The situation in Pakistan is dire. Legislation is hostage to the whims of Islamic radicals, and the governments' sphere of influence continues to crumble even in the capital, Islamabad.
In the most high profile political assassination since that of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007, a court in Rawalpindi recently sentenced Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri to death for the murder of the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, earlier in the year.
Taseer had infuriated radicals for being an outspoken secularist who championed women's rights and wanted to reform the religious ordinances, bringing about genuine constitutional reform, and for being a supporter of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy, and for opposing constitutional discrimination against the Ahmadi/Qadyani sect, currently declared heretical by the state. Taseer's assassination has set back the progressive case in Pakistan by years.
If you assumed that such a political assassination would be condemned, you would be wrong. Instead, within hours of Taseer's death, thousands of hardline groups marched through the streets of Lahore in support of Qadri. They lionized him, gave financial assistance to his family, and threatened to kill any politician who dared challenge the blasphemy laws.
The death sentence passed against Qadri for having murdered Taseer could send a powerful signal to jihadists that their vigilantism and general disregard for the law will not stand – but only if the judiciary now holds its nerve and resists pressures to overturn the sentence on appeal.
For years Pakistan supported radical groups in the belief that they would provide "strategic depth" against enemies such as India; instead, the militants the state once nurtured have now turned against Islamabad and are threatening to consume the very people who created them in the first place. The culture of violence and death they brought about has now become so pervasive in Pakistan that there is an almost fatalistic resignation among the people to the militarization of their society — and all the callous hardening of compassion that such intimidation brings. As the rule of law continues to be subverted, meaningful reforms cannot be passed; impotent politicians and an intimidated judiciary point to just how unjust Pakistan has become.
In January Taseer was killed by one of his own close protection officers, Qadri, from Pakistan's Elite Security Force, who shot him in a wealthy district of Islamabad popular with Pakistan's middle class and dwindling expatriate community.
Qadri reportedly told officers he did it because "the governor described the blasphemy laws as a black law" – by which he meant it was bringing shame on Pakistan. A local television station in Pakistan has also broadcast a statement from Qadri saying "Salman Taseer is a blasphemer and this is the punishment for a blasphemer."
Even the supposedly learned members of the Young Lahore Bar Association, a legal group, offered to defend Qadri pro bono. In Lahore no mosque could be found that was prepared to perform Taseer's last rites, and so it fell on the Army to provide him with a military funeral where prayers were finally offered for him.
Assassination, an old form of political problem-solving, is now an established part of Pakistan's political culture. Another parliamentarian, Sherry Rehman, who also supports repealing the blasphemy laws has also been threatened with death. Ever since Taseer's assassination, she has essentially been forced into hiding.
Two months later, the minister for religious minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was gunned down in Islamabad while travelling to a meeting. Bhatti's assassination reveals just how deep-reaching the jihadist network is. Their sympathizers — and religious extremists more generally — now operate with impunity in the Punjab, once Pakistan's most stable province.
The Dawn newspaper reported:
Shahbaz Bhatti was on his way to work in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, when unknown gunmen riddled his car with bullets, police officer Mohmmad Iqbal said. The minister arrived dead at Shifa Hospital and his driver was also wounded badly, hospital spokesman Asmatullah Qureshi said.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but private Pakistani TV channels showed pamphlets at the scene of the killing that were attributed to the Pakistani Taliban warning of the same fate for anyone opposing the blasphemy laws.
The perpetrators of Bhatti's death have not been found, and it is suspected that Qadri's death sentence will be overturned on appeal. The judge who sentenced him last Saturday was forced to leave the courtroom by an alternative exit: Qadri's supporters had threatened violent reprisals.
The social commentator Nadeem Paracha despairs about all this:
Who are they [the jihadists] afraid of? Not the state, not the government, not the law. All three have simply capitulated in front of the psychosis that is ever so often being presented to us through TV talk shows, mosques and cyber space as the 'true faith.'
The state is hapless and stunned; only good to play silly games with its subjects. The Pakistani state is not grounded in reality. In fact it is not grounded at all. It is a fantasy that has now started to rot and look redundant. It is a 63-year-old daydream about being pious, just and strong. And yet it has been anything but.