The liberal Pakistani politician Governor Salman Taseer paid the ultimate price for trying to change blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Did he cross the laxman rekha drawn by the radicals, when he opposed the blasphemy law of Pakistan? Does this indicate to the west, that the fundamentalists are still the most feared in Pakistan?
The reaction of Pakistanis to the brutal assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer has come as a shock to the world. The billions of dollars the United States poured to combat extremism in the country failed to bring desirable fruits.
This assassination proves one point. Economic well being does not stop one from becoming a radical. That people tend to extremism due to their weak economic status seems to have totally been rejected by this incident in Pakistan. Mumtaz Qadri, the body guard of Taseer ,who assassinated him hails from a well-to-do family.
The growing influence of militant Islam in Pakistan and the ignorance of the feeling of the masses by the leadership has caused this incident.
Taseer had been a man of liberal views. No one bothered. But when he opposed Pakistan’s blasphemy law and called it a Kala Qanoon (Black Law), he bit more then he could chew. Presently under the law, people insulting Prophet Muhammad or desecrating Holy Qur’an are liable to strict punishment.
The stand taken by the governor that the blasphemy law should be scrapped, not amended, might had created an apprehension among the extremists that blasphemy would be a norm if there existed no punishment for the blasphemers. The governor was gunned down by the person who was assigned to safeguard him. Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, the assassin, said he did it for protecting the honour of Prophet Muhammad.
Taseer is not the first person to pay for blasphemous remarks or activities. Section 295 C of Pakistan Penal Code prescribes death sentence with fine or without fine for any one insulting Prophet.
The reports say that say that between 1986—the year when the present shape of the law was introduced—and 2010 as many as 989 cases of blasphemy were reported. In 2009, around 112 cases of blasphemy—against 57 Ahmadi, 47 Muslims and 8 Christians—were filed. At least 35 of the accused have been killed extra-judicially. The murder of Taseer is only an addition to the long chain.
Taseer is believed to have been assassinated for relentlessly defending Aasiya Bibi. It was in November 2010 that an anti-terrorism court of Pakistan condemned Aasiya Bibi, a member of Christian minority, to death for having allegedly committed blasphemy to the Prophet Muhammad during her argument with two Muslim women in June 2009. She reportedly has moved to Lahore High Court against the decree.
Even Pope Benedict XVI has intervened in the case and demanded Aasiya be released. He said that he prayed God for any person facing such a circumstance that their human status and respect be considered.
There was every possibility that a higher court would possibly acquit her of the charge. This was the best and sure way to have Bibi rescued from the clutches of the blasphemy law. Many local courts decreed death sentences against the accused under blasphemy law, but none of the verdicts could be implemented till now.
Instead of waiting for the judicial process, Mr. Taseer approached Asif Ali Zardari for a presidential pardon to Bibi. He even proceeded to meet her at Sheikhupura district jail.
The extremists, who look for any pretence and chance to eliminate the liberals, found the behaviour of Taseer an enough reason. Time and again they took law and order in hand for executing the blasphemers.
Even though Taseer himself did not commit blasphemy, yet his unrelenting support for Aasiya Bibi in a show of liberalism proved fatal for him. As a matter of fact, Islam does not allow undue bloodshed. The killing of Taseer in the name of the religion, the analysts say, is against the peaceful teachings of Islam.
With extremism having crept in the Pakistani society, especially in the wake of the US-Afghan war, Pakistanis is all praise for Qadri. Except a few modern educated people, rest of the nation is either presenting Qadri as a hero of Islam or preferring silence over the murder of Taseer. No mention of condemning the killer.
Even the Pakistani media did not condemn Mumtaz Qadri in its strongest terms. “When Pakistan's television anchors and newspaper columnists describe Salman Taseer's assassination a tragedy, they are not telling us the whole truth. Because many of these very anchors and columnists have stated, in no uncertain terms, that by expressing his reservations about the blasphemy law, Salman Taseer had crossed a line on the other side of which is certain death,” commented Mohammed Hanif, a former editor of the BBC Urdu service.
Using the media some extremists showed support to Mumtaz Qadri and lauded him. “The situation has become worrying because people are coming on national television and justifying Taseer’s assassination,” said human rights activist Asma Jahangir.
A liberal legislator from Karachi, Sherry Rehman, who recently introduced a bill to amend the blasphemy law, has been politically isolated since Taseer's murder, threatened by protesters. For quite some days she had to be in seclusion at her home, under special police guard.
“I am amazed at the ferocity of the onslaught,” Rehman reportedly said. “I was trying to find a middle ground, but now no one wants to touch the issue. I think this retreat is going to set the country back for years to come.”
The murder of Taseer has silenced the liberal voices and the government for the time being bowing to the pressure of the Islamists agreed that no amendments would be made to blasphemy law. This, the fundamentalists see as their victory.
The common Pakistani praises Qadri for what they call is his bravery. Hours after the assassination of Taseer over 500 scholars praised Qadri and urged people to boycott the funeral ceremony of the “blasphemer or face the consequence”. The prayer leader of Lahore’s historic Badshahi Masjid declined the administration’s request to lead the funeral prayer.
Mass rallies were taken out in Qadri’s support and, thousands of supporters marched in the streets, praising him as a heroic defender of Islam.
“Mumtaz Qadri sacrificed himself to protect the sanctity of our prophet, and every one of us here is ready to do the same thing,” reportedly said Abdul Majid, a seminary student who was among tens of thousands of supporters who rallied in Karachi demanding that the country's blasphemy law be preserved.
A group of young lawyers even showered rose petals over Qadri, before his court appearances. And they enthusiastically took up his defense.
It was seen as a stark turnabout for a group that just a few years ago looked like the vanguard of a democracy movement. They waged months of protests in 2007 and 2008 to challenge Pakistan’s military dictator after he unlawfully removed the chief justice.
This shows how Islamization has worked among the Pakistanis. The appearance of hundreds of Facebook pages supporting Mumtaz Qadri is clear evidence that modern educated section of Pakistan too could not remain unaffected from the wave of Islamization. Usually, the Facebook users are not the students of madaris located in backward areas.
Even moderate Pakistani ulama, who are against taking law in their hand in the name of Islam, are not condemning what Qadri did when he killed Salman Taseer.
They, too, believe that blasphemy cannot be forgiven in any circumstances. Many local courts decree death sentences against the accused under blasphemy law, but none of the verdicts are implemented ever. They take this as a reason for justifying the extra-judicial killing of blasphemers.
On the occasion of Conquest of Makkah, when Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) came in power, he forgave everyone except 16 people. Among them were two women and two men who would pass satirical comments on the Prophet. He ordered that they must be killed even if found clinging to the cover of holy Ka’ba.
Likewise, two Jews of Madinah Ka’b Bin Ashraf and Abu Rafe were also killed for their blasphemous remarks. A blind companion of Prophet, killed a Jewish poetess who would insult Prophet in her poetry, and the Prophet praised him.
It is argued that blasphemy law is a highly sensitive issue for many Muslims in Pakistan, a deeply impoverished country of 180 million. But this law has also been misused and manipulated to target minority groups, including Christians and Shiite Muslims, and to settle personal scores. The government has assured that the blasphemy law will not be repealed, a demand made by some politicians, but it seems to likely go ahead with some amendments ensuring the law is not exploited wrongly.
Leaving aside whether or not the blasphemy law should be scrapped, the question arises why anyone should insult the religious icons of any community. Why to provoke anyone’s sentiments? Should freedom of expression be barred when it puts others in trouble and hurt their sentiments? The radical elements of a religion usually abstain from abusing other religion. While in the name of liberalism and freedom of expression, religious icons are often ridiculed.
Sometimes extremism is the outcome of provoking religious sentiments.
Speculations are also being made about political conspiracy behind assassination of Taseer. Federal law minister Babar Awan of the PPP described it as a “political assassination”. He said it raised several questions. Even before the statement of Awan the country was rife with conspiracy theories arising from what isn’t a secret in Pakistan—the Sharif brothers were known to have been at loggerheads with Taseer, a successful businessman with interests in media and telecom (he was the publisher of Daily Times and owned TV channels.)
Yet the majority opinion goes that Taseer was killed for his blasphemy. In the words of Hanif “The line that Governor Taseer is supposed to have crossed did not get drawn just by the text of a fatwa, or by the orders of Gen. Zia who promulgated the blasphemy law as it exists now. Religious groups are not the only ones responsible. The op-ed writers whose work reads like bloodcurdling fatwas are also not the only ones to blame.”
What the whole story speaks about is that the extremists have entered nearly every part of Pakistani society, even the rank-and-file in security forces, as the assassination showed. And it is now near to impossible to cleanse Pakistan from them. Better to leave them unprovoked especially as regards their religion.
By: A Hameed Yousuf