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09 December 2023

Pakistan's flamboyant liberal silenced by assassin

Salman Taseer (AP)


Provincial governor Salman Taseer, who was buried on Wednesday, was one of Pakistan's most flamboyant liberal political voices whose stance against extremism cost him his life.

A brash secular figure who scorned the powerful religious right, Taseer was shot dead by one of his guards for opposing the country's tight blasphemy laws. He was 66 years old.

Appointed by the governing Pakistan People's Party (PPP) to the most politically important province, Punjab, Taseer broke ranks with the mainstream to express strident views against the Taliban and Islamic extremism.

"Taseer showed himself to be a rare politician, willing to risk his life in espousing an unambiguous position against discrimination and abuse," said Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia researcher at US-based Human Rights Watch.

Taseer personified a liberal elite, free from the emotive tug of conservative Islam and criticised as detached from the impoverished masses contending with inflation, illiteracy and unemployment.

A dapper dresser with jet black hair, Taseer seemed to revel in his divisive role in the spotlight, using social media website Twitter to attack his opponents, sparking a furious backlash from the powerful religious lobby.

In a daring move for a politician, even for one from an ostensibly secular party, Taseer went to see Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman from the Punjab sentenced to death under the country's blasphemy law two months ago.

Most politicians refused to comment on Bibi's case. Taseer was photographed with her and sought to reform the law, which punishes blasphemy by death.

"I was under huge pressure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused.
Even if I'm the last man standing," Taseer told his more than 5,500 Twitter followers, evidently aware of the controversy his actions would cause.

"Tomorrow mullahs r demonstrating against me after Juma (Friday prayers). Thousands of beards screaming 4 my head. What a great feeling!" he wrote.

He regularly spoke out against the Taliban and other Islamist militants, accusing opposition parties of failing to to the same, yet perhaps made a fatal calculation that his enemies were only a fringe element of fanatical clerics.

"Unimpressed by mullah rightest madrasa demo yesterday. No general support," he wrote on Twitter on January 1.

Taseer's political career was inspired by a meeting with PPP's founder Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged in 1979, and he was close to his daughter, ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007.

As a businessman he amassed a fortune but was first elected to the Punjab provincial assembly in 1998.

Taseer served as minister for industry and production under former military ruler Pervez Musharraf from 2007 to 2008 and, after the PPP won general elections in February 2008, was appointed governor of Punjab.

His father was principal of the prestigious Islamia College of Lahore and he grew up among the country's intellectual elite, going to school with opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who later became his primary political nemesis in Punjab.

According to his website, his father died when he was still young, leaving little money for university, so his mother sent him to England, where he worked days and studied nights to qualify as a chartered accountant.

He spent time in jail for his political views in Lahore during the martial rule of General Zia-ul-Haq in the late 1970s and 1980s, a period that accelerated Pakistan's growing Islamisation.

Taseer set up consultancy firms and a brokerage house, and invested lucratively in telecommunications, a newspaper, insurance and real estate.

He married twice and fathered six children.