Webcast Recap

On January 4, 2011, Salman Taseer, governor of the Pakistani province of Punjab, was assassinated in Islamabad. The gunman was Malik Mumtaz Qadri, one of Taseer’s bodyguards. Qadri justified his actions by referring to Taseer’s outspoken opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws -- harsh regulations that govern the treatment of religious minorities. Before his death, Taseer, an aggressively secular leader in a deeply Muslim nation, had railed against the case of a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly committing blasphemy against Muslims with whom she had had a disagreement.

Yet the “real story” here, according to Pamela Constable, is not the assassination, but Pakistan’s reaction to it. Instead of condemnation, the killer enjoyed a “massive outpouring of support.” Soon after the assassination, Constable, a South Asia correspondent for the Washington Post, visited a pro-Qadri rally in Karachi. As she spoke with its animated participants, she realized that she was witnessing a “bubbling up of a highly emotional defense of Islam.”

For Constable, the fact that significant portions of society supported the Taseer killing gets at a “central question” of her new book, Playing With Fire: Pakistan At War with Itself, written while she was a Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar last year: Why is Pakistan failing to curb the appeal of radical Islam?

Playing with Fire, an effort to explore the many dimensions of Pakistani society, identifies the omnipresent feeling of powerless and injustice as the “biggest factor” explaining the appeal of extremism in Pakistan. Most Pakistanis must answer to forces higher than themselves -- whether they be landowners, police, or bribe-seeking bureaucrats. Not surprisingly, corruption is a “state of mind” in Pakistan, and to survive, everyone must collude in it. Faced with little hope and no trust in the state, Constable explained, people all too often succumb to the blandishments of radicals.

In her book, Constable writes of her visit to the family of a school principal who had been gunned down in Lahore. He was an Ahmadi -- a community in Pakistan that considers itself Muslim, yet does not accept Mohammad as the final prophet. Many Sunni Muslims regard this as heresy, and so Pakistan’s four million Ahmadis suffer frequent discrimination. The principal’s grieving family told Constable that a hard-line religious scholar succeeded in whipping up anti-Ahmadi sentiment in a community that had previously been peaceful. As she spoke with some local men about the killing, she began to understand why he was successful. Talk quickly drifted to matters of unemployment, corruption, and government neglect. Seething with grievances and unable to find an outlet, she concluded, such individuals are easily won over by a radical’s hate-filled message.

According to Constable, the power of militancy in Pakistan has given rise to a “mantra” embraced by many in the country: Pakistan and Islam are under siege by America and the West. It is a message embraced not just by common people, but by those “who should know better” -- the country’s leaders. Such figures are “playing with fire” by assuming that such ideologies can be “contained,” just as Pakistan’s troubled institutions attempt to get by without addressing society’s other pressing challenges, which range from poverty and dangerous demographic bulges to natural resource constraints. Development, she said, is neglected in great part because the country’s mighty military, continually obsessed with what it deems the “existential threat” of India, insists on diverting a disproportionate amount of the national budget for defense.

Pakistan’s struggles, Constable contended, are particularly troubling given the country’s vast potential to attain prosperity and stability. Holding the country back, she asserted, is a leadership curse -- the country’s utter failure to have any semblance of sustained leadership. No Pakistani leader, she noted, has ever completed a full political term. As a result, the country has never developed modern democratic institutions. Such limitations, and the bad governance they spawn, help explain the “huge silence” that ensued following Taseer’s assassination. “No one stood up for Taseer,” she said. Not even army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the leader of Pakistan’s most powerful institution. This silence, and what she described as society’s “giant step backward toward placating extremism,” deeply worries Constable -- even more so than does al-Qaeda’s presence in the country.