Pakistan's 'religious right'?

Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan's Punjab Province, was assassinated by one of his body guards yesterday. It wasn't that long ago that we looked at how heavily the media tend to weight domestic stories. That's particularly troublesome when important news happens abroad. Say a nuclear power already facing civil unrest and a crumbling government has the governor of its most populous province murdered in daylight by a member of a growing extremist subset. Now say that a new Congress is starting its session. It's natural that American cable shows will give more coverage and resources to the latter, but how much more? Will they even mention the assassination for more than 30 seconds, much less put it in context to show its importance to global affairs? It might all depend on whether Justin Bieber is pictured canoodling with Selena Gomez.

Let's look at three comprehensive reports, all of them valuable in different ways. The Associated Press begins its report this way:

The governor of Pakistan's most dominant province was shot and killed Tuesday by a bodyguard who authorities said was angry about his opposition to blasphemy laws carrying the death sentence for insulting the Muslim faith.

Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, regarded as a moderate voice in a country increasingly beset by zealotry, was a close ally of U.S.-backed President Asif Ali Zardari. He is the highest-profile Pakistani political figure to be assassinated since former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto three years ago, and his death underscores the growing danger in this country to those who dare challenge the demands of Islamist extremists.

Taseer was riddled by gunshots while walking to his car after an afternoon meal at Kohsar Market, a shopping center in Islamabad popular with Westerners and wealthy Pakistanis. He was shot in the back, said Shaukat Kayani, a doctor at Poly Clinic Hospital.

Initial reports indicated the suspected gunman, a police commando guarding Taseer, unloaded up to 26 rounds from a Kalashnikov automatic rifle. The gunman could have fired that number of rounds in a matter of seconds.

The piece does a good job with the political context of the killing, explaining that the suspect had been planning to gun down the governor since being assigned to his security detail three days prior. The governor had two teams of guards, his permanent one and one provided by whichever area he was visiting. The assassin was with a security detail provided by a political rival. Benazir Bhutto's widower is President Asif Ali Zardari. His ruling party is struggling after a key ally defected a few days ago. That ally gave the ruling party three days to accept a list of demands or face collapse of the government -- something that happens frequently in Pakistan. And this turmoil could help Pakistan's military avoid fighting Muslim extremists in Afghanistan. The U.S. was hoping for more help from Pakistan in this regard.

The alleged killer said he committed the crime because of Saleem's stance on blasphemy laws. The piece did a good job of describing the religious observance of Mumtaz Qadri, the 26-year-old held in the shooting:

Jehangir Khan, a witness who saw the suspect after he was detained by the police, told The Associated Press that the man was boasting about the act, saying, "Hey, you all, come and see, I have killed a blasphemer. You come and join me. Chant Allahu Akbar (God is great)!"

The intelligence official said the commando said he was proud to have killed a blasphemer. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media on the record.

Photos of Qadri show a bearded young man whose forehead bore bruises typical for Muslims who routinely rest their heads on the ground to pray.

The very appearance of the man raised suspicions as to how he was included in the security detail and the story does a good job of including quotes asking about that.

But it's the religious views of the victim that weren't well described. We're told that Pakistan has in recent years swung away from Sufi-influenced moderation to "more fundamentalist approaches to Islam found in some areas of the Middle East." It's good that there's mention of the various forms of Islam in Pakistan. It would be more helpful to know what their boundaries are and whether these boundaries are relevant to politics. Does this mean the assassin wasn't part of the strict Deobandi school? Was the victim Barelvi? Both of those movements are South Asian as opposed to Middle Eastern. We're told Taseer's party is secular and that he was a moderate. The story ends with this quote:

"This is a war," Taseer said in a recent sessions with reporters broadcast Tuesday by Pakistan's Geo TV. "Whether we receive threats or not, it does not make any difference to us. I am a Muslim. ... God willing, life or death for a Muslim, we are not afraid of that. Whatever threats they give to us."

So, you see, it would be helpful to have some doctrinal distinctions here. Taseer viewed himself as a Muslim. It's been years that TMatt has pointed out that "moderate" seems to be code for "Muslim I like" or "Muslim I agree with." That's not good enough.

The Washington Post Foreign Service report, which is actually even better than the AP report, goes into this a bit. The story begins by describing Taseer as "One of Pakistan's most openly progressive politicians." We learn that his own political party didn't come out against changing blasphemy laws, leaving him as one of the only supporters of reform:

The laws have drawn scrutiny since a Christian woman was sentenced to death in November for allegedly criticizing the Muslim prophet Muhammad. Taseer had called for her pardon, leading religious groups to denounce him as an "apostate" and burn effigies of him during a nationwide strike last week in support of the law. One Muslim cleric has offered $6,000 to anyone who kills the woman, who remains in jail.

Later we learn that he fathered a child with an Indian journalist while he was married, was photographed holding wine glasses at parties and he permitted his daughters to dance and wear shorts. The New York Times also had a good story, although a bit weaker on context and full details than the preceding two. However, it did have one very helpful religious detail:

While the liberal and progressive segments of society saw Mr. Taseer as a courageous and admirable leader, he was loathed by the extreme right. An indication of this disdain was evident in post-assassination statements by most religious leaders, who were reluctant to condemn the killing.

It seems as if "liberal," "moderate" and "progressive" are really just used as political descriptors. That's fine when describing political differences, of course. But sometimes reporters conflate religious differences with political differences. Since religion plays such a large role in these political differences, some more specifics -- rather than vague terminology -- might be helpful.

On that note, a New York Times story from a few days ago covered popular protests against changes to Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws. It mentioned Taseer's support for reform. But this was how the supporters of the blasphemy law were characterized:

The religious right has become extremely powerful by establishing its networks across major urban centers and small towns.

You'll note that in the tweet above, Taseer describes his opposition to the blasphemy law as the "right." But "religious right" isn't even the best term to use when describing political disputes in the States. I can't imagine it works better for describing Pakistan politics, even if there weren't the unfortunate equivalency to U.S. politics.

This is a pretty complicated political and religious situation. I was impressed with how quickly these outlets got strong reports out on details, significance and consequences. Did you spot any particular strengths or weaknesses in the stories above?

I'll be curious how this story plays out. The killing of 23 Coptic Christians (and wounding of 100+ more), the current assault on Iraqi Christians and the carnage in Nigeria pass like blips on many American news sites. Will this also be a 24-hour story that cablers lose interest in quickly? Please let me know if you see any other good stories in the days to come.

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