The assassination of Salmaan Taseer by his police bodyguard — which recalls in some way the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 — is a grim reminder of the extent to which Pakistan has descended into the depths of religious extremism. The Governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, Mr. Taseer was an abrasive and sharp-elbowed politician of the ruling Pakistan People's Party. Commendably, he was one of the rare leaders in this party of diffident moderates who was unafraid to confront religious extremism. One of his first acts after taking office in May 2008 was to declare that Basant, a spring festival in Punjab opposed by religious clerics and banned by a court order, would be revived. Recently, he angered Pakistan's Islamic political parties with a spirited campaign against the controversial blasphemy law. His visit to a jail to meet Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman convicted under the law and sentenced to death, and his assurance to her that he would help her obtain a presidential pardon, triggered a nation-wide protest against him by the religious parties. Some clerics declared he was an apostate. Mr. Taseer's assassin declared, after being taken into custody following the killing, that he was proud to have killed a “blasphemer.” It remains unclear if the man was acting alone or at the behest of others. Certainly, it is no secret that the Pakistan security forces, the law enforcing agencies and other key government institutions are infiltrated by sympathisers of militant groups and those with extremist views. But the realisation that even a special commando unit assigned to protect Pakistan's leaders is not immune from such elements is frightening.
The incident is bound to reduce the limited space for Pakistan's liberal-moderates and their modest efforts to stem the tide of extremism sweeping across the country. The mealy-mouthed condemnations of the killing even by PPP politicians and the surge of popular support for the assassin show which way the wind is blowing. Pakistani voters may not choose Islamist political parties to lead them. But over the decades, large enough numbers in all sections of society have become sufficiently radicalised to ensure that anyone who attempts reform, even of recent horrors such as the murderous blasphemy law and the anti-women Hudood laws — both the legacy of the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq — does so at great personal and political risk. The radicalisation is the undeniable result of a deliberate policy by the Pakistan state to nurture militancy in order to meet regional strategic objectives. Mr. Taseer's killing is another setback for President Asif Ali Zardari and the PPP government, already in trouble after being reduced to a minority regime following the withdrawal of support by a key coalition partner. It can only be hoped that the tragic incident serves as an alarm call to Pakistan's decision-makers, the Pakistan Army included, that they need to act with extraordinary urgency, courage, and honesty to clamp down on fanaticism, extremism, and terrorism of all kinds before the country sinks any deeper.