Extremism associated with Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law appeared to claim another victim Tuesday, when the governor of the country’s wealthiest and most politically powerful province was gunned down in Islamabad by a 26-year-old member of his own security detail. Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab, was shot at close range by a newly assigned guard who told authorities and the media he was angry about Taseer’s criticism of Pakistan’s law against blasphemy, considered the most draconian of any Muslim-majority country. The law prescribes life imprisonment for anyone who defiles the Quran, and death for a person who defames or insults the Prophet Muhammad. In recent weeks Taseer had called for the pardon of a Christian woman sentenced to death last year for allegedly insulting the prophet. Pakistan has not actually executed anyone for blasphemy, but more than two dozen people have been killed through vigilantism, not that unusual in a country where a mere accusation of blasphemy can lead to riots.
The Punjabi capital, Lahore, was in lockdown, and Pakistani authorities are said to be investigating whether there were others behind Taseer’s assassination. The killing comes as the country is sliding into a political crisis brought on by the withdrawal of a key ally from the ruling coalition led by the Pakistan Peoples Party. Taseer, who was 66, was a close ally of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the last major political figure in Pakistan to be assassinated, in 2007. In an interview his daughter, Pakistani writer Shehrbano Taseer, did for NEWSWEEK PAKISTAN this past November, the governor discussed terrorism, the floods that recently devastated his country, and good governance, among other topics. Here are excerpts:
[There were] some 6 million Pakistanis still displaced by the floods. Are you satisfied with the response to the crisis?
Whenever Pakistan faces a crisis, it brings us all together. There are many unsung heroes in all of this whom people don’t even know about. The local response has been huge. In the Punjab, 90 percent of the displaced have gone back, and there are very few camps left. The response by the Pakistan government has been amazing, and I’m talking only of the Punjab. There is no hunger in the Punjab, no starvation. Yes, because the press has a short attention span, this is not a story anymore. We’re in the middle of rehabilitation work, which is challenging and will take a long time. We’re helping people rebuild houses quickly and with as much government support as possible before winter sets in.
Pakistan has had four finance ministers in the last two years. As a businessman, does this trouble you, and is this “good governance”?
The problem with constituency politics is that often people who are elected are not qualified to take on these sophisticated assignments. In our country, the people who are elected are mostly from rural areas and are not qualified to be finance ministers. We have to select technical people, but then, because it’s a political assignment also, it turns out some of them are not political enough. So it’s a tough call. We want a clear, strong, definite finance policy that is business-friendly. Yet we’re in a country with so many poor people that you can’t always do trickle-down economics here. So we’ve got the Benazir Income Support Program, which has been hailed by the World Bank; we’ve raised salaries of government employees; given workers shares in state-owned companies; reinstated thousands of people who had been fired on political grounds. These are the sort of compassionate, people-friendly policies which democratically elected governments have to pursue. You can’t tell people, “Sorry, we can’t give you money, but wait four years until we set up industries and start seeing dividends.” Now, when it comes to the question of running the government, we have to accommodate our coalition partners ... We’ve given the opposition respect and the same rights as our members. Good governance is not just a profit-and-loss account; it’s also a political and social profit-and-loss account. On that score, the PPP [Pakistan Peoples Party] has done a fantastic job.
Is the federal government in any danger of being ousted?
When [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton was here, she told me there are many lobbies—Indian, Israeli—who oppose Pakistan, and that the U.S.’s selling point has been the fact that there’s a democratic government in place in Pakistan. Before this, people had the idea that Muslim countries are either only monarchies or dictatorships, but Pakistan has moved from a quasi-military government to democracy. In the process, [former president] Gen. Pervez Musharraf was not hounded out of office or physically eliminated; he was politically pressured into resigning. And the PPP has got its coalition partners onto one platform. At a time when we are fighting terror, to get everyone together—even those who are not willing to talk to each other—is commendable. When you talk of this government going, what’s going to replace it? Anarchy? Chaos? That’s all you’ll get. We want the whole five-year process to continue and then hand over to another democratically elected government. This way the political process is strengthened, and it is understood that the only way of changing a government is through elections, not through journalistic and judicial coups d’état and by TV anchors predicting the end. It’s great that we’re tolerating these kinds of people.
What is your biggest concern?
I worry about terrorism. The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), which is in government in the Punjab, has old linkages with and a natural affinity for extremist organizations like Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Khatm-e-Nubuwwat, and so many others. Let’s face it: terrorists need logistical support from within—somebody funds them, somebody guides them, and somebody looks after them—and that support is coming from the Punjab. Some 48 terrorists have been released by an antiterrorism court recently because they could not be prosecuted, or rather, there was a failure to prosecute them. This is disgraceful. If the Punjab government was solidly against the militants, this would not have happened. You can’t have your law minister [Rana Sanaullah] going around in police jeeps with Ahmed Ludhianvi [of the outlawed Sipah-e-Sahaba], whose agenda is to declare Shias infidels and close down their places of worship, and then say you want harmony in this province. You can’t have the chief minister, who is also the home minister, standing at [Lahore mosque] Jamia Naeemia pleading with the Taliban to please not launch attacks in the Punjab because he shares the same thinking against the U.S. as they do. What message does this send out to the local magistrate and police officer? There has to be zero tolerance toward militants, and the only way you can have this is if the government is totally committed … Dealing with the militants has to be no holds barred. Their lives should be made hell; they should be prosecuted, and sent to hell where they belong.
How widespread is the terrorist problem in Punjab?
There are no training camps in the Punjab, but you can’t allow Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi to run riot, to go around unimpeded recruiting men to their cause. We had never heard of the Punjabi Taliban before, but now we hear it so often. We need to prosecute these people through the special courts that are working directly under the chief minister and law minister of the province. Here’s the strange thing: the five Americans who were caught in Sargodha, they were prosecuted and sentenced for intent to kill. Why were these men prosecuted successfully? It was because they had no links here. [The American students had traveled to Pakistan after allegedly making contact with an Islamic extremist on the Internet.] This case shows that when the government really want to prosecute someone, they can.