On Sunday afternoon, after their midday prayers, thousands of protestors headed in the direction of Islamabad, the federal capital of Pakistan. These were supporters of Mumtaz Qadri, the executed police constable responsible for the assassination of the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, the same person he was assigned the task of protecting. Boastfully the assassin stood over the body of the governor, as his colleagues looked on. Some reports later said that Qadri had announced his intention to a few of his colleagues beforehand.

Disturbing scenes emerged after this assassination in 2011. Thousands rallied outside the court, where Qadri was to be presented, to garland him with flowers. Hundreds of lawyers, including the former Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court, Muhammad Sharif, offered to fight his case for free. On the other hand, the officially appointed maulvi of the Badshahi Masjid in Lahore refused to offer Salman Taseer’s funeral prayer. Salman Taseer had come out in support of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, and in the process he criticised the blasphemy laws of Pakistan. For supporting a “blasphemer” and criticising the blasphemy laws, he was accused of blasphemy as well.

The debate on the blasphemy laws of Pakistan came to an abrupt end after Salman Taseer’s assassination. Sherry Rehman, another liberal politician who had proposed a resolution in the Parliament for a review of the law, took it back and accepted the charge of Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US. According to reports, there was a credible threat to her life and this was her way of staying out of the limelight for some time. A couple of months after Salman Taseer’s assassination, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian minister for Minorities Affair and another critic of the blasphemy law, was shot down outside his home in Islamabad.

The parallel tracks

The assassination of Salman Taseer represents a pivotal event in the history of Pakistan. It was at this time that the myth of the silent, tolerant majority was busted. Before this, it was felt that religious extremism was confined to the fringes of the society, whereas the majority of the society was tolerant. But the way the public came out to support Qadri the miniscule liberal population realised that it was fighting a lost cause. It was around this time that I was working on my first book and interviewing different members of the minority communities. Most of them saw Salman Taseer as a hero and felt that due to public pressure Qadri would eventually be released. One of them even suggested that he would run for office after being freed and would become a Member of the National Assembly.

Mumtaz Qadri’s case lingered on for several years, until finally this year the Supreme Court turned down his petition and his sentence was upheld. Strategically, on February 29, without any prior announcements, he was hanged. For the liberals of Pakistan, his execution emerged as a beacon of hope.

Only a few days later, Shahbaz Taseer, the son of Salman Taseer who had been kidnapped five years ago, was recovered miraculously. Pakistan received its second Oscar award through Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary A Girl in the River, prompting the prime minister to strengthen legislation against dishonour killings. The Women Protection Bill was passed soon after, providing solace to the victims of domestic abuse. While the men’s cricket team received a thrashing at the T20 World Cup, the women’s team made a mark. This was heartening for a nation which a few decades ago, under the same prime minister, had barred women sporting teams from attending Saarc games because it was deemed un-Islamic.

Meanwhile, Operation Zarb-e-Azab against militants was reported to be going successfully and it was being said by the army that the fighting capacity of the militants had been broken. The operation in Karachi was successful and peace, it seemed, had returned to the battle-worn city.

After a long time it felt as if Pakistan was on the right track.

But as the good news poured in, the uglier side of the picture emerged too. Spontaneous protests erupted all over the country after Qadri’s execution. For a couple of days after Qadri’s hanging, the city of Islamabad remained partially shut, as protestors roamed the streets, halting all traffic. According to some reports, as many as 2 lakh people attended his funeral ceremony in Islamabad. There was a public outpouring of grief. Some leaders of religious parties travelled all the way from Karachi to catch the last sight of Qadri. He had become a martyr, a shaheed and a ghazi, holy warrior. A small shrine has been constructed around his grave, and donations are pouring in from other parts of the country. Soon his shrine will be one of the most prominent shrines in Rawalpindi, the garrison city.

This Sunday about 2,000 protestors entered the Red Zone of Islamabad, an area cordoned off from the rest of the city. This is where the Parliament, the Supreme Court, the presidential and the prime minister’s houses are located. Civilians are not allowed here without permission. However, for the 2,000 protestors, all the roadblocks and the hundreds of police officials deployed around the city were no impediment. They became violent as they gathered momentum, burning cars on their way.

The way forward

With the way things have played out in the past couple of weeks, questions are being raised once again. Is Pakistan actually heading in a progressive direction? I would argue that Pakistan is desperately attempting to recast itself as a progressive country, particularly on the international stage. This explains the gestures mentioned above. However, if Pakistan truly has to redefine itself as a progressive country, graver structural issues need to be addressed. One of the most crucial features of that would be jettisoning a few of our cherished national heroes.

Much before there was Mumtaz Qadri there was Ilm-ud-din, the son of a carpenter from Lahore who murdered a Hindu publisher called Rajpal for publishing a blasphemous book. On September 6, 1929, Ilm-ud-din murdered Rajpal in broad daylight and pleaded guilty. Muhammad Ali Jinnah defended him in the court. Other prominent Muslim leaders too rallied behind him. He was hanged on October 4, 1929, and became Ghazi and Shaheed. His shrine was constructed in Lahore and is attended by hundreds of devotees even today. Various Pakistani politicians and bureaucrats have over the years acknowledged and praised his contributions to Islam. In a state where Ilm-ud-din has been projected as a hero, it is only natural that Mumtaz Qadri would also become a Ghazi and Shaheed.

Another example is that of Ahmad Shah Abdali, the Afghan king who attacked India several times, leaving behind havoc. Pakistani textbooks refer to his attacks as Islamic jihad meant to combat Hindu kings. The political complexities are glossed over – neither is it mentioned that he fought and killed many Muslims while he was at it. Ahmad Shah Abdali unleashed terror on the Punjab and today in the schools of Pakistan Punjab he is celebrated as a Muslim hero. The same students whose ancestors once suffered at the hands of this Afghan king sing songs of his bravery today. In this context, it is no surprise that Munawar Hassan, the chief of Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the most important political parties in Pakistan, can make a statement declaring Hakimullah Mehsud a shaheed, the same Hakimullah who for years waged a war against the Pakistani state and its people.

Not too long ago I was talking to a cousin of mine who during the course of the conversation said that the Islamic State represents true Islam. I would be lying if I say I was horrified at his statement. It came as no surprise to me. We are taught to celebrate kings like Mahmud Ghaznvi in Pakistan because they destroyed the idols of Somnath. We are taught that they were true Muslims. Then why would we not view the Taliban and the Islamic State who destroyed the statues of Bamyan and archaeological ruins of Palmyra as Islamic heroes? As long as Pakistani historiography celebrates Ilm-ud-din, Ahmad Shah Abdali and Mahmud Ghaznvi, we will continue to be tolerant of the Taliban, ISIS and people like Mumtaz Qadri.

Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: A study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: A journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities.