The stoning of Farzana Iqbal is another grim step in Pakistan’s descent into chaos

The ghastly fact is that this murder was nothing out of the ordinary

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The cold-blooded murder by her family – a female cousin, it is reported, wielded the first brick – of pregnant, 25-year-old Farzana Iqbal, who had made the elementary mistake of marrying a man she was in love with, could not have happened in a more picturesque corner of Pakistan.

Lahore is the queen of the sub-continent’s cities, the capital of the Punjab for nearly 1,000 years and still today the cultural and intellectual heart of the nation. It is a city where every corner of the old centre breathes history, where the successive efforts of Mughal, Sikh and British rulers combined to create a noble metropolis of gardens, schools, palaces and cricket grounds, all linked by the broad boulevard everyone still calls the Mall, though its name on the map is Shahrah-e-Quaid-e-Azam. Close to the heart of it is Lahore High Court, a confection of pointed arches and Islamic minarets in the Mughal-Gothic style, fronting palm trees, a fountain, a spreading lawn. And it was at the entrance to this court, in the cultured, civilised heart of this grand city, that the murder occurred. Police stood by and watched without moving a muscle.

All that culture and civilisation certainly failed Farzana Iqbal. The crude, incomprehensible imperatives of village and tribal law had their way with her before the lawyers in their shabby black jackets could step in. The remit of this grandiose court stopped at its steps.

The ghastly fact is that this murder was nothing out of the ordinary. As The Independent reported on Wednesday, around 1,000 Pakistani women are butchered every year on similar pretexts: because they have, in the grotesque jargon, besmirched their family honour by acting as if they had control of their lives, as if they lived in the modern world. But if we overlooked the previous 999 victims, it is right and proper that we should notice Farzana. The fact that she could be killed with impunity on this spot, sacred to traditions of law and process going back a millennium, says something very important and uncomfortable about Pakistan.

Pakistan has a lively and courageous culture of human rights, embodied in organisations such as the Human Rights Commission and the Aurat Foundation, in women such as Asma Jahangir, and the late Rashid Rehman, gunned down last month in his office for taking on the case of a man accused of blasphemy.

But this culture is the product of an intellectual legacy confined to a tiny privileged minority. That English-speaking, secular, liberal-minded minority was once the power in this land; Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was himself an immaculate representative of it, with his dazzling suits, his chiselled English, his whisky habit. But this minority’s right to hold sway over the 180-million-strong population, consisting overwhelmingly of people with whom they have nothing in common apart from their citizenship, is being contested as never before.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, called Farzana’s killing “brutal” and “totally unacceptable” and demanded to know why police took no action to stop the murder. “I am directing the chief minister [of the Punjab] to take immediate action and a report must be submitted by this evening to my office,” he said.      

The imperious tone of his statement may be no more than a belated and clumsy attempt to deflect the outrage that Farzana’s killing has excited around the world. The killing and the twisted logic used to justify it belong to the world of the illiterate village and the tribal jirga, a world the likes of Nawaz Sharif only encounters during election campaigns. Yet it is not unreasonable to think that the premier’s reaction was sincere. I myself have seen him togged out in his whites, very ineptly playing cricket only a few hundred yards from Lahore High Court. Farzana’s murder was committed in a place where it might reasonably be assumed that the state’s writ still runs.

But the Pakistani state is no longer one thing: it is divided against itself. On the one hand, you have the likes of Nawaz, the steel millionaire, who invited local media into his garishly luxurious villa to celebrate his election victory last year, a moderately modern, secular figure and a good example of the padded, protected “creamy layer” that still runs the show. On the other hand, you have phenomena like the Taliban, brought into being by the spooks of the ISI intelligence agency to project Pakistani power into the heart of Afghanistan, but which has for more than a decade been a dagger turned in on Pakistan itself.

The old order that brought Pakistan into existence, long under siege, is dying a slow and painful death: events like the bombing of Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel and the siege of the Red Mosque in the same city have punctuated its fall. This killing on the threshold of Lahore High Court is another grim marker.

But what threatens to replace the elite is not a new order but rampant chaos, acting with atavistic fury according to its own lights. It is happening in a society that is notionally Muslim, but Islamic authority seems no more capable of bringing order to this ramshackle revolution than its secular counterpart.

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