Why was Salman Taseer assassinated? Was it his advocacy of anti-Blasphemy Law? Was it his championing the cause of a Christian woman’s life? These are not easy questions and the answers will have to wait until the formalities of investigation are complete. This might take months to years depending on the willingness of the political dispensation.
The apparent reason for his assassination seems to be his liberal stance toward a member of a minority community. On another register, the reason is his blasphemous stance toward the religious sentiments of the majority community. Was he a liberal? He has been touted by the mainstream media and the civil society as a true-blue liberal voice who was unafraid of the threats posed by radical Muslim groups in Pakistan. He didn’t seem to care even if he felt threatened as his last tweets suggest. For the radical groups, he stood for blasphemy and was considered a sell-out who spoke of Pakistan’s business interests with the west being hampered if Asia Bibi was not granted pardon.
For me, Salman Taseer personified the contradictions inherent in most Muslim societies from Turkey to Indonesia and beyond.
I picked up his son, Aatish Taseer’s Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey through Islamic Lands (London: Canongate, 2010) a while back. As it happens, I was waiting for an opportune moment to get to it. I was keen on getting a sense of how the concept of Ummah – transnational Islamic community, a sort of supra-nationalism – has changed since Ibn Battuta’s classic journey (despite contestations of its historical authenticity) across the Islamic world. Naguib Mahfouz’s fictional account (The Journey of Ibn Fattouma, 1983) of Ibn Fattouma’s journey already made an attempt in recreating Ibn Battuta’s travel through the Muslim empires. Aatish’s travelogue was meant to be an account of faith as practiced in the Muslim world from Turkey to Pakistan. It was a son’s effort at understanding why his father, Salman Taseer, a self-proclaimed liberal, felt so offended with his cover story for a British magazine in which he interviewed some of the British youth in Leeds in the immediate aftermath of the London tube bombing.
Salman Taseer’s killing prompted me to hurry through his son’s book. It lays out the contradictions that Salman personified. Aatish writes about his father’s natural apathy toward religion, “my father, who drank Scotch every evening, never fasted or prayed, even ate pork, and once said, ‘It was only when I was in jail and all they gave me to read was the Koran – and I read it back to front several times – that I realized there was nothing in it for me,’ was offended as a Muslim by what I had written” (22). And yet, Salman was aghast at his son’s conclusion that the radicalization of second-generation Pakistani youth in England was a consequence of their “particular estrangement, the failure of identity on so many fronts” (20). Aatish felt that Islam provided a sense of meaning in an otherwise alienating society where these youth are not considered British enough.
Why did Salman Taseer take offence at his son’s theory of the Muslims’ inability to conciliate the temporal with the religious, the material with the immutable? Aatish’s book, no doubt, could be faulted on account of his personal agenda of exposing the radical face of Islam. One could doubt his choice of interlocutors who are deeply invested in the political project of Islam. One hopes he spoke more with those segments of society whose stakes are much lower. However, Aatish’s penetrating view of the contradictions in Muslims’ everyday life is symptomatic of the incongruities that Muslims like Salman Taseer embodied.
The gay bars in Istanbul, the Versace head-covers in Turkey, the Muslims-only McDonald’s in Mecca, the Marlboro Lights that Muslim youth relish, the nail polish that Muslim women can’t do without even if it means removing it before every prayer are only some of the contradictions that a capitalist world-system has entailed across the Muslim world. Resisting them would mean closing oneself off from the world outside. Often such contradictions could be resolved at an ideological level. In the case of Muslims, the ideological level is so non-temporal and suffused with immutable religious fervor that it does not resolve these contradictions.
Salman Taseer tried to project himself as a liberal face of Islam. He ended up being a victim of the contradictions that everyday Islam has come to embody!