With the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer (right), Pakistan has lost one of its principal defenders of secularism and democracy.
Civil society groups protested the killing, but many of the country’s democrats are feeling beleaguered and vulnerable.
The governor’s slaying has exposed a deep fissure in Pakistan society between liberal democrats and Islamist forces, feeding speculation that it “could be a part of a wider conspiracy to silence liberal voices.”
Few political and religious groups beyond Taseer’s own Pakistan People’s Party have condemned the killing.
To the contrary, his alleged assailant was showered with rose petals on entering the courtroom and within hours of the murder, more than 500 religious scholars and clerics issued a statement praising his assassin.
The tragedy raises fresh doubts about the stability of the fragile nuclear state and the feasibility of establishing a civic culture of tolerance and pluralism that any sustainable democracy demands.
“These bullets that were shot at Salman Taseer passed through his body but struck at endurance, patience, balance, rationality, free speech, and logical thinking,” wrote analyst Hassan Nisar. “Societies in which these values are subdued are lost.”
Taseer’s death has finally brought home just how highly-charged and dangerous Pakistan’s political discourse has become, said Mosharraff Zaidi.
“There has been a steady erosion of reason from the public space,” he said. “Words like liberal and secular have become demonized.”
The killing is the culmination of a process of neglect and culpability on the part of Pakistan’s leading political and social forces which have actively promoted or failed to counter Islamist extremism, civil society groups suggest.
”There is a huge direct and indirect contribution by the state, non-state forces, civil society, media, and political parties in promoting this monster and ignoring the repercussions of its creation,” said a statement by labor and civil society groups.
The tragedy confirms the urgent need for Islamabad to adopt a counter-extremism strategy, said Maajid Nawaz, director of the UK-based Quilliam foundation and formerly a radical Islamist active in Pakistan.
The government’s counter-terrorism strategy targets armed militant groups, but “fails to challenge the Islamist narrative,” he told a meeting at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy yesterday.
“The international community should support and empower democratic and secular Pakistanis,” to counter the pernicious influence of takfiri ideology which is being spread through schools, mosques, universities and TV channels.
But the challenge for liberal democratic forces is not purely ideological. Pakistan’s people want democracy to deliver tangible benefits and address basic needs, highlighting the need for a social dimension to the democratic agenda.
When Pakistan suffered devastating floods last year, “it wasn’t religion that the poor were complaining about and secular government ruling them,” notes Hayat Alvi. “It was that they didn’t get any relief from government emergency forces to give them food, water, and the basic necessities.”
Islamist groups have been able to step in and take advantage of the state’s neglect of the material needs of the impoverished majority.
“The problems in the lives of most under privileged Pakistanis – no jobs, no basic utilities, no health care and no education for their children – are daunting,” writes Zubeida Mustaf.
The government‘s failure to address these needs means that “many people have had to turn to religious parties and charities that are prepared to step in to help.”
Taseer’s murder tempers “expectations of a transitional democracy in a state rife with militancy,” writes Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, and serves as “an unequivocal and unpleasant reminder that state appeasement of extremist groups does not work.”
Some analysts had argued that Pakistani citizens were developing a greater appreciation of the extremist threat, even suggesting that the groundwork was being laid for a genuine democratic dispensation.
“Trends in Pakistan are not getting better, not politically, not religiously, not economically,” says analyst Fareed Zakaria. “They’re all heading in the wrong direction
Recent events should only enhance the urgency of “buttressing the fragile democracy and economic development of this tottering nuclear state.”