A shower of labels in Pakistan

The mainstream coverage of the shocking assassination of the Punjab governor in Pakistan is a gripping example of job reporters continue to struggle to know how to describe the clashing doctrinal and cultural armies within the complex world of Islam. The New York Times article is, of course, must reading if you want to gospel according to the Northeast media corridor. It's crucial to understand that most elite journalists are deeply committed to thinking that Pakistan is a predominately secular and, of course, "moderate" nation that is struggling to control a small number of radical Muslims who, in this story, are even referred to as the "religious right."

In other words, "secular" is good and "religious" is bad. The more religious people are the more dangerous they are. That's the rational, American point of view. Correct?

Thus, the reason this bloody event has been so shocking is because the nation's alleged "moderate," secular, majority has remained silent, refusing to condemn the action of the "religious" assassin. Here is the top of the Times report.

As always, when reading this pay special attention to the labels used, as opposed to any hard, factual information about what these various groups believe about crucial issues in Pakistani life.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The emotional funeral of the assassinated governor of Punjab and the cheering of his killer in court Wednesday highlighted the intensifying struggle between secular and religious forces in Pakistan that has grown nastier than ever in the country's history.

As the 26-year-old assassin, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, appeared before a magistrate in Islamabad, to be charged with murder and terrorism, he was showered by hundreds of supporters with rose petals and garlands. Moderate religious leaders refused to condemn the assassination, and some hard-line religious leaders appeared obliquely to condone the attack.

Meanwhile, thousands of mourners thronged to the funeral in Lahore of the governor, Salman Taseer, a prominent voice for secularism who had recently become the focus of religious fury for speaking out against the nation's strict blasphemy laws. Many of the nation's top politicians, including Mr. Taseer's chief rival in Punjab and the leader of the opposition, Nawaz Sharif, did not attend the services. Neither did President Asif Ali Zardari, a friend and ally of Mr. Taseer, but out concern for his own security.

Government ministers and party officials indicated that they were dropping the campaign to change the blasphemy laws that Mr. Taseer had championed. No senior official would be drawn to comment on the religious extremist aspect of the killing at the funeral.

As the story goes on, it is clear that one of two things are true.

Either (a) the overwhelming majority of people in Pakistan support blasphemy laws, which, for example, make it illegal for a Muslim to "insult the prophet" by converting to another faith (a right protected in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Then again, (b) it is also possible that many oppose blasphemy laws, yet know that their own government and its security forces are so divided on the issue that it is impossible to speak freely in Pakistan without being killed. Thus, the story notes:

At a market in Islamabad on Tuesday, Mr. Qadri pumped more than 20 rounds into Mr. Taseer's back, Pakistani media reported, and yet was not fired on by any other member of the security detail, raising still more questions about whether any of the others knew of his plans in advance.

Mr. Qadri immediately surrendered, called himself a "slave of the Prophet," and indicated that he had killed Mr. Taseer for his campaign against the blasphemy law. ...

Half a dozen policemen interviewed while on duty around the city of Lahore voiced support for the assassin or refused to condemn the murder. "He acted according to his conscience," one said. "What is done is Allah's will," another said.

It is interesting to note that the Times elected not to link this horrific event with another religious issue that currently has Pakistan at a boiling point. I refer to the November sentencing of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, to death for blasphemy. Pope Benedict XVI and many other human-rights activists have called for her release. Her case is on appeal.

All of this, of course, has little or nothing to do with religion. Keep that in mind.

The crucial question that journalists need to answer in stories on this issue cannot be answered with mere labels. What readers need is precise information. The crucial question? Instead of using labels, reporters could state whether the groups or persons discussed in this particular story support the nation's blasphemy law, either by action or by silence. Other stories would focus on different questions, digging out information on different issues, as required.

Sadly, vague labels also dominated many other stories on this event. Consider the top of the Associated Press report:

Lawyers showered the suspected assassin of a liberal Pakistani governor with rose petals as he entered court. Some 170 miles away, the prime minister joined thousands to mourn the loss of the politician, who dared to challenge the demands of Islamic extremists.

The cheers and tears across the country Wednesday underscored Pakistan's journey over the past several decades from a nation defined by moderate Islam to one increasingly influenced by fundamentalists willing to use violence to impose their views.

Even so-called moderate Muslim scholars praised 26-year-old Mumtaz Qadri for allegedly killing Punjab province Gov. Salman Taseer on Tuesday in a hail of gunfire while he was supposed to be protecting him as a bodyguard. Qadri later told authorities he acted because of Taseer's vocal opposition to blasphemy laws that order death for those who insult Islam.

And Reuters? At least this story noted the wider context, which means the Bibi case -- which is ironclad.

A politician gunned down over his opposition to Pakistan's blasphemy laws was buried on Wednesday after a murder likely to cow further those pushing for a more liberal and secular vision of Pakistani society.

Five hundred Pakistani religious scholars said that anyone who expressed grief over the assassination of Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab province, could suffer the same fate.

Taseer, a liberal politician close to President Asif Ali Zardari, had championed the cause of a Christian woman sentenced to death under the blasphemy laws which critics say are used to target religious minorities, often to settle personal scores.

Once again, what readers need is some succinct, focused information about the issues and actions that are involved in this kind of life-and-death story -- not vague labels.

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