01/13/2011 09:56 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

More to Pakistan than Blasphemy Law

The assassination of the ruling Pakistan People's Party's (PPP) governor of Pakistan's largest province, the Punjab, adds one more to the list of high-profile political assassinations in the country. Governor Salman Taseer, an old stalwart of the PPP, was shot dead this past week by one of his own elite guards while he was visiting Islamabad. The guard was apprehended and reportedly admitted to the assassination because he believed the governor blasphemed the Prophet Muhammad. The context was the deceased governor's remarks calling for a repeal of Pakistan's notorious blasphemy law which came into sharp focus recently when a Pakistani Christian woman was accused of committing blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad.

As expected, the mainstream media highlighted the usual canards about Pakistan through the prism of this story. These include: an inherent Pakistani-Muslim tendency toward violence, reactionary 'Islamic fundamentalist' laws (in this case, Pakistan's blasphemy law), and just the overall permeation of religious extremism throughout all corners of the country -- including even within the governor's own elite security guards. The subtext of a Muslim intolerance for difference of opinion, hence an intrinsic anti-pluralistic and anti-democratic makeup, was not far behind.

While of course I shared the sentiments about the tragedy of the defence of violence in pursuit of, or to repress another, viewpoint, I think those who speak and write about Pakistan and Pakistanis have a certain responsibility to give more nuance and context than the mainstream vulgar Orientalist depictions of this country of more than 170 million.

While I have ongoing (more academic, theoretical) reflections here at my blog, I would like to say that after spending two straight years working here in Pakistan, I do feel comfortable in asserting a simple observation: the discourses, issues, and concerns of mainstream elite socio-cultural-religious and political actors are very often so utterly removed from that of the vast majority of the people in this country. I believe I've been at quite a vantage point in seeing some of this first hand. I teach at perhaps Pakistan's premier elite university in Lahore -- LUMS. It is the school which epitomizes the culture of the 'secular-liberal elite' of this country. I spend most of my other time in my hometown of Gujar Khan, which is about an hour from the capital Islamabad. And I go back and forth and see what's being discussed in one place, and what's being discussed in the other.

At LUMS and its cohorts, it's the blasphemy law, it's all these crazy mullahs that we hear about but rarely would they actually affect our lives directly; it's the horrible, uncivilized habits of ordinary working people (particularly men), etc. Of course, I teach Islamic studies so I of course am heavily involved in such religio-cultural discussions, and feel very much at home in them.

In my hometown, people are concerned with (and directly affected by) electricity outages for more than half of the day, now gas shortages (in winter) for about 3/4 of the day (hence, no heat and no cooking), incredible inflation of basic goods and foodstuffs, increase in the price of petrol and gas, pathetically low wages and chronic unemployment and underemployment. In the towns and villages there fortunately are often support networks that allow people to barely survive. In the rapidly expanding urban slums, ordinary working people and the poor are left to fend for their individual selves.

The point is that the majority of ordinary people in Pakistan do not enter the discourse on anything. After being exploited and oppressed (undoubtedly some more than others, particularly across provincial, ethnic, and religious lines) for more than 60 years, all that comes to the mind of the CNN or BBC or other foreign (and dare I say, even Pakistani) reporters is to ask the ordinary person on the street something like, "Do you support this blasphemy law which severely criminalizes criticism of your Prophet?" -- and the guy answers, "Yeah, sure I do."

And there we have it, proven once again, how religious extremism infects all or most Pakistanis like an incurable disease. Of course, we refuse to see the larger story and context in which elite actors in Pakistan -- the military security establishment, a corrupt political class that often makes military rule look good, certain sections of the Islamists (and their reactionary discourses which were given a boost in the 80s), and certain influential sections of the NGO liberal elite -- all play a game yelling at each other while the ordinary person struggling to feed his/her family watches from afar and is told by the liberal NGO 'activist' that you need to be a more liberal and open-minded poor person, while the mullahs tell him/her that you need to be a more Islamically-oriented poor person. That s/he remains a poor person is not really anyone's concern.

No one, at the end of the day, really cares that this average person and the vast majority of the people in this country live on less than what most Americans would spend on a cup of coffee.

So what often is seen as irrational and outrageous views of Pakistanis should be seen in this context of a sense of complete abandonment and outright fraud. When everything about your nation-state is a disaster story -- courtesy of your elite political actors and the tacit collusion of your highly cocooned 'civil society' that experiences nothing of the daily, structural ravages of the bulk of the population -- and when you feel your government is unable to lift a finger at resisting the commands coming from the U.S. embassy or the IMF and World Bank, it may be pretty understandable why the "Prophet's honor" may be the only last honourable thing you're going to be willing to really defend.

Junaid S. Ahmad is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town, and is an Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Law and Policy at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Pakistan.