The assassination of the Governor of Punjab, Mr. Salmaan Taseer could prove to be a tragic sign post in Pakistan’s accelerating descent into anarchy. Each element of the event signifies the ideological, political and economic processes that underlie the rising tide of extremism. It is time to understand these processes and to take rational action, if the integrity of society and state is to be preserved.
Governor Salmaan Taseer had raised the issue of amending the procedures of the blasphemy law in order to prevent its misuse by individuals for personal gain, and thereby making the law more effective in achieving its objective of preventing blasphemy. The aim therefore was Justice which is an essential feature of Islam, as indeed it is of all civilized societies. The ideological motivation to murder, was mobilized by a coalition of extremist groups on the one hand and elements of the media on the other. It was done on the basis of deliberately eliminating the distinction between blasphemy and the blasphemy law. This shows that logic is being banished from Pakistan’s political discourse. The space for reasoned political argument is being rapidly occupied by the obfuscation of extremists as a means of instigating violence for the achievement of political ends.
The assassin, Mr. Mumtaz Qadri, a member of the Elite Force, claimed that he had killed to punish Governor Salmaan Taseer for “blasphemy”. This indicates not only that the state apparatus designed to counter terrorism is penetrated by extremist ideology but some of its members have become its willing instruments for murder. So a ‘fatwa’ issued from the ideological space occupied by the extremists can be implemented by such a ‘state actor’ who has become both judge and executioner. Indeed the growing number of ‘non-state actors’ in society gripped by extremist ideology, could create multiple centres of violence. This process can induce such fear that freedom of expression, that is vital to democracy, may be seriously eroded.
The Governor is the symbol of the state at the provincial level. His assassination would be expected to induce a strong assertion of state power to assure citizens that the government is capable of protecting their lives. This is a basic function of government in terms of which it seeks legitimacy, i.e. the right to rule. In the event the government offered condolences but no concrete action to demonstrate its capacity for establishing order. Fatwas by extremist groups after the assassination of Governor Taseer continued apace, with dire warnings that the same fate awaited all those who questioned the blasphemy law, or even attended his funeral. Anarchy was given further momentum as the assassin Mumtaz Qadri was hailed as a hero by the extremists and rose petals showered upon him as he was taken to court.
The unfolding economic crisis is broadening the breeding ground of extremism, while being accentuated by the perceived weakness of the government to enforce its writ. Due to the protracted recession, poverty and unemployment are rising rapidly: 77 percent of the population is food insecure, 73 percent are suffering from illness, and inflation is reaching record levels, even as the majority of the people are deprived of safe drinking water, quality health care and quality education. On the financial side, the government is unable to control the budget deficit, which could reach 7.5 percent of GDP this year. Weak governance and growing extremism are precluding the possibility of financing the budget deficit through foreign capital inflows, thereby forcing the government to undertake inflationary borrowing from the State Bank. The balance of payments deficit is placing intense pressure on the exchange rate and there is a danger that the depreciating exchange rate could begin feeding off the domestic inflation rate. God forbid, if this happens, the inflation rate could rapidly reach a three digit figure as it did in the case of Israel, Egypt, and Brazil a few decades ago. Thus spiraling inflation and desperate poverty could accelerate the drift into anarchy.
Can the government stem the rising tide of extremism which threatens both democracy and the state?