On Sunday, Interior minister Ahsan Iqbal was attending a Christian gathering at his constituency of Narowal in Punjab when a reported zealot of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan movement fired on him with .30-calibre gun from 15 yards, breaking the bone of his right elbow and embedding a bullet in his lower abdomen. The recent wave of Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy craze has delivered its most high-profile victim. Last year, federal law minister Shahid Hamid was forced to resign in the face of clerical rage, while a provincial minister of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) currently walks in fear of being killed.
Iqbal is one of the more outspoken critics of the judicial process that has deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif and threatens to send him to jail for many years for not being “sadiq” (truthful) and “ameen” (trustworthy) in the tradition of Islam’s Prophet.
Iqbal arose from a deeply religious family who supported General Zia’s Islamization—and was partly responsible for the promulgation of the blasphemy law—but has grown out of that background given his education at Government College Lahore, the University of Engineering and Technology Lahore, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University and Harvard University.
The PMLN’s roots lie in the kind of deep religiosity that is now snapping at its heels. Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the unhinged leader of the campaign against the PMLN on charges of blasphemy, enjoys the kind of street power that Pakistan has learned to tolerate ever since it allowed nonstate actors to dominate its policymaking. The party nearly splintered last year as many politicians patronized by the custodians of shrines in the countryside announced their resignations from the party. The attempt on the life of Ahsan Iqbal queers the field for the party in the coming general elections and foreshadows its likely defeat at the hands of voters who may be swayed by the anti-blasphemy fervor gripping parts of the country.