Requiem in Pakistan
March 6, 2011: Two assassinations in Pakistan: in January, Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, by one of his bodyguards; last week, Shahbaz Bhatti, Minister for Minorities, outside his Islamabad home, with the Pakistani Taliban claiming responsibility. Both had called for changes in Pakistan’s blasphemy law, passed to put the power of the State, including capital punishment, behind a ban on offense to Islam, but frequently used to settle scores and otherwise oppress non-Muslims or, more generally, opponents.
Two funerals: one in Lahore for Taseer; one for Bhatti in the largely Christian village of Khushpur in southern Punjab, with a memorial mass the next day in the Church of Our Lady of Fatima in Islamabad. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani attended both. President Asif Zardari attended neither, despite his longstanding and close political association with Taseer.
And two shocks to Pakistan. First, the killings themselves, which call into question the willingness of Pakistan’s security services to assure the security of controversial senior officials (Bhatti was moving around without bodyguards – how much confidence could he have had in their protection?). Second, the even more chilling spectacle that followed Taseer’s murder, with his confessed killer being hailed as a hero and garlanded with flowers for “defending Islam.”
These events brought me back to my days in Pakistan in the 1970s. Taseer was killed a few steps from Kohsaar Market, a block or two from where I lived, the site of our family’s favorite book store and barber shop.
Our Lady of Fatima church had not yet been built, but we attended its predecessor, Fatima Chapel, in an upper room in the F-7 sector, with a view of the Margalla Hills. At the English language services, an Irish or Austrian priest presided and a largely diplomatic congregation sat on chairs with kneelers in front of them. We sometimes went to the Urdu language mass on Sunday evening, with a Pakistani priest and a congregation of sweepers – the lowest rung on the servant pecking order – and a handful of middle class shopkeepers. Churchgoers left their shoes at the door. The kids sat on a dhurry rug, while the adults sat on low cane moora stools around the sides and in back. The language of worship was a heavily Arabized form of Urdu, a nice reminder of things that bind the “people of the book” together.
Our Sundays were sometimes punctuated by another ritual. We would drive our two toddlers to the nearby city of Rawalpindi, park the car near the entrance to Raja Bazaar, and take a horse drawn tonga cart through the bazaar. The kids delighted in the textile printer stamping intricate designs on long rolls of fabric, the grain seller scooping up chenna dal (chickpeas) from huge sacks, the pyramids of kinoo oranges and guavas.
One can get nostalgic for this more innocent time. A safer time too: today’s American diplomats have no chance to prowl around the byways of Pakistan the way we did. What a loss for them.
The two murders brought shock and fear to Pakistan. Will the fear accelerate the slide into intolerance? Or will the shock convince Pakistan’s leaders to start reversing the trend?