The world has been quick to condemn the assassination of the Governor of the Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, and proclaim him a martyr to the cause of fighting fundamentalism. Quite rightly. Taseer, always one of the most ebullient and outspoken figures in Pakistani public life, was a rare beast in his willingness to stick his head above the parapet for his belief in religious tolerance. His death will make it a great deal more difficult for any politician to voice opposition to Islam's puritans or for even moderate Islamic groups to support his stance.
Which is why he was killed, of course. The danger of presenting Taseer's killing as a simple issue of fundamentalism against liberalism and even secularism is that it ignores that the struggle is about power as much as belief.
Assassination is an abominable act but also an effective means of challenging power structures and frightening people into passivity. Religion may make it more difficult for ordinary citizens openly to oppose the men of violence, but it's not necessarily the cause in itself.
The real issue is the almost universal assault on pluralism within countries. At a time when the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, openly dismisses multiculturalism as a mistake, when senior members of the Israeli government call for new laws to enforce ethnic purity in the country, and minorities are being persecuted and driven out of most countries of Asia, to talk of the Muslim issue as if it were a unique phenomenon misses the wider context. The violence in Pakistan has been perpetrated far more by Sunnis on Shia, Ahmadi and Sufi co-religionists than on Christians.
The revival of Islamic belief is certainly a real and in some ways threatening reality of our time. In country after country Muslims seem to be turning back to religion as a means of defining and asserting their identity. That poses a problem – although much exaggerated – in Europe and other regions where they are a minority. But it poses much more far-reaching problems for Muslim states, such as those in North Africa and Central Asia, where secularism is associated with corrupt and authoritarian regimes.
The End of History vision of a world inevitably progressing towards liberalism has shuddered to a halt in the face of the global upsurge in Muslim conservatism, just as President Bush's fond trust in democracy as the natural, God-given answer to world's security problems hit the rocks of Iraq and a world where democracy served to intensify ethnic and tribal conflict rather than subsume it.
The challenge of our time is how to accept the broad developments in train, while preventing them becoming a breeding ground for violent extremism. It's a political problem requiring political solutions. The worst thing we can do is what we're doing in Pakistan (and are tending to do in Britain), which is to see it solely as a security challenge.
Pakistan is a case in point. There is no doubt that it has become (in recent memory, it should be said) a centre of extremism and a source of training for global jihadists. It is equally indisputable that its political structures are collapsing, its efforts to suppress violence are inconsistent and ineffective, that its security forces follow agendas of their own, and that its economy is in the most parlous state.
The assassination could not have come at a worse time. The government is losing its parliamentary majority after a succession of desertions from the coalition. The IMF has refused to give out the latest tranche of its loan because of what it sees as the failure of the government to even begin fulfilling its promises of reform and fiscal discipline. The push to recover authority in the tribal lands of the north, and to drive out the Taliban, has more or less ground to a halt.
The political context remains dominated by the remorseless struggle for power between Benazir Bhutto's husband, President Asif Ali Zardari, and the Sharif brothers. Taseer, a friend of Zardari's, was put into the Punjab deliberately to unsettle the Sharifs, whose power base it remains.
It's easy enough to throw up your hands and dismiss Pakistan as a failed state going to hell in a handbasket. Its role in Afghanistan and its connections with terror plots in Europe make it too important for its fate to be simply ignored.
Western policy has veered between letting Pakistan be (so long as it was in the firm hands of a military dictatorship) to self-interested subvention and outright condemnation.
Obsessed with Afghanistan and Pakistan's role in aiding and abetting the Taliban resurgence there, Washington has begun again to throw money at the military, thus increasing its divorce from politics and society at large. At the same time, Europe and the West have made economic and financial aid subject to more and more requirements that Islamabad pursue liberal values and fight extremism.
This is not going to help. Perhaps nothing we can do will help. But, in so far as we can, we should be bending our aid and effort to support the democratic state – promoting greater technical competence and independence in the management of Pakistan's economy – a strong judiciary, and a better-paid police service. There is no evidence that the average Pakistani citizen wants a fundamentalist state. But they don't want an insecure, corrupt civilian one either.
Four months ago, the outside world had the chance to show their worth in Pakistan with the floods. It largely (although not entirely) flunked it. Pakistan, however needy, was not a country they wanted to get involved with. It would be a tragedy if Taseer's killing proved the excuse for us to turn our backs still further.Reuse content