Pakistani Governor Taseer Buried Amid Renewed Fear of Islamic Extremism
By James Rupert and Khurrum Anis

Pakistan buried a leading secular politician as analysts said his killing by a religiously motivated policeman shows the erosion of a tolerant society needed to stabilize the country and its economy.

Thousands of supporters of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, members and leaders of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, buried him in Lahore, a day after he was killed by a police bodyguard for opposing an Islamic blasphemy law. Police formed a guard by his casket, which was draped with marigolds and red roses.

“We’ve been thinking we could root out the extremism in our country, but this assassination makes people fear it may not be true, because it shows how deeply embedded the extremists are” in Pakistani society, said Zafar Moin Nasser, research director at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics in Islamabad.

The killing is the latest in a series of attacks on Pakistani leaders who have confronted religious extremism since the 2007 assassination of Taseer’s ally and leader, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Suicide bombers killed prominent Lahore cleric Sarfraz Ahmed Naeemi in 2009 and a university vice- chancellor from the northwestern city of Mardan, Mohammad Farooq, in 2010 after each man publicly condemned the country’s Taliban guerrilla movement.

Targeting of public figures has accompanied a rise in overall deaths in militant violence, from 189 in 2003 to more than 6,000 in each of the past two years, according to the New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. Pakistan’s economy may have lost $26 billion over six years of the conflict from 2004, according to Finance Ministry figures cited by the Center for Public Policy Research in the northwestern city of Peshawar.

27 Shots
A police bodyguard of Taseer shot him in the back 27 times with an AK-47 rifle as he stepped into his car from a restaurant a mile from the Islamabad office of President Asif Ali Zardari, The News newspaper reported.

The policeman surrendered, telling authorities he killed the governor for his campaign to repeal Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which is supported by Islamic conservatives and opposed by secular political groups and human rights organizations.

The assassin was a member of Punjab province’s elite police force who had expressed Islamic militant views, according to unidentified officials cited by Pakistan’s GEO television news channel. With Punjab ruled by the Peoples Party’s main opponent, the Pakistan Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a PPP leader called the killing a “result of criminal negligence.”

“The real conspiracy behind his murder needs to be unveiled,” the official, Pakistani Law Minister Babar Awan, told reporters in Lahore.

Sharif this week issued an ultimatum for the Peoples Party government to take steps against corrupt officials and rising prices or face a campaign for its removal.

Amid rising militant violence and the loss of allies from its coalition in recent weeks, the party “seems unable to build the consensus for the policy changes needed” to reduce the country’s fiscal deficit that may touch 6 percent of gross domestic product in the year to June, Nasser said.

“That is bad for the economy, because the International Monetary Fund is requiring changes,” including lower deficits and a broadening of Pakistan’s relatively narrow tax base, to continue its $11.3 billion of loans to support the $162 billion economy.

Popular Revolt
The impact of Taseer’s killing “will depend on whether our top political leadership can capitalize on the opportunity to build a popular revolt against Islamic extremism, as it did after Bhutto’s death,” which led to the Peoples Party winning elections two months later, said Ishtiaq Ahmed, a Pakistani fellow on South Asian politics at Oxford University. A fitting answer would be to implement human rights groups’ calls to repeal the blasphemy law, which prescribes death for anyone judged to have insulted the Muslim prophet, Muhammad, he said.

Taseer’s slaying in an Islamabad neighborhood of diplomats and business executives, may deepen investors’ hesitations about putting money into Pakistan, Ahmed said.

Islamic religious parties and militants condemned Taseer after he intervened in the blasphemy case of Aasia Bibi, a Punjabi Catholic woman sentenced to death in November. After Taseer persuaded Zardari to consider clemency for her, religious parties massed thousands of men who condemned him in protests.

About 90 percent of nearly 5,000 Pakistanis  HYPERLINK “” o “Open Web Site” polled in July and August 2009 said religious extremism is a serious problem in the country, the Washington-based International Republican Institute, which carried out the survey, said.

Survival Fight
It’s unclear whether Zardari, the current Peoples Party leader and Bhutto’s widower, will be able to mobilize a strong secularist political response to Taseer’s assassination. “The PPP is fighting for its survival right now, and it’s unrealistic to expect it to force radical changes,” Samina Ahmed, South  HYPERLINK “” Asia project director of the International Crisis Group, said from Islamabad.

Zardari and his party have been weakened by public discontent over inflation, which at 15 percent is Asia’s highest, plus electricity shortages and perceptions of deep corruption in public life. The Peoples Party lost its parliament majority on Jan. 2 after a second allied party left its coalition.

Up ArrowTop