By Aatish Taseer
I have recently flown home from North America. In airport after international airport, the world’s papers carried front page images of my father’s assassin.
A 26-year-old boy, with a beard, a forehead calloused from prayer, and the serene expression of a man assured of some higher reward. Last Tuesday, this boy, hardly older than my youngest brother whose 25th birthday it was that day, shot to death my father, the governor of Punjab, in a market in Islamabad.
My father had always taken pleasure in eluding his security, sometimes appearing without any at all in open-air restaurants with his family, but in this last instance it would not have mattered, for the boy who killed him was a member of his security detail.
It appears now that the plan to kill my father had been in his assassin’s mind, even revealed to a few confidants, for many days before he carried the act to its fruition. And it is a great source of pain to me, among other things, that my father, always brazen and confident, had spent those last few hours in the company of men who kept a plan to kill him in their breasts.
But perhaps it could have been no other way, for my father would not only have not recognised his assassins, he would not have recognised the country that produced a boy like that. Pakistan was part of his faith, and one of the reasons for the differences that arose between us in the last years of his life–and there were many–was that this faith never allowed him to accept what had become of the country his forefathers had fought for.
And it would have been no less an act of faith for him to defend his country from the men who would see it become a medieval theocracy than it was for his assassin to take his life.
The last time I met or spoke to my father was – it seems hard to believe now – the night three years ago that Benazir Bhutto was killed. We had been estranged for most of my life, and just before he died we were estranged for a second time. I was the son of my Indian mother, with whom my father had a year-long relationship in 1980. In my childhood and adolescence, when he was fighting General Zia’s dictatorship alongside Bhutto, and was in and out of jail, I had not known him.
I met him for the first time in my adult life at the age of 21, when I went to Lahore to seek him out. For some time, a promising, but awkward relationship, which included many trips to Lahore and family holidays with his young wife and six other children, developed between us.
The cause for that first estrangement, my father had always explained, was that it would have been impossible for him to be in politics in Pakistan with an Indian wife and a half-Indian son. And, in the end, as much as Pakistan had been the cause of our first estrangement, it was also the cause of our second, which began soon after the London bombings, when my father wrote me an angry letter about a story I had written for Prospect magazine in which I described the British second-generation Pakistani as the genus of Islamic terrorism in Britain.
My father was angry as a Muslim, though he was not a practising man of faith, and as a Pakistani; he accused me of blackening the Taseer name by bringing disrepute to a family of patriots. The letter and the new silence that arose between us prompted a book, Stranger to History, in which I discussed openly many things about my father’s religion, Pakistan and my parents’ relationship. Its publication freakishly coincided –though he might well have been offended even as a private citizen by what I wrote – with my father’s return to politics, after a hiatus of nearly 15 years.
The book made final the distance between us; and a great part of the oblique pain I now feel has to do with mourning a man who was present for most of my life as an absence.
And yet I do mourn him, for whatever the trouble between us, there were things I never doubted about him: his courage, which, truly, was like an incapacity for fear, and his love of Pakistan. I said earlier that Pakistan was part of his faith, but that he himself was not a man of faith. His Islam, though it could inform his political ideas, now giving him a special feeling for the cause of the Palestinians and the Kashmiris, now a pride in the history of Muslims from Andalusia to Mughal India, was not total; it was not a complete vision of a society founded in faith.
He was a man in whom various and competing ideas of sanctity could function. His wish for his country was not that of the totality of Islam, but of a society built on the achievements of men, on science, on rationality, on modernity.
But, to look hard at the face of my father’s assassin is to see that in those last moments of his life my father faced the gun of a man whose vision of the world, nihilistic as it is, could admit no other.
And where my father and I would have parted ways in the past was that I believe Pakistan and its founding in faith, that first throb of a nation made for religion by people who thought naively that they would restrict its role exclusively to the country’s founding, was responsible for producing my father’s killer.
For if it is science and rationality whose fruit you wish to see appear in your country, then it is those things that you must enshrine at its heart; otherwise, for as long as it is faith, the men who say that Pakistan was made for Islam, and that more Islam is the solution, will always have the force of an ugly logic on their side. And better men, men like my father, will be reduced to picking their way around the bearded men, the men with one vision that can admit no other, the men who look to the sanctities of only one Book.
In the days before his death, these same men had issued religious edicts against my father, burned him in effigy and threatened his life. Why? Because he defended the cause of a poor Christian woman who had been accused – and sentenced to die – for blasphemy.
My father, because his country was founded in faith, and blood – a million people had died so that it could be made–could not say that the sentence was wrong; the sentence stood; all he sought for Aasia Bibi was clemency on humanitarian grounds. But it was enough to demand his head.
What my father could never say was what I suspect he really felt: “The very idea of a blasphemy law is primitive; no woman, in any humane society, should die for what she says and thinks.”
And when finally my father sought the repeal of the laws that had condemned her, the laws that had become an instrument of oppression in the hands of a majority against its minority, he could not say that the source of the laws, the faith, had no place in a modern society; he had to find a way to make people believe that the religion had been distorted, even though the religion – in the way that only these Books can be – was clear as day about what was meant.
Already, even before his body is cold, those same men of faith in Pakistan have banned good Muslims from mourning my father; clerics refused to perform his last rites; and the armoured vehicle conveying his assassin to the courthouse was mobbed with cheering crowds and showered with rose petals.
I should say too that on Friday every mosque in the country condoned the killer’s actions; 2,500 lawyers came forward to take on his defence for free; and the Chief Minister of Punjab, who did not attend the funeral, is yet to offer his condolences in person to my family who sit besieged in their house in Lahore.
And so, though I believe, as deeply as I have ever believed anything, that my father joins that sad procession of martyrs – every day a thinner line – standing between him and his country’s descent into fear and nihilism, I also know that unless Pakistan finds a way to turn its back on Islam in the public sphere, the memory of the late governor of Punjab will fade.
And where one day there might have been a street named after him, there will be one named after Malik Mumtaz Qadir, my father’s boy-assassin.