The execution in Pakistan of Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri — the bodyguard who in 2011, under influence of religious zealots, killed secular Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer — has strategically coincided with the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue taking place in Washington DC. Given Pakistan’s history of embracing Islamist extremism, the decision to finally execute a fanatic for murder is being cited by some as a sign of Pakistan’s willingness to confront its Islamist extremists.
Describing various events over the years as a moment of major change in Pakistan occurs with remarkable regularity. I am amongst those who are not convinced that Qadri’s execution represents a decisive shift in Pakistan’s direction. It is a symbolic gesture that Pakistanis who are attending the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue will be able to cite to their advantage.
Qadri was the personal bodyguard of the then governor of Pakistan’s largest province Punjab, Mr Salmaan Taseer. On January 4, 2011, Qadri shot Mr Taseer 27 times with an AK-47 assault rifle at a busy marketplace in Islamabad. Qadri accused Taseer of blasphemy alleging that the latter’s calls for changes in Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, one of the worst such laws in any country in the world, were akin to blasphemy.
Unlike what is being portrayed in the media, the Qadri case is not tied to extremism. Murder and extreme religious belief may coincide but there is a difference religious extremism and religious vigilantism and Qadri’s case is the latter.
Qadri did not belong to any radical jihadi group. He belonged to the Sunni Barelvi School that is traditionally associated in the South Asian region with Sufism. Radical parties like Jamaat e Islami have tried to adopt him but his core supporters fought for him – and in some cases strew rose petals in his path – because they believe that the blasphemy law should stay as is on Pakistan’s statutes.
Qadri’s murder of Taseer hit the headlines because here was a bodyguard who assassinated the person he was supposed to protect. This event led to panic within Pakistan’s elite and many of them started to fear their own bodyguards. The elite were worried that a stray or random comment by them may become the basis for action. Hence, a lesson had to be taught to prevent future Qadris.
This is not to say that there has been no change in Pakistan. Elements of Pakistani society, especially the civil society, have started to push back against the rising radicalization and extremism within Pakistan. Pakistanis who have become used to virtually no action being taken against hardline religious elements have expressed relief at this execution but it may be misplaced.
The fundamentals in Pakistan have not yet changed. The real change would be if and when the state ended its support for extremism which has yet to happen.
The argument that jihadism and extremism in Pakistan can somehow all be traced back to 1979 and that the U.S. convinced Pakistan – against its will – to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan and now Pakistan is saddled with something created by the Americans may be a myth some naïve Americans believe or choose to believe. The reality, however, is known to scholars who have studied Pakistan and the region.
Right from the beginning the Pakistani state has used jihadis and extremism as an element of its foreign and domestic policy. It was not a result of the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad of 1979, rather dates back much earlier.
Islamists were allies of the Pakistan military- the Al Shams and Al Badr brigates – in the civil war genocide in East Pakistan in 1971. Pakistan’s support and assistance to Afghan Islamists like Burhanuddin Rabbani, leader of the Jamiat e Islami Afghanistan and Gulbeddin Hikmatyar, leader of the Hizb e Islami, started as early as 1974 and continued even after the Soviet retreat and American withdrawal in 1988.
Support for the Afghan Taliban and its allied Haqqani network has continued despite Pakistan receiving billions of dollars in American aid over the last six decades. The creation of jihadi groups that targeted India started in the late 1980s and has continued till now.
Justice Asif Saeed Khosa of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, who led the three-judge apex bench on the Qadri case in his judgement stated that “If everyone starts punishing others, who have in their opinion committed blasphemy, then this society will disintegrate.”
Those who want to believe Pakistan has changed will point to this judgement to make their argument. However, the same judge in another case denied bail to Tahir Medi, the publisher of Al-Fazl, a 102-year-old Ahmadiyya publication, arguing that “when matters pertaining to religion were under consideration one had to ignore the law.”
A stand against religious vigilantism is not the same as a stand against religious extremism.
The real test of whether or not Pakistan is acting against extremism would come when it executes Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh who was convicted of murdering Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 and is sitting in prison or when it completes proceedings against Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi, commander in the terrorist organization, Lashkar e Taiba, responsible for more than 160 deaths in the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Action against those who have killed countless Americans in Afghanistan would also be a good sign. Unfortunately none of these are forthcoming.