senior police official said.
But investigators were still combing his phone records and personal belongings. They are questioning his five brothers and father. Five other police officers who served with him have also been detained, the official said.
The supporters of Mr. Qadri were boisterous Wednesday. Lawyers who two years ago campaigned so vociferously in the name of the constitution and the rule of law against Gen. Pervez Musharraf, then the president, were among those who feted the suspect when he arrived at court Wednesday. Some volunteered to defend him free of charge.
A former Cabinet minister and leading member of the 2007 lawyers' movement, Athar Minallah, said only a few extremists within the legal community would really support the assassination. "Among the 100,000 lawyers in Pakistan, less than half a percent would go out and throw petals on this criminal," he said. "But the rest are hostages because the government is not providing any security, and why should I risk my life and that of my family."
Mr. Minallah pointed out that the religious parties have never done well at the polls, and that the voting public, when given the chance, does not choose extremism.
Yet blasphemy is such an emotive subject in Pakistan that the day after such a high-profile killing, many seemed to side with the murderer, possibly for fear of being accused themselves.
Maulana Fazalur Rehman, leader of Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazl, a fundamentalist Deobandi religious party, which left the federal Cabinet last month, seemed to issue a veiled warning to supporters of Mr. Taseer, saying that sympathizing with a blasphemer was just as extreme as blasphemy itself.
More than 500 religious leaders of Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat, the party of a mainstream Sunni sect, the Barelvis, forbade its followers either to pray for or attend the funeral of Mr. Taseer, reported Jang, the country's leading Urdu daily.
In Lahore, Muhammad Ibrahim, 25, a recent college graduate and shop owner, was typical of those who did not condemn the killer. "We are Muslims, and nobody can compromise on the dignity of the Prophet," he said. "Salman Taseer crossed the limits."
First Published January 6, 2011 12:00 am