5 January 2011
Yesterday’s assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, by a member of his security protocol highlights the problems of extremism currently facing Pakistan. Following the killing, the murderer said he was justified in killing Taseer because of his vocal opposition to Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, which have frequently been used to settle personal scores and discriminate against religious minorities. At present, few religious groups or politicians outside Taseer’s own party have clearly or unambiguously condemned the killing.
The spread of extremist ideologies in Pakistan. Taseer’s murder by a trusted member of an elite counter-terrorism unit (who believed that he nonetheless had a divine duty to kill the governor for criticising Pakistan’s blasphemy laws) shows that extremism in Pakistan is driven by ideology as well as by organised militant groups such as the Pakistani Taliban. Extremist takfiri ideology, a relatively modern import to Pakistan, has now affected many aspects of Pakistani society and culture and continues to spread through schools, mosques, universities and television channels. Similarly, the belief that any Muslim individual can spontaneously take violent action in order to ‘protect Islam’ is also becoming ever more widely accepted in Pakistan – independent of the activities of jihadist groups.
Religious extremists will be further empowered. The killing of Salman Taseer is likely to further empower a range of religious extremists in Pakistan at the expense of moderate secular voices. This has already been seen in the 24 hours since his murder with a number of high profile religious groups openly praising the killer while prominent moderate groups and individuals have been reluctant to publicly condemn the murder for fear of being similarly targeted themselves.
Pakistan’s government risks becoming further destabilised. The muted response to Taseer’s murder by religious moderates may give a green light to Pakistani extremist groups to step up or renew their attacks on religious minorities and other dissenters – whose rights Taseer was seeking to protect. In the past, such extremists have targeted Shia and Sufi Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis. A new round of such attacks would create new stresses within Pakistan as well as stoke tensions with Pakistan’s neighbours and other members of the international community.
Pakistan needs to adopt a counter-extremism strategy. At present Pakistan only has a counter-terrorism strategy which solely targets armed militant groups such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda. However, as yesterday’s murder has shown, political extremism fuelled by hardline ideologies also present a severe challenge to the stability and integrity of nuclear-armed Pakistan. A national strategy to challenge and roll-back such extremist ideologies is therefore urgently needed to operate alongside and in tandem with the existing counter-terrorism strategy.
Pakistan’s National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA) needs to be empowered. Pakistan needs to recognise the importance of having an independent body to co-ordinate its national counter-terrorism efforts. Political infighting and inadequate resourcing has, so far, greatly reduced the effectiveness of NACTA which was established in 2009 to fulfil this role. This has in turn substantially hampered Pakistan’s ability to systematically tackle terrorism and extremism.
The international community should support and empower democratic and secular Pakistanis. The success of Quilliam’s Pakistani sister group has shown the demand among many young Pakistanis for moderate, secular leadership. difference to such grassroots organisations.
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