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ISLAMABAD, Jan 4: It was a tragedy undoubtedly. The constitutional head of the country's largest province, Salman Taseer, was gunned down in broad daylight by his own security guard in a market known for its popularity among foreign diplomats.

But an even greater tragedy unfolded in the hours that followed the murder. The condemnation of the murder that came was vague and equivocal. This was especially true of the political leadership that was willing to express its sadness over the murder but less willing to comment on the backdrop against which his death took place.

Not averse to controversy or one to mince his words, Mr Taseer had recently called the blasphemy law a “black law” and visited Aasia Bibi in Sheikhupura jail, where she had been interred after being sentenced to death for committing blasphemy.

After this, Mr Taseer was publicly criticised by religio-political parties and other rightwing elements – a few declared him a non-Muslim and eligible for death. The security guard, in his confession, agreed with such elements and killed the governor.

This is why, appallingly, some people openly and others quietly endorsed the murder. Others just were not willing to take a stand.

Consider JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman who said that the murder was the result of the failure of the country's democratic institutions – by this he meant, he said, the failure to implement Islamic laws in the country. When pressed on the issue, he said that the country was experiencing “extremism on both sides”, religious and secular forces which were hell bent upon proving each other wrong.

In a similar vein, Khwaja Saad Rafique of the PML-N refused to comment on the blasphemy law. When asked whether or not the law should be discussed at some platform, he said that religious extremism, which the country was experiencing at the moment, had been the corollary of repeated military takeovers.

Farid Paracha, a Jamat-i-Islami leader, said that Mr Taseer should have avoided making public statements on a sensitive issue which the majority of the people held very dear to them and that the late governor's statements on the blasphemy law had hurt many people's religious sentiments.

However, he did add that “I don't condone such a blatant killing in the name of religion.”

The only leader who took a clear stand was Abdulkhair Zubair of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan. He said: “I can't express grief or offer condolence on the death of someone who had described the blasphemy law as 'black law', and had defended a woman who had insulted the holy Prophet (PBUH).”

Mufti Munibur Rehman, president of Tanzeem-ul-Madaris Pakistan, expressed his views more by what he did not say. In an interview to Dawn News, he said: “It is a very sad incident, may Allah rest his soul in peace,” before adding that people should learn to respect Islamic injunctions.

“Had President Asif Zardari and others stopped him from speaking against the blasphemy law, such an incident may not have happened,” Mufti Munib, who is also the chairman of the Central Ruet-i-Hilal Committee, said. When the TV anchor asked him, “So does this mean that if someone is critical of a controversial law, he should be killed,” the phone connection was cut off.

This is not to say, however, that only rightwing religious leaders expressed such opinion. Two well-known journalists, during a widely watched TV talk show, while condemning the murder of the Punjab governor, questioned his decision to visit Aasia Bibi. One of the guests said: “It was unprecedented for a sitting governor to go all the way to see a convict in jail and then declare that he would help her come out of the prison.”

The only hope was provided by Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, a religious scholar known for his moderate and open thinking who said that “Islam gives you the freedom to differ and the freedom of expression. Man-made laws are open to debate. Such a debate should be carried out with decency. No one has the right to take the law into his hands and kill someone in the name of Islam.”He also criticised a section of the intelligentsia which through its writings for the past many weeks had been demanding such an action. “It had to happen,” he added.

Having completely distanced itself recently from any plan to amend the blasphemy law, most PPP leaders who grieved for Governor Taseer skirted the issue after his death. Most of them spoke about their personal loss.

Rehman Malik said: “Salman Taseer was a friend, dedicated political worker and national hero.” Our Karachi reporter adds:

Sherry Rehman, Pakistan People's Party MNA and an advocate of the rights of women and minorities, said Mr Taseer's assassination “represents a terrible loss to the progressive forces in Pakistan”.

She said: “It is also a clear signal to the state that some serious thought, planning and resources need to go into facing this threat to the state and nation”.

“It is a very tragic incident and I grieve with Mr Taseer's family at the loss,” she added.