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Bashir Ahmad Gwakh Headshot

The Deep Roots of Pakistan's Extremism

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PAKISTAN ASSASSINATION
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Punjab Governor Salman Taseer's murder by his security guard was an obvious act of religious extremism and a clear sign that Pakistan has changed little in the more than 80 years since a carpenter killed a Hindu for allegedly publishing a book that insulted the Prophet Muhammad.

A country that was founded on the basis of religion remains in a dark morass presided over by insidious, violent ideologies.

Taseer's murder has exposed the horrendous levels of extremism and intolerance that have engulfed the nation. And it cries out for a forceful, progressive response.

The extremist religious lobby, whose fatwas (edicts) created the incendiary environment for violence, has hailed the assassination, has come out against funeral prayers for the slain governor, and has depicted his alleged murderer as a hero.

The whole situation this week reminds me of another killing from 1927. Back then, an illiterate carpenter who was known only as Ilmuddin murdered a Hindu publisher named Raj Pal for publishing a book called Rangeela Rasool, which Ilmuddin had been told mocked the Prophet.

Sensational accounts published in the Pakistan media at the time claimed that after committing the murder, Ilmuddin fell to his knees and bowed to God, thanking Him with the words: "I have avenged my Prophet; I have avenged my Prophet."

He was arrested and jailed. After pleading guilty, he was sentenced to death. Punjab Muslims appealed the verdict, and, to protest his death sentence, they gave him the honorary name "Ghazi." The Pakistan daily Jang reported that the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, worked on Ilmuddin's behalf free of charge. But the day after the appeal was rejected, Ilmuddin was hanged.

More than a million Muslims from Lahore and the surrounding area thronged the funeral, and the carpenter was given yet another honorific name, now being called Ghazi Ilmuddin Shaheed. According to some reports, Muhammad Iqbal, one of the key founders of Pakistan, personally placed Ilmuddin's body in the grave with tears in his eyes. "This carpenter left us, educated men, behind," he said.

Cancer Of Extremism

To this day, Pakistan regards Ilmuddin as a hero of Islam. His name and legacy are even found in schoolbooks.

Now, 83 years after Ilmuddin's terrorism, history is repeating itself and Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri is following the same path into the heart of the Pakistani nation. The popularity of Taseer's accused killer has risen so meteorically in recent days that it is easy to imagine him being lauded in the schoolbooks of future generations.

And how can we expect a nation raised with admiration for Ilmuddin to react any differently now? It is perfectly predictable that crowds will sing songs lauding Qadri's actions and will line up to present him with flowers.

The cancer of extremism is spreading in Pakistan -- from suicide bombings, to religiously motivated murders, to zero tolerance of moderates, and more. Now it is vividly clear that we are not talking about a tiny knot of people hiding in the mountains, but lunatic group whose ideas are daily warping the minds of Pakistan's youth.

Within hours of Taseer's death, hundreds of Pakistani Facebook users had welcomed the murder as a blow against those who sought to reform the country's blasphemy laws. Dozens of groups were formed on the social-media site with more than 2,000 supporters before Facebook removed them.

However, these users have taken to using their Facebook status updates to make comments like: "We salute you, Mumtaz Qadri," "A solider of Islam," "Qadri is our hero," "Mumtaz Hussain Qadri: the national hero of Pakistan."

By contrast, most Pakistani television channels have not hesitated to denounce Qadri as a killer.

I was not surprised when 500 Islamic scholars issued a fatwa declaring that leading Taseer's funeral would be against Islam. Nor was it shocking to watch a group of lawyers shower Qadri with rose petals when he was brought in for his initial court appearance on January 6. The attorneys chanted that they would defend the extremist for free.

The only thing that seems surprising to me is why the 97 percent of Pakistanis who are Muslim are so afraid of the 3 percent that aren't.

But I don't doubt that if the founding fathers of Pakistan could see their country today, they would be satisfied and proud. The country is still walking the path laid out by Jinah and Iqbal during the Ilmuddin case.

This post has first appeared here at RFE/RL's website.