01.04.11

Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer: Mourning Pakistan's Slain Leader

Known to millions as a politician, a media mogul, and an outspoken critic of Muslim radicals, Salman Taseer was even more impressive to those of us who knew him in person.

Pakistan is not the bravest nation in the world.

It is a terminally sick country where, to borrow from Yeats, the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Salman Taseer did not lack conviction. And the governor of the Punjab, Pakistan's largest province, was assassinated in Islamabad on Tuesday afternoon because of that.

Taseer was known to millions. But I knew him as a politician, family friend, and employer. The truth is, I always wanted to be like him—brave, clear-minded, and clever. A few years ago, I went up to him excited about a new discovery. "We share the same birthday—May 31," I said. "Not the same year, I hope," came the dry reply from Taseer.

The 66-year-old Punjab governor was the same man in public that he was in private— quick and occasionally provocative—traits that were refreshing to many but seemed arrogant to some.

Less than a month ago, Taseer, an outspoken critic of the country's misused blasphemy laws, visited Aasia Noreen, a Christian woman sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. Taseer wanted a presidential pardon for Noreen, and a rationalization of the blasphemy laws. But the religious right would have none of it, declaring him a heretic and apostate.

Then, on Friday, fanatics across Pakistan burned his effigy, and, under pressure, the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party distanced itself from the governor and from Sherry Rehman, another party liberal who had urged a review of the controversial laws.

The postmortem indicated that Taseer—who wore the Prophet Muhammad's name and a miniature Quran in a chain around his neck—was shot 26 times

Taseer posted on Twitter that he was "unimpressed" by the mullahs' protests, which were "abusive" and "well organised" but had "no general support."

The same day Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri decided he would do something about Taseer. The 26-year-old policeman, who had been assigned to protect Taseer, shot him at close range outside a café in Islamabad's Kohsar Market. Closed-circuit footage from a nearby shop shows at least three other security personnel simply standing by. And the postmortem indicated that Taseer—who wore the Prophet Muhammad's name and a miniature Quran in a chain around his neck—was shot 26 times.

Unrepentant, Qadri later told TV crews he had murdered Taseer because of the governor's opposition to the blasphemy laws. (Qadri is now in police custody along with at least 10 others.)

After Taseer's assassination on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she "admired [his] work to promote tolerance and the education of Pakistan's future generations. His death is a great loss."

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the governor was "a prominent leader whose death is a loss for Pakistan."

Pakistan itself declared three days of mourning. And the country went into lockdown almost immediately after his death was confirmed.

The son of a Kashmiri poet and a British mother, Taseer brought cable television to Pakistan, and, two years ago, sold his telecommunications company to the country of Oman for some $200 million. He also developed ambitious real-estate projects as well as a cable TV channel and a liberal, English-language newspaper. It was here I worked for Taseer, at Daily Times, a paper that was launched in the spring of 2002 as "a new voice for a new Pakistan."

As a politician, Taseer was as thick-skinned as they come. During the 1980s, he endured jail and torture under the Islamist Gen. Zia-ul-Haq's dictatorship, which instituted the blasphemy laws. Two years ago, opposition party Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) Sharif's party pulled pictures from Taseer's children's Facebook pages to illustrate that the governor was unfit for public office because he was "un-Islamic."

If Taseer was ever frightened, he never showed his fear; never talked about the threats and bomb scares leveled against him and his family.

In a Twitter post on New Year's Eve, he wrote: "I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I'm the last man standing."

After his murder, spontaneous protests erupted in several cities by nightfall on Tuesday. Taseer's supporters burned tires and yelled slogans against the opposition PMLN, or Nawaz, the opposition party that rules the Punjab and was responsible for Taseer's security. (Taseer himself had fraught relations with the leaders of the opposition party, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and his brother, Punjab's chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif.)

But across the country, the reactions to the killing were even more chilling. Within hours of the worst political assassination since Benazir Bhutto's killing in neighboring Rawalpindi in December 2007, students from the religio-political party Jamaat-e-Islami texted celebratory messages about the murder, and on Facebook, pages lionizing the governor's killer quickly found hundreds of supporters. And elsewhere in the country, mullahs rallied in support of the killing.

Some members of the opposition party spoke dismissively of Taseer and downplayed the significance of his murder. And there was little remorse among Pakistan's freewheeling (and conservative) television talk shows for publicizing fatwas against Taseer and misrepresenting his political position on the blasphemy laws as, itself, blasphemy.

Taseer's death closes the door on any discussion of the laws. The mullahs and their sympathizers have probably succeeded in scaring reason and rationale into retreat.

But a few still dared to speak up, like religious scholar Javaid Ghamidi. "If we don't speak up now, tomorrow we will not be able to say even the few things that we can today," he said on Dunya TV. Facing fatwas himself, Ghamidi has gone into exile abroad.

An important and often undervalued measure of a man is his children in the values they represent, how they engage with others, and the lives they lead. There is no higher recommendation for Taseer than his six children, and widow.

To his friends and loved ones, he remained accessible and good-humored, exuding the confidence of a self-made man, even under pressure.

But three years after Bhutto was killed, another strident voice against terrorism and intolerance has been silenced. On Tuesday, shortly before midnight, Taseer's flag-draped coffin was carried onboard a military aircraft so that his body might be flown to his hometown of Lahore, the provincial capital.

"A new Pakistan" never felt so out of reach.

Fasih Ahmed is the editor of Newsweek Pakistan. He won a New York Press Club award for Newsweek's coverage of Benazir Bhutto's assassination. Ahmed was also the inaugural Daniel Pearl fellow and worked at The Wall Street Journal's Washington, D.C., bureau in 2003. He graduated from Columbia University and lives in Lahore.