On 4 January, Salmaan Taseer, the liberal-minded governor of the Pakistani province Punjab, was shot 27 times at point-blank range by his bodyguard, an Islamic fanatic named Mumtaz Qadri. “The bullets pierced every organ in his body except his heart and his larynx,” his daughter Shehrbano told me recently. “So, in the end, they weren’t able to get him.”
Qadri murdered Taseer outside of an Islamabad market in broad daylight and surrendered himself, smilingly, to the police. He freely confesses to the murder, saying he killed the governor on account of the latter’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The governor had opposed the invidious ways in which those laws are used against religious minorities, and he had championed the case of a Christian woman named Asia Bibi who sits on death row for allegedly violating them.
It took the Taseer family well over a month to find a prosecutor who would agree to take the case, and only recently has a judge been secured to oversee the trial. What sympathy the family has received has been offered mainly behind closed doors.
As for Qadri, he was showered with rose petals on his way to court, and the head of the Rawalpindi bar association has offered his legal services pro bono. Tens of thousands of Islamists took to the streets of Karachi just days after the murder to oppose any changes to the blasphemy law. Bibi remains in prison.
Nearly a decade after 9/11, the West’s exhaustion with the war on terror—at least in its more grandly conceived, nation-building and culture-shifting versions—can be traced to episodes like the Taseer killing and the underlying, politically incorrect question they prompt: What is it with these people? It’s not an entirely unfair question. The US has given Islamabad billions in military and civilian aid (some of which, as of this week, is suspended) and rescued thousands of desperate Pakistanis after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. It does not seem to have produced a better or less fanatical country.
Then again, it’s worth bearing in mind that “these people” also include the late Taseer and his no-less-remarkable daughter, who works as a reporter for Newsweek Pakistan. When I ask her why she doesn’t leave the country where her own life is now under threat— she has the means and connections to live elsewhere—she says, very simply, that it would be “a terrible disservice to my father’s life and work if I ran away”.
Taseer is prominent and outspoken, but she is not quite alone. For all the country’s madrassas—the factories of fanaticism of which there were some 300 at the time of Pakistan’s birth, 3,000 in 1990, and 40,000 today—extremist parties consistently fare poorly at the polls. Thousands may have marched in favour of keeping the blasphemy laws, but their numbers count for relatively little in a city of 18 million. Osama bin Laden’s death has led to an unprecedented wave of criticism of Pakistan’s army and intelligence service.
Pakistan’s problem isn’t that it’s a nation of fanatics. It’s that the fanatics have grown brazen in their willingness to cow and terrorize their more moderate opponents, while the moderates have become timid. “After my father was killed, the luxury of criticizing and debating seemed to die along with him,” Taseer says. “People can only talk about sanctioned topics, like US drone strikes.”
That points to a second problem. Discussing those strikes, Taseer notes that people in Pakistan’s tribal hinterlands say that the drones have improved their lives by putting the Taliban on the run. Yet the strikes have become objects of ritual denunciation by Pakistan’s government, which likes to play to the anti-American peanut gallery, as well as by segments of the country’s bien-pensant class. The result is an intellectual climate in Pakistan that tends to shy away from the only course that can rescue the country from its encroaching Islamist furies, or what Taseer calls “a no-holds-barred policy toward these guys”.
That the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity is nothing new in human affairs. What’s more remarkable is to still find among Pakistanis people prepared to forgo their exit options in order to fight for their country. “In Pakistan,” says Taseer, “if you believe in something, you have to be willing to die for it.” She’s 22 years old.
And it’s not just in Pakistan. For months, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have braved imprisonment, torture and often death to register their objections to the Assad regime. Dissidents in Iran have been doing as much for decades. They are exercising the virtue of courage as Aristotle would have understood it. And they are a rebuke to cultural pessimists in the West who often feel vindicated by the perfidies of the Muslim world but could stand, on occasion, to be humbled by examples of its courage.
It is, increasingly, the received wisdom in the West that nation building is a fool’s errand. Maybe. But it would also be wise to make sure that people like Taseer and the cause she represents get all the support we can offer them. Who builds Pakistan 20 years from now is something to which only a fool could be indifferent.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal.
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