Getting Away with Murder: Why Pakistan’s Fanatic Right Acts with Impunity

With the government unwilling to act, extremists are meting out their own versions of justice, as two recent atrocities show

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AAMIR QURESHI / AFP / Getty Images

Arrested Pakistani bodyguard Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, left, shouts after appearing in court in Islamabad on Jan. 5, 2011, a day after the assassination of Salman Taseer, then governor of Punjab province

In Pakistan, grim reminders of the state’s reticence to right wrongs are never in short supply. In two separate incidents on July 4, a mentally handicapped middle-aged man accused of burning a Koran was murdered by a mob as police watched; meanwhile, a young social worker was gunned down for advocating women’s rights. No arrests have been made in either case — nor are any expected.

The police in the town of Channi Ghot had arrested Ghulam Abbas, a homeless man believed to be in his 40s, for allegedly burning pages from the Koran. As word got around, a 2,000-strong mob sacked the police station, beat Abbas to death and then set his body on fire — all in the presence of police officers too scared for their own lives to try to save him. The same day in Peshawar, Farida Afridi, a co-founder of the Society for Appraisal & Women Empowerment in Rural Areas, was killed after setting out for her office. The 25-year-old was intercepted en route and mowed down by two gunmen. No one has claimed responsibility for her murder.

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These latest acts of violence barely registered with a public that has become increasingly and bitterly divided and accustomed to — if not desirous of — far worse. What’s more, in one tragedy after another, the government has shown both an inability and unwillingness to tackle issues that could inflame the much-pandered-to right wing any further. As a result, fanatics can literally get away with murder in Pakistan. “Our state functionaries have no power anymore,” says Talat Masood, an analyst and a former army general. “Even the political will to act has been eroded.”

While President Asif Ali Zardari’s office issued a perfunctory statement condemning the lynching, it has stayed far away from the blasphemy issue. It has yet to even take notice of Afridi’s murder. In January of last year, Zardari’s top aide in the Punjab province, Governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by a member of his security detail for wanting to reform the country’s misused blasphemy laws. Across the country, the self-confessed assassin was hailed as a hero by tens of thousands, including hundreds of lawyers who showered him with rose petals outside court. Two months after Taseer’s murder, reformer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was also gunned down. Taseer’s killer has appealed his conviction. Bhatti’s suspected assassin was released in May.

Religious minorities and social workers advocating reform in conservative areas like the tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan have always been counted among the most vulnerable Pakistanis. Their vulnerability is made far worse by a government that is too terrified to act, an opposition that thrives on support from the fanatic far right, and courts packed with populist, Koran-waving judges. The problem is acute. Just last week, 18 Shi‘ite Muslims were killed in Baluchistan province while another 13 were killed the week before. The government has also done nothing about Taliban threats to kill social workers if they do not cease their activities.

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“Lack of proper law enforcement, eroding confidence in our laws and growing intolerance are all adding to people’s malaise,” says Masood. He isn’t the only one making the point. “Our society is no longer normal,” says analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi. “The government does not have the capacity to respond to these challenges. They have attempted to deal with these groups in the past and have failed each time. They have no more options.”

Rizvi finds statements from the Punjab chief minister as well as the Supreme Court urging an overthrow of the elected government troubling. Last Sunday, the Punjab government, which is led by the opposition party Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), even provided buses for activists of the outlawed militant group Jamaat-ud-Dawah for the Defense of Pakistan Council’s protest march against the reopening of NATO supply routes. The council, a collection of right-wing parties and groups, considers the government a “puppet regime” propped up by the U.S.

The Supreme Court hasn’t made the government’s job any easier. It has taken it upon itself to fix the country’s problem — starting with the elected government. By talking up and taking action against alleged corruption by government officials, the activist judiciary seems to have people convinced that the elected government cannot accomplish anything and does not mean well by them. “They have created a problem of legitimacy for the government,” says Rizvi. The court, which has been accused by independent observers as soft on terrorists, has largely maintained a studied silence on the periodic pogroms of religious minorities. “If the judiciary were to take notice of these sectarian killings, powerful Islamic forces might turn on them,” says Rizvi, adding this could create problems for the court as the self-proclaimed arbiter of the people’s will.

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“People have lost faith in the ability of their government to act,” says former general Masood. “The clerics and right-wing politicians are taking advantage of this trust deficit and are rapidly gaining ground in our collective consciousness.” Part of the problem, he says, is fear of reprisals, especially following the Taseer and Bhatti assassinations. “Nonstate actors are too strong; the state fears retaliation and is unwilling to act.”

With elections less than a year away and a government reviled for alleged corruption and wide-ranging power cuts, the ruling Pakistan People’s Party has little to gain from acting on controversial topics such as the blasphemy law, sectarian violence and human-rights abuses. “The mainstream parties could end this within a week if they united and decided to act for change,” says Rizvi. “No one wants to take the risk of taking unpopular decisions.”

Aslam is the deputy editor of Newsweek Pakistan.

30 comments
VishnuSharma
VishnuSharma

I wish Arundhati Roy was born in Pakistan, I wish Medha Patkar, Shoma Chaudhury, Sagarika Ghosh and Barkha Dutt were born there, they would not have lasted more than a few minutes and it would have been fun to know what happened to them and the manner in which they were killed.

ED4
ED4

Iraq was a total mess until recently and I suppose it could still revert to a living hell. Makes you wonder how Sadam Hussein managed to keep the terror to a manageble level. Could we have been responsible for the killing the guy that was just doing what he needed to in order to have a functioning country? It sure sounds like that part of the world is not ready for democracy.

Hamid Sheikh
Hamid Sheikh

Cole and to all those who refer to Pakistan as a toilet; I genuinely love your analogy and how sad you are at the US tax payer money being spent in these countries. Your problem is that just because of a few people that are bad within a country, you guys term as everyone in this country as being cannibal or something. Let me assure you sir, Pakistan has its fair share of problems and they might be far worse than most places on earth, but never forget the atrocities that the african american community still faces in the US. Please do not forget the brutality with which the KKK went on with their killings; so please, if you refer to Pakistan as a toilet well the US is the sewer to which toilets like Pakistan and Afghanistan are eventually flushed down too. Just because of a few people, never develop an opinion about a country; that is not how "civilized people" like yourself conduct affairs in life.

mdshams22
mdshams22

like  in US-MEXICAN  border,  Drug Lords  are killing with impunity !!   

Sid sridhar
Sid sridhar

The steady deterioration of law and order, human rights,freedom of religion etc are clear signs that Pakistan is a failed State. Zardari's Government is only in name. The Military rules with just one goal i.e maximize control of Nation's budget so that they can live comfortably. This is why the Military, under Zia pushed the Islamic agenda. This way, the Mullahs would allow the Military to loot, whilst they can control the lives of the People through radical religious ideas. The contrast is stark, when you see Muslims in India, where the agenda is to become part of the mainstream and gain from the rapid growth. In Pakistan, Shias are murdered, Christians are living in fear, women are killed for adultery, blasphemy charge is meted out by local thughs and the State is powerless. The World  has to deal with Pakistan more than Afghanistan!

chenzo
chenzo

Why do all fanatic rights (including the one in America) act with impunity?

Cole Stevens
Cole Stevens

Let's face reality.  Pakistan/Afghanistan are the USA's present day Vietnam.  They are an endless toilet where US Taxpayers money is being flushed down at an alarming rate.  The amount of corruption and waste is mind-boggling.  They are heathens who live in a mindset where their whole life is predicated on one book.  They treat their women like slaves.  They have more respect for their livestock than they do for their own wives and daughters.  Once we leave they will resort back to what they were before we showed up.  Get out of there, bring our troops home.  Not one more US soldier should die in those forsaken countries.  Not one more cent should be wasted there. 

jeanmarie476
jeanmarie476

They can only blame themselves and their own incapacity to move away from extremism

Mehboob Palijo
Mehboob Palijo

When you witness war since 10-11 years and bombs being exploding every where, people make rash decision. Pakistan is in state of war since 1 decade, we are fighting an American war that is not popular in Pakistan.

In 2001-02, I  was a university student in Karachi and I remember local buses were painted with USA flags, people use to love to wear American flagged T-shirts. After 10 years of war Pakistan have changed alot, Some radicals (1-2% of population backed by Saudi Arabian money) are targeting minorities (Hindus are being killed regularly, forcefully converted to Islam, Ahmedi and Shias are targeted everyday, Christian villages are being burned to ground and Mosques are bombed across the country). 

The only solution is end of this war and I think American government should talk to Taliban and end the war politically. If USA doesn't end this war politically, Pakistan will become the battle ground for Taliban and dangerous for the World. Lets jointly solve this mess. 

RoyShastid
RoyShastid

Isin't religion wonderfull ? If the Republican party comes to full flower we can expect the same public entertainments here.

daviduke
daviduke

Who can forget Raymond Davis CIA Agent who killed two civillian and got away with murder with US help.

1846
1846

It is not Muslim's or even Islam it is an old power base using the guise of religion to maintain their high positions in society. The Mullah’s are very much like god Fathers in a Mafia organized crime syndicate.

Their power comes from their preaching to and influencing the weak minded and uneducated in the name of religion. Anything that impinges on their power to control the message is met with murderous retaliation in the name of God. Powerful Mullah’s are feared by public officials for their ability to loose mobs of the brainwashed imbecilic into the streets and issue edicts against anyone they wish.

This is very prevalent in Pakistan but almost nonexistent in Malaysia for example. Both as so called Muslim states but one has a gangsterism problem in the church.

Heterotic
Heterotic

Muslims are insane and a danger to every human being. Stay away from the islam scourge.

Sergio Andrade
Sergio Andrade

They can only blame themselves and their own incapacity to move away from extremism

Iron_Celt
Iron_Celt

RE: Pakistan. 

What government?

MohammedImmortalTechnique
MohammedImmortalTechnique

Please spare me the bs. "The agenda is to become part of the mainstream?" Tell that to the Indian Muslims living in the Kashmir region, who are regularly subjected to torture as well as mass rape and execution at the hands of the Indian armed forces, an area where the government has barred the UN from visiting. As for Pakistan, believe me, the vast majority of our problems are self inflicted, but this war began due to immense popular support in the US, not in Pakistan.  The suggestion that we should negotiate with the Taliban is indeed a rational one, and one would think that this policy would have been pursued more vigorously considering we in the west are so eager to trumpet our liberal principles of justice, peace and equality. But with comments on this page attempting to justify the murder of civilians in Pakistan by the CIA, not to mention “keep the drone strikes coming,” its clear these values are just as phoney as the war itself, considering we’re willing to ignore as many rules as the supposed enemy when it suits us.

MohammedImmortalTechnique
MohammedImmortalTechnique

Please spare me the bs. "The agenda is to become part of the mainstream?" Tell that to the Indian Muslims living in the Kashmir region, who are regularly subjected to torture as well as mass rape and execution at the hands of the Indian armed forces, an area where the government has barred the UN from visiting. As for Pakistan, believe me, the vast majority of our problems are self inflicted, but this war began due to immense popular support in the US, not in Pakistan.  The suggestion that we should negotiate with the Taliban is indeed a rational one, and one would think that this policy would have been pursued more vigorously considering we in the west are so eager to trumpet our liberal principles of justice, peace and equality. But with comments on this page attempting to justify the murder of civilians in Pakistan by the CIA, not to mention “keep the drone strikes coming,” its clear these values are just as phoney as the war itself, considering we’re willing to ignore as many rules as the supposed enemy when it suits us.

truenorthfree2
truenorthfree2

Come on that is not fair to a toilet.

These countries are more alike to the septic pustules that are a result of the Bubonic plague. Festering ugly and deadly to the public.

knowTheEnemy
knowTheEnemy

Very cunning of you Mehboob. I didn't hear you say "Let's round up those 1-2% radicals and teach them a lesson so they stop killing your fellow countrymen".  Instead you want America to compromise with the Taliban.

How about the world lets you enjoy the blessings of those 1-2% radicals until Pakistanis like yourself themselve decide you don't want the radicals among you any longer.

Cole Stevens
Cole Stevens

I'm fearful that Mitt will make us all wear his magic underwear.

RoyShastid
RoyShastid

  Is that your story and are you sticking with it, because I would have done the same to 2 people who were trying to rob and kill me.

Cole Stevens
Cole Stevens

"...The Mullah’s are very much like god Fathers in a Mafia organized crime syndicate..."   Or kind of like  the Pope telling Catholics that they are going to hell for practicing birth control

Chinga_Tu_Madre
Chinga_Tu_Madre

Good, good. This justifies more drone strikes by the Americans. If the Pakistani government lacks the will to act, then we'll exercise our right to exterminate these guys.

Alanol
Alanol

What, then, is to be done, and by who?

RoyShastid
RoyShastid

   All soldiers will wear the magic underwear in lieu of body armor. First part of his plan to save money.

Chinga_Tu_Madre
Chinga_Tu_Madre

The situation calls for extra-judicial killing against the extremists. A much more lethal version of the "Untouchables."