Gov killing deepens divide in Pakistan

Jan. 6: The emotional funeral of the assassinated governor of Punjab and the cheering of his killer in court on Wednesday highli-ghted the intensifying struggle between secular and religious forces in Pakistan that has grown nastier than ever in the country’s history.

As the 26-year-old assassin, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, appeared before a magistrate in Islamabad, to be charged with murder and terrorism, he was showered by hundreds of supporters with rose petals and garlands. Moderate religious leaders refused to condemn the assassination, and some hardline religious leaders appeared obliquely to condone the attack. Meanwhile, thousands of mourners thronged to the funeral in Lahore 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. Many of the nation’s top politicians, including Taseer’s chief rival in Punjab and the leader of the Opposition, Nawaz Sharif, did not attend the services. Neither did President Asif Ali Zardari, a friend and ally of Taseer, but out concern for his own security. Government ministers and party officials indicated that they were dropping the campaign to change the blasphemy laws that Taseer had championed. No senior official would be drawn to comment on the religious extremist aspect of the killing at the funeral. Those who did comment, indicated a shift in the government position, by suggesting 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. The interior minister, Rehman Malik, went as far as to say he would shoot any blasphemer himself. “We have a very, very severe polarisation in the country,” said journalist and author Ahmed Rashid, an expert on the Taliban and radical Islamism. “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 complained. Prime Minister Yousaf 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 open loathing of Taseer and his opposition to Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws, for which, apparently, he was killed. Qadri, a follower of Dawat-e-Islami, a religious party based in Karachi, had joined the Special Forces branch of the Punjab police in 2002. At that time, he was declared a security risk bec-ause of his extreme religious views and sectarian activities during a routine check by his superior, according to a senior police official. In 2008, he nonetheless managed to join the Elite Force of Punjab police, and had been assigned to guard the governor, raising alarming questions about the vetting and screening of security personnel, former police officials and associates of the former governor said.

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