After two assassinations, Pakistani politicians are finally beginning to address tensions over the country's blasphemy laws.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said in an interview politicians should be able to reach a cross-party consensus on preventing the misuse of the blasphemy laws, as proposed by Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, head of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) religious party. "Its misuse is being, of course, taken into account and the party leaders are going to sit together as proposed by Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman ... and I hope this matter can be thrashed out, whenever this meeting takes place."
Two senior politicians, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, were assassinated this year after they called for amendments to the blasphemy laws, which critics say are often misused to settle personal scores. The row over the blasphemy laws has become one of most incendiary issues in Pakistan, highlighting the dominance of the religious right which has been able to bring out thousands into the streets to protest against any changes to the laws. Taseer's self-confessed killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was celebrated as a hero by many.
Fazl-ur-Rehman, who quit the Pakistan People's Party (PPP)-led government in December after a row over the sacking of one of his ministers, has been a vocal defender of the blasphemy laws. However, Pakistan's Dawn newspaper quoted him as saying last week that “if a law is being misused against minorities we are ready to discuss this." In a follow-up commentary, Dawn called it "a climbdown from his customary hardline position".
The row over the blasphemy laws was only part of a growing trend towards extremism in Pakistan, it said. "However unwittingly, the JUI-F leader has also provided the key to the only conceivable way out of this frightening situation. The clear and present danger of extremism can only be countered if all parties, particularly those whose focus is spreading religious ideology, work together on a consensus that taking the law into one’s own hands, regardless of the issue at stake, is unacceptable."