A Political Murder in Pakistan or War?

Pakistan’s English print media – faux liberal and elitist – have been in furor over the recent political murder of Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, by his own bodyguard. Ostensibly, the governor was assassinated for his obstreperous stand against the judgment of a lower court to hang Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, for blasphemy against the Prophet.

One columnist in the Express Tribune, with high melodrama, proclaimed that the governor’s murder was the ‘death of reason’ in Pakistan. What reason and whose reason, Pakistanis might well ask, since Pakistan’s faux liberal elites have been strangulating the raison d’être of Pakistan’s creation for some sixty four years. More likely, the Tribune columnist feared the death of a different kind of reason: Pakistan’s wealthy and faux liberal elites, by carrying their treachery to extremes, by agreeing to rain death on Pakistanis from the skies, are losing the argument in Pakistan.

Going off on a limb, the governor began attacking Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which has been abused by some Pakistanis to settle personal scores. Is it a fault in the law or its execution? Or is the cause a generally lawless society, where abuses of law starting at the highest levels of society are rampant; and Pakistan’s Christians are not their only unfortunate victims. Nevertheless, the governor erratically took up the cause of Aasia Bibi, and began railing against the blasphemy law, although every previous death sentence under this law has been reversed by the higher courts of the country.

In the midst of a war against ‘extremists,’ it was unwise of the governor to call the law against blasphemy a ‘black law.’ Did he wish the law amended or repealed? If he believed it was ‘black law,’ perhaps he wanted it to be repealed. Pakistanis worried that this was only the start of a campaign to repeal the law – and open the floodgates for Salman Rushdi-style smearing of the Prophet. Another law maker from the ruling pro-Western Pakistan People’s Party had announced her intentions to introduce a bill in the parliament to amend the law. Was this an initiative inspired by foreign embassies, some Pakistanis speculated, not unjustifiably in a country where Western embassies routinely poke their nose in the country’s domestic affairs.

There are causes galore to champion in Pakistan. The disappearing of thousands of Pakistanis over the past decade – some renditioned to the USA under General Musharraf, the previous dictator – has been crying out for redress. Before the national elections of 2008, the governor’s ruling party had pledged to look into the cases of the disappeared Pakistanis. Once in office, that promise was forgotten. Indeed, the disappearances – especially in Baluchistan – have escalated. Legitimately, Pakistanis may ask, Why didn’t this crying shame provoke the governor’s ire – as well as a thousand other instances of victimization of the poor and disenfranchised?

This murder is unfortunate: no reasonable person could disagree with that. Any death outside the law – and not a few inside the law – is unfortunate and a shame. Yet, should we see this murder only as the expression of growing religious fanaticism in Pakistan? One discordant fact to consider is that the slain governor had faced the ire of the Barelvi ‘ulama (religious scholars), who support the popular Sufism of shrine-worship, have worked with the government against hard-line Islamists, and, themselves have been repeated targets of terrorist attacks.

It betrays extreme naiveté by Pakistan’s English columnists to examine the governor’s murder in isolation, abstracted from the context and the history of betrayals and conflicts that have bedeviled Pakistan especially over the last decade. To say this is not to excuse the governor’s murder but that is the only path to understanding why it happened, and why the assassin is being lauded by wide swathes of Pakistanis as a hero.

Scan issues of the New York Times or any US newspaper for a story on Pakistan in the years immediately preceding September 2001 and – luckily for Pakistanis then – your pickings will be slim. Those were ‘normal times,’ in a manner of speaking. On January 4 and 5, however, Salman Taseer’s murder was splashed as a banner head by the web edition of the NYT. US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, described his murder as a “great loss.” The US ambassador in Pakistan, Cameron Munter, echoing his boss, lauded Taseer as “a champion of tolerance.” Now, the NYT has published an op-ed by the slain governor’s daughter. In another ill-advised move, Pope Benedict called on Pakistan to repeal its anti-blasphemy law. It would appear that the slain governor was in the good graces of the Empire.

The times are not ‘normal’ when the murder of an appointed and figurehead provincial governor in Pakistan resonates so loudly in American media and draws attention from the US Secretary of State and the Pope. Pakistan’s plunge into abnormal times began shortly after September 11, 2001, when the country’s military rulers backed by its elites decided to join America’s war against the Taliban.

At first, Pakistan’s military government offered air bases and land and air passage to the US military; this was only the thin end of the wedge. A country that had so wantonly surrenders such vital portions of its sovereignty would scarcely hesitate to barter the rest of it – at the right price. And so more deals were made, inflicting horrible wounds on the people of Pakistan that cry out for justice.

Pakistan’s elites have never been too greedy when dealing with the Empire. At the rate of a billion US dollars a year, they were quickly cajoled into fighting the Afghan resistance operating out of Pakistan; they opened Pakistan and its institutions to infiltration by the CIA and American mercenaries; and many venal vendors of opinion were mobilized to demonize the Afghan resistance and their sympathizers inside Pakistan.

Under US prodding, Pakistan’s rulers have divided the country’s population into ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists,’ – America’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys – depending on whether they supported or opposed the US occupation of Afghanistan. As the Afghan and Pakistani resistance – inside Pakistan – have come under savage attacks from the US and Pakistan military, they too have responded with fury targeting the country’s security infrastructure but also – unfortunately – many civilians.

Sadly, Pakistan’s decision to join America’s war was predictable. Soon after its creation, the Pakistani state fell into the lap of lumpen elites – landlords, military officers and bureaucrats – picked by the British and trained for several generations in traditions of subservience to their white masters. Instead of building on indigenous strength, these denatured elites bought their survival by cultivating economic, military and cultural dependence on the United States. Like many former European colonies, Pakistan is not yet free. Only the forms of foreign control, always working through domestic tyrannies, have changed: and the foreign hand that wields the whip now is in American rather than British hands.

The struggle of Pakistanis for their country has just barely begun. It is part of a larger Islamicate struggle nearly all of whose constituent parts face the same problem: they labor under elites who have tied their systems of knavery to foreign exploiters and to one great power in particular.

For most of its more than sixty years, Pakistan has been ruled by predatory elites who, in order to ingratiate their masters, have tried to mimic their manners, to hate what they hate, and to pretend to love what they love. So permeated are these elites with self-inflicted degradation, their multitudinous factions wrangle among themselves to undersell their country, and to place a lower value on the lives and honor of their own people.

Wikileaks has now offers a peek into how Pakistan’s rulers pander to their masters. In August 2008, commenting on the subject of US drone attacks against Pakistanis, the current prime minister assured his American interlocutors, “I don’t care if they [the Americans] do it as long as they get the right people [the resistance]. We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.” The military dictator who preceded him had boasted in his autobiography that his government had garnered US dollars 50 million by capturing and selling Pakistanis to secret US agencies.

Pakistan’s suborned English media pretend that the murder of the Punjab governor is an isolated act. Their myopia blinds them to the war into which Pakistan’s elites have dragged the country, as they batten their foreign bank accounts, their jets warming their engines to fly them off to foreign destinations should Pakistan become too hot for them to carry on their game of deceit and treachery.

Still, the murder of the Punjab governor was unnecessary: it was also contrary to the best traditions of Muslim history. The governor had acted unwisely in denouncing the blasphemy law, but that did not make him guilty of blasphemy. If his intent was to start a campaign to have the law repealed, the public protests had sent out a clear signal to the government that such a move would be unacceptable, even dangerous. It was certain to plunge the country into further chaos. Also, the President could have acted more wisely and settled the matter by reprimanding Salman Taseer or, better, retiring him from the office of governor.

In better times, Muslim judges in Spain often forgave Christians who blasphemed the Prophet by declaring that they were insane or drunk when they blasphemed. They were awarded the death punishment only when they blasphemed repeatedly, demonstrating both sanity and intent to use blasphemy to challenge Muslim rule. Pakistan’s Supreme Court should urge the lower courts to look more carefully into cases of blasphemy to rule out malicious intent by those who bring such charges. It would not dishonor the Prophet to forgive a poor Christian woman of blasphemy – if that is what she had done in a fit of anger. It is what the Prophet would have done himself.

M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University, Boston. You may read this essay with footnotes and references in Real World Economics Review where it was first published. He is the author of Poverty from the Wealth of Nations (Palgrave-Macmillan: 2000) and Intimations of Ghalib (Orison Books: 2018). Read other articles by M. Shahid.