From The Ottawa Citizen
Pakistan scholars warn against mourning slain governor
By Michael Georgy, Reuters January 5, 2011 9:02 AM
ISLAMABAD – Five hundred Pakistani religious scholars have warned that anyone who expresses grief over the assassination of a senior ruling party official who opposed the country’s blasphemy law could suffer the same fate.
Salman Taseer, a liberal politician close to President Asif Ali Zardari, had no day-to-day role in the central government. But his killing in broad daylight at a shopping centre in Islamabad reinforces the sense that the government is incapable of stabilizing the Muslim country of 170 million.
The Punjab province governor was killed on Tuesday by one of his guards, who was apparently incensed by the politician’s opposition to the blasphemy law, in a parking lot at the block of shops popular with foreigners.
The scholars also noted the “courage” and religious zeal of the killer, saying his action has made Muslims around the world proud.
Human rights groups say the blasphemy law is often exploited by religious conservatives as well as ordinary people to settle personal scores.
But it has widespread support in a country that is more than 95 per cent Muslim, and most politicians are loath to be seen as soft on the defence of Islam. Taseer, however, was an outspoken critic.
Thousands waved ruling Pakistan People’s Party flags at Taseer’s funeral at his official residence in the city of Lahore, which was attended by Gilani and other top government officials. Supporters also waved as a helicopter transported his coffin away.
In contrast, his accused killer, wearing a black hood, was transported in a blue armoured police vehicle for an appearance in court. Some people screamed Allahu akbar (God is greatest). Others threw rose petals.
The Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat Pakistan group of scholars making the veiled threat is actually from a moderate school of Islam in Pakistan. It is a vocal critic of Taliban militants who are violently opposed to the government and its ally Washington.
The group is one of the largest representing scholars from the mainstream Barelvi sect of Sunni Muslims. Although moderate, they have been leading protests in favour of the blasphemy law.
The hardline stand taken by the moderates illustrates how difficult it can be for Washington, which sees Islamabad as indispensable in its war on militancy, to persuade Pakistani leaders to crack down harder on religious extremism.
“More than 500 scholars of the Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat have advised Muslims not to offer the funeral prayers of Governor Punjab Salman Taseer nor try to lead the prayers,” the group said in a statement.
“Also, there should be no 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.”
Taseer’s killing has deepened a political crisis in Pakistan, a nuclear-powered South Asian country which is a front-line state in the war against militancy in Afghanistan.
It came two days after a main partner in Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s coalition bolted for the opposition in protest over fuel price policies, leaving him without a parliamentary majority and struggling to save his government.
The blasphemy law came under the spotlight after a court in November sentenced a Christian mother of four, Asia Bibi, to death in a case stemming from a village dispute.
Jamaat-e-Islami, one of Pakistan’s main Islamist political parties, also said Taseer’s assassination was justified.
“If the government had removed him from the governorship, there wouldn’t have been the need for someone to shoot him,” it said in a statement shortly before Taseer was buried in the Punjab capital, Lahore.
While Pakistan’s pro-Taliban religious parties don’t win significant votes in elections, they have the capability to stir emotions and street protests.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the bodyguard who killed Taseer, identified as Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, confessed and had been arrested. He is a member of an elite police force.
After he was detained, Qadri said “death is the punishment for blasphemy.”
“May the holy Prophet accept this in his service,” he said in comments carried on a Pakistani television station.
The group of scholars also said that the “so-called” intellectuals, ministers, politicians and television anchors who oppose the blasphemy law and support those committing blasphemy should learn a lesson from Taseer’s death.
Taseer was shot 14 times from a distance of about six feet (2 metres), said Khawaja Waseem Ahmed, a spokesman for the hospital where he was treated.
Taseer had visited Bibi in prison in a campaign for her release. He wrote on his Twitter page last Friday: “I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightist pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing.”