Islamabad: In a pointer to the volatility and the reach of fundamentalists in Pakistani society, leading Imams from Lahore refused to lead the funeral prayers for Punjab Governor Salman Taseer who was assassinated for his opposition to the country’s blasphemy law.
The cold-blooded murder of a high-profile leader seems to have further intimidated those seeking a more liberal and secular Pakistan. What adds to the sense of shock is the open assertion by religious scholars that anyone who expressed grief over the assassination of Taseer could suffer the same fate.
The Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat Pakistan group of scholars said in a statement: "More than 500 scholars of the Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat have advised Muslims not to offer the funeral prayers of Governor Punjab Salman Taseer nor try to lead the prayers."
"Also, there should be no expression of grief or sympathy on the death of the governor, as those who support blasphemy of the Prophet are themselves indulging in blasphemy,” the statement said.
Following the open threat, most Imams preferred to stay away from the funeral prayers for Taseer. Even, the chief cleric of Lahore’s iconic Badshahi Mosque, who had earlier agreed to offer prayers, shied away at the last moment, saying he was going out of town.
At last, Allama Afzal Chishti, general secretary Ulema wing of Pakistan People`s Party (PPP) Punjab chapter, offered the funeral prayer for Taseer.
Despite the threat, the funeral was attended by thousands of people. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and other top government officials were also present to witness the solemn moment.
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. He was known as an outspoken critic of the blasphemy law.
His killing in broad daylight at a shopping centre in Islamabad on Tuesday showed how difficult, and how dangerous, it would be to roll back a tide of religious conservatism which is growing in strength in the Muslim country of 170 million.
Taseer was killed by one of his guards, who said he was incensed by the politician`s opposition to the blasphemy laws, in a parking lot at a block of shops popular with foreigners.
Many religious leaders praised the "courage" and religious zeal of the killer, saying his action had made Muslims around the world proud. Pakistani officials said they were investigating whether the killing was part of a wider conspiracy.