Journalist Recalls Father's Assassination In Pakistan

Earlier this year in Pakistan, the governor of Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, who was an outspoken defender of civil rights, was gunned down. His daughter, Shehrbano Taseer, is a journalist in Pakistan, and she talks to Steve Inskeep about her father's legacy and her own fight against extremism.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On January 4th, Salmaan Taseer went to lunch in Islamabad, Pakistan. Bodyguards followed him because he was governor of Pakistan's largest province. And just after lunch, one of those bodyguards shot him dozens of times.

Today, the governor's daughter, Shehrbano Taseer, is in Washington. She's a recent graduate of Smith College in the United States and is speaking about her father's death. The case says a lot about the pressures tearing up one of the world's most strategically important countries. The bodyguard claimed he shot the governor for criticizing Pakistan's blasphemy law. It's often used to impose a death sentence for insulting Islam, even on flimsy evidence.

Just because the governor criticized that law, some clerics claimed the governor himself was blasphemous. Shehrbano Taseer says her father simply defended a Christian woman convicted under that law.

Ms. SHEHRBANO TASEER (Journalist): He felt very strongly about it. His heart went out to her. When he had his press conference after he visited her in jail and wanted to get a mercy petition so that she could be pardoned by our president. He reminded the public that this is not about religion. This is about humanity.

INSKEEP: You said after he visited her in jail. He didn't just speak about this. He went to see her.

Ms. TASEER: Yes. And he took my mother and I along with him. He wanted to get her story. And what had happened was that there had been a dispute over her drinking water at the same well as Muslim women. So they wanted to force her to convert to Islam, and that's the only way that she could drink the water out of the same well as them, and she refused. And this was, apparently, blaspheming.

So, on the orders of our president, he went to get a mercy petition from her. And it was so sad, because she's illiterate. She couldn't even sign the mercy petition. She had to put her thumb impression on it.

INSKEEP: I regret to ask you about this, because I'm sure it's a difficult thing to think about. But your father was Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, and was murdered by one of his own bodyguards who freely confessed to it and was cheered by some as a hero. Where were you when you heard about that murder?

Ms. TASEER: I was at lunch with my friends, and I was going back to work. But we didn't hear about his murder at first. It was - you know, the news kind of trickled it slowly that first there had been firing on his vehicle then, you know, slowly we found out that he had been hit, he had been injured. So the news just kind of trickled in. But I was home with my family when we heard the news.

INSKEEP: What did you do?

Ms. TASEER: You know, I actually I don't remember those days. It's such a blur to me. I remember when my brother told us, but after that, it was just a sea of faces and, you know, I just blanked out on those few months.

INSKEEP: Am I correct that it was difficult to find someone to conduct the religious service for this man who had been assassinated?

Ms. TASEER: Yes. Cleric after cleric refused to lead my father's funeral prayer because so many clerics had declared him a blasphemer. It's so sad. They felt that they were in this position where if they had to read my father's funeral prayer, they would be labeled a blasphemer or killed.

INSKEEP: And it was not that your father committed this alleged act of blasphemy, but merely spoke up for the rights of someone who was accused of blasphemy and asked for her to be accorded mercy. This is what many clerics described as itself being blasphemous.

Ms. TASEER: Yeah, because my father had criticized the law. He had criticized the misuse of the law.

INSKEEP: Did anyone speak up for your father after his murder?

Ms. TASEER: There were three people who believed that this law was being misused and that this was an unfair allegation of blasphemy. There was my father. There was our federal minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, and there was Syeda Imam, who is a parliamentarian. And she had tabled a bill in the national assembly trying to water down this law and stop the misuse. And two out of three of these people are now dead. Shahbaz Bhatti, our federal minister for minorities, was gunned down outside his mother's home two months after my father was shot dead.

So there were very few people who condemned my father's murder. But we received so much support from, you know, political parties across the board. But all of this was behind closed doors.

INSKEEP: What do you mean? People would say I'm so sorry this happened...

Ms. TASEER: Yeah, and they would extend their help, but it's different when you have a mike to your face and there's a camera there and you have to, you know, speak in front of millions of people and take this kind of stand. People are too scared.

INSKEEP: Has the public reaction to your father's murder been, in some ways, almost harder than the murder itself?

Ms. TASEER: Well, it was very tough, because this is my father, actual. To everybody else, it's the governor and it's the leader, but this is my father. And so to have seen 200 lawyers saying that this is right what happened and then to see a rally of 40,000 clerics take the streets in Karachi in support of the blasphemy laws and in support of what happened to my father, it made me sick. Because if you have your lawyers who are your supposed vanguards of justice taking these kinds of stands, then it means that your judicial system is a sham.

But the public reaction, I don't think that it's representative of the majority of Pakistanis, because, you know, these clerics, there were 40,000 of them that took to the streets, but in a city of 18 million. So I don't think that it's indicative of the Pakistani mindset.

INSKEEP: This is something that is often said about Pakistan, often said by Pakistanis, they would say to outsiders like me: I realize that terrible things are happening in this country and that there are extremists and that they are the loudest voices in this country, but that the great mass of people are moderate and tolerant, if only they could have a voice and if only they could have greater power. Is that true?

Ms. TASEER: Yeah, I definitely agree with that, and they do have a voice, and that's called voting. These extremist parties or these religious parties, they lack legitimacy in Pakistan because they'd never managed to get more than 10 percent of the popular vote, but they have a disproportionate amount of street power. They're loud. They're well-armed. They're well-funded. They're well-organized, and they know how to make noise and grab the headlines. But the average Pakistani wants peace, and we are exhausted with this extremism and terrorism.

INSKEEP: You know, last year in Pakistan, we - in Lahore, actually, we sat down with a young lawyer, 25-year-old woman who spoke for many people who are better educated, more privileged in Pakistan in saying that she felt that a lot of people her age were hedging their bets. You know, you're a Pakistani, but you see if you can get a visa or a passport to some other country to which you have a connection and maybe you're not abandoning the country now, but you're preparing yourself for that necessity. Are you?

Ms. TASEER: No. I feel a very strong sense of duty. I was educated abroad, and I certainly had the opportunity to have a nice comfortable life here and - or, you know, in Europe and get a job, and I don't have to deal with the problems in Pakistan. I can live a happy life outside of there and just, you know, go back to visit and that's it. But I think...

INSKEEP: But you were nodding your head when I was talking about people hedging their bets. It's happening, isn't it?

Ms. TASEER: It's definitely happening. There's a huge brain drain in Pakistan. And it's sad because our doctors, our lawyers, our teachers, our engineers, these people are all leaving the country to make better lives elsewhere. You know, they have one life. Why would they want to live in Pakistan? But, you know, I think that if you do that, you're allowing these people to take over. So I think that ask Pakistanis it's our duty to come back and to fight for Pakistan.

INSKEEP: So you're not going anywhere?

Ms. TASEER: I'm not going anywhere. I'm very much in Pakistan, yes.

INSKEEP: Shehrbano Taseer, thanks very much.

Ms. TASEER: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: She's a Pakistani journalist, and she speaks at the Middle East Institute here in Washington, D.C. today.

This is NPR News.

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