Assassination of Salman Taseer – Valor or Villainy

The killing of Pakistani Governor Salman Taseer over his vocal opposition of blasphemy law by one of his security personnel generated mixed reaction among the public, media, and religious circle. The small secular and liberal part of the Pakistani population condemned the killing and termed it as religious fanaticism; it is taken by them as a setback for their liberal and secular aspiration for the country. However, for the most part, across the breadth and depth of the country, Governor’s assassin is being acclaimed. The popular cheer came not only by the commoners’ side but, as well, by the elite. When the killer was brought in the courtroom, lawyers kissed and showered him with rose petals. People shouted slogan praising his action. The religious scholars not only applauded his "courage" and “religious zeal”, but also loudly proclaimed, “… there should be no expression of grief or sympathy on the death of the governor, as those who support blasphemy of the Prophet are themselves indulging in blasphemy.”

Governor Taseer may have not directly committed the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Prophet but his ardent support for the convicted blasphemer and labeling the blasphemy law as a “black law” was seen as giving support to blasphemy. Governor’s extra judicial campaign to secure the release of the blasphemer, who was duly convicted under the law of the land, and have her flown out of the country was taken as a slap on the face of the judicial process and insult to Muslim sensitivity. Governor’s role in the blasphemy episode was undesirable and uncalled for to say the least.

Indeed, Governor Taseer’s efforts to have the convicted blasphemer released without the sanction of any judicial proceeding or legal process; his disparaging of the law against blasphemy; and his notoriety for being heretical and openly and publicly impious made him a very much disliked and disapproved person among his countrymen.

However, despite of all his failing and frailty, Governor Taseer’s cold calculated murder in the vigilante style is not only regrettable but also highly condemnable. His murder is morally and legally wrong, the cheering should stop. An individual or individuals cannot be allowed take the law into their hands, play the role of a judge, prosecutor and executioner, and mete out punishments to wrongdoers, no matter how serious their transgressions are. It does not take too much of imagination to understand that punishing individuals without the recourse to lawful procedures is a dangerous recipe for anarchy and disorder. If a society allows such violent and summarily execution to take place, soon there will be a “war of every man against every man” and “the notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place”. The result will be that lynch mob mentality will take over and innocent people will be dragged from their homes and violently punished and killed.

The culture of vigilantism, that is taking root in Pakistan, is an indication of political-social crisis of high magnitude. The malady points to a loss of public faith in the state’s ability and willingness to police and provide justice. It is a challenge to state authority and legitimacy. When people do not have any hope of seeing justice done, they resort to taking the law into their own hands. Salman Taseer’s murder may be the first celebrated vigilante crime of political nature; however, it is not the first in the series of heinous vigilante crimes recently took place in Pakistan.

In a shocking incident of vigilante justice in Karachi in May 2008, residents of a neighborhood poured kerosene oil on three suspected robbers and burnt them alive unleashing their anger and frustration over the rising crimes and inability and unwillingness of the corrupt police department to prevent crimes. The irony here is that the residents showed no qualm about burning alive three human beings. Their rationale: If the suspects were handed to police, they would have escaped the clutches of justice by bribing the police and out on street looting and killing again.

Another extremely horrible case of vigilante crime took place in Sialkot in August 2010 when two teenaged brothers, mistaken as criminals, were mercilessly beaten with metallic and wooden stick by young and old in the crowd and dragged half-naked through the streets and hung upside down to die.

These and other incidents of social decay are painful indication that the system of social control in Pakistan is corrupt and ineffective and the government is incompetent to response to country’s intractable law enforcement crisis.  If the vigilante violence is not nipped in bud and remains unabated, Pakistan will be heading for major chaos – vigilante with guns and machetes, scenes familiar in Nigeria and Rwanda, will roam the cities. However, there is no evidence that the present government of Pakistan is interested, willing, or capable to check and control the spreading crimes. It is an open fact that the bloodbath of innocent citizens in Karachi is patronized by the two major coalition partners of the government; the government, in the interest of political survival and to prolong its rule, looks the other way.

It is surprising that lawyers, who are expected to uphold the constitution and the rule of law to promote peace and stability, were kissing the vigilante assassin and pelting flowers on him. Lawyers know better that the sentence for murder or “spreading corruption in the land” must only be given out by the order of the court of law, not the court of public opinion. The severity of the death sentence requires that clear and convincing evidentiary standards be met in an honest judicial process before pronouncing the guilty verdict. A law’s supremacy must be maintained, it should exist for everyone and applied in all situations, no exemptions.

No less surprising, the ulema were applauding the “valor” of the executioner. The scholars of Islam would know better that in the Islamic system of justice, individuals can not set their own court, pronounce guilt, and inflict the punishment, no matter how noble the motives are; simply speaking it is unacceptable and unislamic. Ideally, the lawyers and ulema should have been in forefront in condemning the extra killing that lacks the due process of law.  

A wrong is a wrong, whether it is the secular left or the religious right that commits it.  As Salman Taseer conducts were unacceptable, his murder was also unfair and condemnable. If we keep silence and do not boldly condemn a wrong act, regardless of who commit it, then our standard of right and wrong will not remain pure, it will get confused and blurry.