Salman Taseer murder: Is Pakistan past tipping point?

Mumtaz Qadri during a court appearance in Islamabad on 5 January 2011 Mobbed and garlanded outside court, Mumtaz Qadri shouts: "We are ready to sacrifice our life for the prestige of the Prophet Muhammad"

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Has Pakistan passed the tipping point of religious extremism?

This question has agitated many minds around the world since the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was murdered by his own bodyguard on Tuesday.

The killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was apparently influenced by clerics who issued a decree of death against Mr Taseer for opposing the blasphemy law and sympathising with a Christian woman convicted under it.

Mr Qadri was hailed as a hero by a group of lawyers who showered rose petals on him during a court appearance the next day, and fell over each other volunteering to represent him.

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The law that says Mr Qadri is a murderer was not drawn in accordance with Islam”

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His legal papers are said to include a list of about 300 attorneys.

On Thursday, there were more rowdy scenes as lawyers and activists from a religious group prevented a judge from travelling to Islamabad, where Mr Qadri's hearing had been scheduled to take place.

The judge was forced to hold the hearing in Rawalpindi, a city in Punjab province.

The lawyers and activists said they feared that federal authorities in the Pakistani capital would not give justice to Mr Qadri.

Glorifying murder?

When asked how he could glorify the confessed killer of a constitutional head of a province, a lawyer said "the law that says that Mr Qadri is a murderer was not drawn in accordance with Islam".

He was referring to the colonial-era Criminal Procedure Code, which regulates criminal justice in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the religious lobby has sought to justify the murder and further erode the credibility of law.

One group has pledged "full legal and moral support" to the killer.

Another has threatened a public meeting on 9 January if a private member's bill to amend the blasphemy law is not withdrawn by the government.

Lawyers sign up to represent Mumtaz Qadri in Rawalpindi on 6 January 2011 Lawyers jostled outside court to represent Mumtaz Qadri

As the religious lobby turns up the pressure, liberal sections of Pakistan's society are looking nervous.

The more prominent liberal figures have gone quiet, presumably because they do not want to attract death decrees.

One such figure, requesting anonymity, says it is becoming more difficult to hold a rational public discourse.

"There is a fear that violence to curb rational expression and informed dissent may blow into an epidemic," he says.

So, has Pakistan's society passed firmly into the grip of the extremists?

Political and defence analyst Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi believes that if it has not already, it is nearly at that point.

"The radical element, which uses violence as a political tool, is limited in numbers," he says.

"But the mindset that sustains militancy, that dilutes or prevents action against it - I think that has become fairly widespread.

"It has seeped into our educated classes, governmental institutions and the armed forces, where you can detect sympathy for militancy, and also to an extent for the Taliban."

Failure of leadership?

Dr Askari says that both the civil and military leadership of the country appear to be in disarray.

Hundreds gather outside the home of Mumtaz Qadri to show their support for him in Rawalpindi on 7 January 2011 Hundreds of people gather outside Mumtaz Qadri's home to show their support for him

"In a country like Pakistan, which has a large population, it takes just a few organised individuals to cause havoc in a crowded market place, and the government is too weak and insecure to make a strong response," he says.

Professor Ijaz Khan, who heads the Department of International Relations at Peshawar University, believes that while sympathy for militancy may be on the rise, it is still not popular.

"Although the religious organisations declared participation in Mr Taseer's funeral a sin, tens of thousands of people held funeral prayers for him in every nook and corner of the country," he says.

In addition, he points out, the religious forces have never attracted more than 6% of votes in any election.

"Their failure to attract voters explains why they have promoted a culture of intimidation and murder," he says.

"And they appear to be succeeding because our security establishment has often supported them for their own geo-strategic reasons."

Separate paths

Mr Khan believes that unless the Pakistani intelligence community disengages completely from extremist forces and cracks down on the demagogues, extremists are likely to become even more aggressive.

A supporter of the Pakistan People's Party condemns the killing of Salman Taseer on 6 January 2011 Whither the moderates? Salman Taseer's murder was condemned by supporters of the governing party

Be that as it may, the fact remains that Mr Taseer's murder has exposed the vulnerability of the liberals more starkly than any other incident in the past.

This is perhaps the first time that a man of high stature has been killed for supporting a perfectly legal idea to amend a man-made law with the name of Islam appended to it.

Dr Askari believes that it will take a "generational process" to bring reason back into public discourse.

"If we really want sanity to return to our society, we will have to establish a long-term dialogue through educational institutions, the media and all sections of the society, and facilitate a fusion of ideas.

"If we allow the liberal and the religious streams to continue on separate paths, we risk aggravating social conflict."

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