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For the second time in three years, the beleaguered nation of Pakistan has lost one of its most prominent secular reformers to Islamic radicalism. Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s populous Punjab Province, was killed Tuesday in broad daylight by Malik Mumtaz Qadri, a member of the governor’s own security detail. The assassination was expressly political, with Qadri citing Taseer’s opposition to Pakistan’s Islamic blasphemy laws as the motivation behind the killing. The tragedy leaves much uncertainty and turmoil in its wake, especially with respect to Pakistan’s willingness to help pacify anti-American forces in neighboring Afghanistan. The event also puts into question the viability of the fragile Pakistani secularist movement in the face of burgeoning violent fundamentalism.
Taseer was a member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, a secular reformist party once represented by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto, a champion of modernity in Pakistan, was also murdered in a fundamentalist gun-and-bomb attack in 2007. In fact, Taseer’s death comes within days of the anniversary of his compatriot’s assassination, a grim commemoration of the event. Like Bhutto, Taseer vocally advocated for women and minority rights. Ms. Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, is Pakistan’s current president and was close to Taseer.
Taseer had aggressively carried on Bhutto’s legacy, becoming one of Pakistan’s foremost opponents of Islamic extremism. In the weeks preceding his death, Teseer faced intense opposition from Islamist elements over his objection to the country’s draconian blasphemy laws, which carry the penalty of death. In a highly publicized case, a Christian woman named Asia Bibi, who lived in Punjab, was sentenced to death for a blasphemy offense. She is currently in prison and is appealing her sentence. Taseer publicly supported Bibi and railed against the blasphemy laws, which prompted Islamist factions to call for his ouster. Some groups issued an edict of blasphemy for his involvement in the case.
Qadir’s intention was to fulfill this decree. He was led away from the scene smiling over his instrumentality in Allah’s divine justice. “I am a slave of the Prophet,” he told a television crew, “and the punishment for one who commits blasphemy is death.”
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