Last month I read for the first time my father’s killer’s version of what happened on the afternoon of Jan. 4, 2011. My father, Salman Taseer, was the governor of Punjab, in Pakistan, when he was shot dead by his own bodyguard in Islamabad. He was at the time defending a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.
The laws that condemned her had been instituted in the 1980s by a military dictator. Those were the years when the Saudis, the Pakistanis and — it must be said — the Americans, believing no evil to be greater than that of Communism, flirted with jihad in Afghanistan. All variety of strange fruit, including the Taliban and Al Qaeda, have come from that time.
My father’s murderer — 26 when he killed my father — is from a later, hardier crop. It may be said that he came to fruition around the same time that the Islamic State first sent its men to Syria. It is instructive to hear him speak. He is a living example of how faith can become an expression of a society’s deepest cultural tensions. Here is Malik Mumtaz Qadri:
On the faithful day, I being member of Elite Force I was deployed as one of the member of Escort Guard of Salman Taseer, the Governor Punjab. In Koh-i-Sar Market, the Governor with another after having lunch in a restaurant walked to his vehicle. In adjoining mosque I went for urinating in the washroom and for making ablution. When I came out with my gun, I came across Salman Taseer. Then I had the occasion to address him, “your honor being the Governor had remarked about blasphemy law as black law, if so it was unbecoming of you.” Upon this he suddenly shouted and said, “Not only that it is black law, but also it is my shit.” Being a Muslim I lost control and under grave and suddenly provocation, I pressed the trigger and he lay dead in front of me. I have no repentance and I did it for “Tahafuz-i- Namoos-i-Rasool” Salman offered me grave and sudden provocation. I was justified to kill him kindly see my accompanying written statement U/s 265(F)(5) of Cr. P. C.”
To read this description, translated into tortured English, and complete with a certain quality of detail, the visit to the mosque, the urinating, the prayer — the little things one does before committing an act of murder! — was to feel all the revulsion and pathos one must feel upon hearing of the crimes of a child soldier.
The judgment was meant to be happy news; the Supreme Court of Pakistan had upheld the death sentence handed down to Mr. Qadri. And yet how happy could one really feel? A young man from a poor background, who was not a criminal, had, under the influence of a bad ideology, committed a terrible crime. It was hard not to see Mr. Qadri as a victim of place. He would have been exposed on a daily basis to the hysteria whipped up on Pakistan’s television channels over my father’s description of the blasphemy law as a black law. We know that he went to nocturnal religious gatherings where he would sing hymns in praise of the Prophet Muhammad. There again, clerics inflamed with religious passion would remind Mr. Qadri of the apostasy of my father, his godlessness, the injury he had done to the revered figure of the prophet. They also actively sought volunteers to kill my father.
Mr. Qadri was surrounded by people who believed that my father’s crimes were punishable by death, and that it was incumbent upon the best Muslims to avenge them. In this parallel universe, Mr. Qadri was not just acting bravely; he was acting honorably.
Nor could the court root out the source of the evil that had motivated Mr. Qadri. In fact, Mr. Qadri’s defense sought recourse in that very idea that had led him to murder. It sought to establish the conditions under which it would be just for Mr. Qadri to kill my father. “Personal life of Salman Taseer,” the defense stated, “shows that right from early times he proved himself as an infidel … His lifestyle, faith and living with a lady of non-Muslim faith” — my mother! — “reflecting his act of living in constant state of Zinna under the pretext of marriage (not permissible in Islam) speak volume of his character and associated matters.”
The court at best could stop Mr. Qadri from playing judge and executioner; but it could not throw out the basis for his argument; it could not say that the idea of apostasy (irtad) itself was an abomination in a modern society. For were that so, there would not have been a woman rotting in jail on charges of blasphemy in the first place.
Mr. Qadri is a hero in Pakistan. There is at least one mosque named after him, so popular it’s due to double in size; people come with their children to see him in jail, and seek his blessings; he releases CDs of himself singing those hauntingly beautiful hymns in praise of the prophet. He is considered a religious hero, a mujahid.
But he is really a class hero. In societies likes ours, societies with colonial histories, religion provides the front; but what is actually going on is class warfare by other means. When Mr. Qadri’s defense gestures to my father’s “lifestyle … character and associated matters,” what they are really saying, in thinly coded language, is that he was liberal, educated, Westernized; privileged, in a word. The real danger, of course, is to the liberal state, and its values, which also come to be seen as nothing but the affectations of a godless and deracinated class.
Pakistan, by letting religion enter its bone marrow, made itself especially vulnerable; but the danger itself, of faith’s providing extra-legal legitimacy to those waging culture wars, is as real in Rowan County, Ky., as it is in Pakistan’s neighbor, India. In fact, even as all this was happening in Pakistan, the main organ of the Hindu nationalist group the R.S.S. ran a cover story, using a Vedic injunction against cow slaughter to justify the lynching of a man. It said, “The Vedas order killing of anyone who slaughters the cow. Cow slaughter is a big issue for the Hindu community. For many of us it’s a question of life and death.”
Perhaps; but for the rest of us the real question of life and death is how to defend the liberal state against culture wars that find their sanction in faith. It is no accident that it is among the least educated, most backward sections of our society that God finds his most committed soldiers. And if there is anything to be learned from that flirtation with jihad in the 1980s, it is that the only thing scarier than Marx is God fertilized with Marx.
Aatish Taseer is the author, most recently, of the novel The Way Things Were.