In Pakistan, a death foretold

January 4, 2011

taseerIn one of the more anguished posts about the murder of provincial governor Salman Taseer, Pakistani blogger Huma Imtiaz wrote that his assassination ”is not the beginning of the end. This is the end. There is no going back from here, there is no miracle cure, there is no magic wand that will one day make everything better. Saying ‘enough is enough’ does not cut it anymore …”

It was a sense that permeated much of the English-language commentary about Taseer’s killing in Islamabad by one of his own security guards. Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Taseer, governor of Punjab province and a leading politician in the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), was killed because of his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.  A sense that the forces of religious intolerance are becoming all but unstoppable; and that those who oppose them by promoting a more liberal vision of Pakistan occupy an ever diminishing space.

“Salmaan Taseer was many things, but most recently, he was a champion of a particular strand of liberal, secular discourse in a country where such voices are dwindling down to nothing. He was a minority because he chose to stand next to the Christian and Hindu minorities who are denied basic protection in their own nation.  This is a great loss,” wrote historian Manan Ahmed at Chapati Mystery.

Taseer had championed the case of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who had been sentenced to death under the blasphemy laws, which have been criticised in particular for their misuse against minorities, often to settle local scores.

In his own words, from one of his last interviews, Taseer said of Aasia Bibi:  “She is a woman who has been incarcerated for a year-and-a half on a charge trumped up against her five days after an incident where people who gave evidence against her were not even present. So this is a blatant violation against a member of a minority community. I, like a lot of right-minded people, was outraged, and all I did was to show my solidarity. It is the first time in the history of the Punjab that a governor has gone inside a district jail, held a press conference and stated clearly that this is a blatant miscarriage of justice and that the sentence that has been passed is cruel and inhumane. I wanted to take a mercy petition to the president, and he agreed, saying he would pardon Aasiya Bibi if there had indeed been a miscarriage of justice.”

For that he had suffered death threats from the religious right who present any challenge to the blasphemy laws, introduced under former military ruler President  Zia-ul-Haq, as an insult to Islam.  In response he had promised on his Twitter feed to resist the pressure from the religious right “even if I am the last man standing”.

But the despair over Taseer’s killing was not only over the death of one man. It was because the warning signs had been there for so long and been ignored. And because so many others had died already, and nothing had been done.  The killing of more than 80 members of the minority Ahmadi sect in two mosques in Lahore last year might have served as a wake-up call.  It didn’t.  Nor for that matter did the killing of eight Christians in the town of Gojra in Punjab in 2009 following unsubstantiated allegations that a Christian had desecrated the Koran.

Instead the weak PPP-led government, like other administrations before it, has retreated in the face of powerful religious lobbies who have reduced the liberal, secular English-speaking community to a shrinking minority in Pakistan.   The promises of Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah that the new country would be a place not only  where Muslims would be safe, but where people of all faiths would be free of discrimination, have been buried over decades by each retreat by each successive administration.

“One central truth most of us are unwilling to face is that much of the increasing extremism we see around us is deeply embedded in Pakistan’s DNA. When a country is created in the name of a faith, then inevitably, that faith will come to dominate modes of thought and behaviour,” wrote Dawn columnist Irfan Husain in a piece published a few days before Taseer’s death.

“Many of us who represent a dwindling liberal, secular strand in the media are fond of quoting Jinnah’s Aug 11, 1947 speech which remains as eloquent a declaration of secularism as I have read anywhere. But talk to clerics or students today, and they will look at you in disbelief and even anger if you impute secularism to the founder of Pakistan. In their view, he created Pakistan in the name of Islam, and not for the Muslims of the subcontinent. This is too nuanced an argument for most people who prefer to see things only in black and white.”

So while some individual PPP politicians had fought for changes to the blasphemy laws, the government itself had backed down in the face of street protests held before Taseer’s death, promising these would not be amended.

Small wonder then that few believe the provincial governor’s killing will galvanise the country into action against religious intolerance.

Instead even Pakistan’s usually determinedly optimistic bloggers are showing a growing weariness with the state of the nation, where it has become a staple of populist television shows to declare those who fail to conform with a particular interpretation of Islam as “wajib-ul-qatl” or worthy of death.

“Plenty of media personnel and right-wing politicians in this country contributed to this (Taseer’s death) with their constant ‘wajib-ul-qatl’ refrain, not to mention equating support for blasphemy laws to support for Islam. All of them could technically be dealt with as inciters to violence (illegal in our country, and basically every other one out there) but they won’t. You get to say and do whatever you want, act with as much impunity as you want — as long as you have God on your side,” wrote Ahsan Butt at Five Rupees.

Taseer’s killing could stimulate a discussion about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the way it treats its minorities, wrote Mosharraf Zaidi at Foreign Policy.”Unfortunately, what is more likely is that Taseer’s death will not only not stimulate a more serious examination of how the Pakistani state deals with the highly toxic issues of blasphemy, but it may help mute the already nervous voices within the thin sliver of Pakistani society that seek to amend these kinds of legal provisions.”

“I get an overwhelming sensation that we have given up on Pakistan,” wrote Awab Alvi, who blogs at Teeth Maestro. “Have we? Please prove me wrong.”

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