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The Sunday Times: Long Night of Blood

Mar. 06, 2011

While much of the Islamic world is on the cusp of a new dawn, the novelist and son of a murdered politician fears Pakistan is falling into the abyss


In the first days of this year my father, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was killed in Islamabad for trying to amend Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. He felt they had been misused to target Pakistan’s minorities, particularly Christians. Last week, again in Islamabad, Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for those same minorities, was assassinated by unknown gunmen.

Bhatti, people will say, as they do about my father, died for Pakistan. But it is not fair to say this. The two months that have passed since my father’s death have shown that he did not so much die for Pakistan as for a dying idea of Pakistan; they have shown, too, that in the country founded for Muslims in 1947 — but not necessarily for Islam — religion has become an impediment to people being able to distinguish right from wrong.

The days that followed my father’s death brought a series of shocks. And, by an ugly alchemy, they altered the complexion of his killing, turning what was first seen as the unlawful assassination of a sitting governor into the execution of a man fit to die: a man whom clerics had declared wajib al-qatal in the weeks before his death.

This is a designation akin to the homo sacer of Roman law, that “accursed man” of antiquity who may be killed by anybody without comeback.

In my father’s case, the result was that when his assassin opened fire, the dozen or so men who constituted the rest of his security detail stood by and watched. Not just this, but they allowed his assassin to reload. Murky details have emerged lately suggesting further horrors, but they are unconfirmed and, in any case, too awful for these pages. The confirmed truth — as is so often the case in Pakistan — is bad enough.

For no sooner was he dead than the components of a parallel morality began to fall into place, one after another. There was the killer, who, after he had laid down his gun, sang a song in praise of the prophet. There were the lawyers, who greeted him a few days later at the courthouse with garlands and showers of rose petals. They were the same lawyers who a few years ago, one had been led to believe, were the forefront of a movement in favour of a free and just society in Pakistan. They came forward now to defend my father’s assassin pro bono.

And, at last, there were the clerics, who would not perform my father’s last rites and forbade all good Muslims to mourn him. That Friday, at regular prayers in mosques around the country, those same men of faith praised the killer’s actions in their sermons.

By the end of that week the streets were filled with rallies supporting the killer; blood money, more than £200,000, poured in, with some thrown over the wall of the killer’s house; billboards appeared outside it, depicting him as a holy warrior, the prophet’s policeman.

But, in the end, it was not on the street that the fate of my father’s murderer was decided; it was on the floor of the Senate. In an absurd and grotesque gesture, the house failed to pass a simple motion to condemn the killing. The highest lawmaking body in the land found it had no opprobrium to express for the extralegal killing of one of the state’s officers. Tempers were so high that Senate members — barring a few defiant souls — could not even be persuaded to offer prayers for my father.

Now, two months later, the tacit approval that the Senate and others of influence gave to my father’s killing is bearing its fruit. Another man is dead, a man who could only have been doing his job in trying to protect the country’s minorities from the misuse of the blasphemy laws. To expect anything resembling outrage from Pakistan’s political class, anything more than equanimity, seems too much to ask.

When I last left Pakistan, in early 2008, after the death of the opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, I wanted very much not to return. My reason — and this may sound shocking — was that I felt that under the outpouring of sorrow and grief that had followed Bhutto’s death lay a kind of euphoria, a feeling of release at the interruption from the malaise of everyday life in Pakistan.

It was an air similar to that of a festival or carnival. And it was from this corrosive kind of mourning, under which I sensed a nation glorying in blood, that I wished to escape.

I first visited Pakistan in 2002, a year after 9/11, to seek out my father (we had a complicated relationship). Of the country that then still had some vestiges of the nation founded by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, little now remains.

A decade later it is game over for those Pakistanis who, though they acknowledge the nation was made for faith, do not want faith to engulf the nation. Their inherited dream of a homeland for Muslims, but not necessarily for Islam, has dissolved into a cry, far louder than theirs, for a purer faith.

For them, the people of liberal Pakistan, it is time to leave. And it doesn’t even seem as though there will be anybody to mourn them, or to speak of the old Pakistan, as there were a few to speak of the old Russia and the old Iran.

At a time when so much of the Muslim world stands on the brink of autonomous and — one dares to hope — positive change, it is very sad to me that Pakistan alone offers a still deeper Islamic night.

My father, though, would not have shared my pessimism. “Peace, prosperity and happiness for new year,” he had tweeted four days before he died. “I’m full of optimism.”

Two months later, after the horrors his death revealed, and now after this second death and the silence it is sure to cast over the expression of free opinion in Pakistan, I’ve tried hard to find a way to muster some of his optimism. But the only little hope I can find comes from the feeling that under the present religious darkness there may lie the seeds of a much-needed class upheaval to which faith can bring a kind of legitimacy.

One fears, however, the depth of this Islamic night, how much it will obscure — not just from the outside world, but from the people of Pakistan — and the blood and anarchy to which it will give cover before it ends.

But end it must, for no reason other than that political Islam will exhaust the fixed set of ideas on which it is based.

It is as the Pakistani poet Suroor Barabankvi writes: “For I, Suroor, have known too the outcome of night; a thousandfold it might exceed its bounds, no further than morning can it ever extend.”

Aatish Taseer’s The Temple-Goers was shortlisted for the 2010 Costa first novel award