The South Asia Channel

Taseer’s murder another sign of the dysfunctional Pakistani state

Taseer’s murder another sign of the dysfunctional Pakistani state

Salmaan Taseer’s alleged murderer is a twenty-six-year-old security guard, named Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri. Qadri was hired by the Punjab Constabulary in 2003 as an 18-year-old recruit. In 2008, he joined the "Elite Force," where Punjab’s best cops end up, and was working for this elite force on the security detail for the governor of Punjab when he killed Taseer. His motivation was allegedly Taseer’s vocal opposition to the provisions of the Pakistan Penal Code that deal with blasphemy.

Given the infamy of these legal provisions, the discussion about Taseer’s assassination is going to be dominated by an examination of how Pakistan treats blasphemy. That is a long-needed national discussion, and in his death, it may be that Taseer will have stimulated an honest and serious national introspection about how the country treats its minorities.

Unfortunately, what is more likely is that Taseer’s death will not only not stimulate a more serious examination of how the Pakistani state deals with the highly toxic issues of blasphemy, but it may help mute the already nervous voices within the thin sliver of Pakistani society that seek to amend these kinds of legal provisions.

Whatever ramifications it has for the blasphemy law, Taseer’s death should bring home a much more urgent set of realizations. The disturbing reality is that the continued existence of the blasphemy laws, his assassination and the varying shades of reactions to his murder all point to a set of very deeply embedded structural problems within the Pakistani state and Pakistani society.

Long-time advocates of an optimistic outlook for Pakistan like myself have based a positive long-term prognosis on the country’s size and the concomitant economic potential it has. However, the ability of Pakistan to align itself with any kind of transformative economic activity is contingent on a baseline of minimum human and social capital, a minimal ability within the state to absorb and leverage that capital, and a minimum baseline of rational rigor within political discourse.

Those three qualities are in desperately short supply in the Pakistan of 2011.

The state of human and social capital can best be surmised by some of the chilling statements of support for the assassination that were visible on social media like Twitter and Facebook, mere hours after the assassination. Regardless of the normative problems with misguided religiosity, nationalism and deep-set political polarity, it is quite clear that some Pakistanis, those celebrating this kind of horrifying assassination, are fundamentally incapable of engaging with the rest of the rational world.

The level of state capability can be measured by the mere fact that the assassin was a long-time, regular state employee. This was no Lee Harvey Oswald. It was Beant and Satwant Singh all over again. Of course, Sikh extremists killed Indira Gandhi in retaliation for Operation Blue Star, at the Golden Temple in Amritsar — an attack on a holy site. Qadri supposedly killed Taseer for standing up for a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death. The Elite Force that Qadri was a member of was established in 1998 to counter, of all things, the wave of extremist violence in the Punjab in the mid and late 1990s. The motto of the Elite Force, according to a Wikipedia entry, is "Kill all the terrorists." Like many other instruments of the Pakistani state, the Punjab Elite Force seems to have a clear and present competence deficit.

As an advocate of realistic optimism, Taseer’s assassination for me, and many among the small English-speaking urban community in Pakistan, is gut-wrenching and heart-breaking. It is a reminder that the realities of Pakistan in the New Year are stark and intimidating.

Focusing on any one aspect of all the holes in Pakistan that this assassination exposes would be myopic and misguided. Pakistan is in desperate need of a viable counter-weight to the irrational and frankly un-Islamic voices of religious extremism that dominate religious discourse in the country. That is not a year-long fight. It is an intergenerational struggle.

Pakistani is also in need of urgent reforms to the legal and judicial system that allows and in many ways encourages mindless vigilantism. That too is a not a fight that can be won quickly. Enabling parliamentarians to feel secure and confident in making changes just got even harder with Taseer’s assassination. This is also an intergenerational struggle.

The cancer of fanaticism that consumed Taseer’s life is a product of two generations of Pakistani state actions, starting with General Zia-ul Haq’s offering up the country as an assembly line of warriors for the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and continuing with General Pervez Musharraf’s offering up the same country as a staging ground for a war against those very warriors. The role of the war in Afghanistan and America’s presence in the region is inescapable. It has helped catalyze and deepen the pre-existing groundswell of a radicalized the mainstream Pakistani narrative. This mess has been more than thirty years in the making. It is clear that no amount of externally-stimulated counterinsurgency or counterterrorism will do the trick. More is needed, much more. And all of it has to be organic and local. This, more than any other, is the greatest of intergenerational struggles.

Salmaan Taseer’s assassination raises legitimate questions about the viability of this struggle and its success. On an already cold and tragic day in Islamabad, that represents a devastating reality.

Mosharraf Zaidi has served as an advisor on international aid to Pakistan for the United Nations and European Union and writes a weekly column for Pakistan’s the News. You can find more of his writing at