A long, sad year after Salman Taseer's killing

In this November 20, 2010 file photo, Salman Taseer, Governor of Pakistani Punjab Province, talks to reporters after meeting with Asia Bibi, not in photo, at a prison in Sheikhupura near Lahore, Pakistan.  

One year ago, the assassination of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, shook liberal and secular Pakistan to the core. Never had the country looked so rudderless.

Fearlessly championing a deeply unpopular cause, this brave man had sought to revisit the country's blasphemy law which he perceived as yet another means of intimidating Pakistan's embattled religious minorities. This law — which is unique in having death as the minimum penalty — would have sent to the gallows an illiterate Christian peasant woman, Aasia Bibi, who stood accused by her Muslim neighbours after a noisy dispute. Taseer's publicly voiced concern for human life earned him 26 high-velocity bullets from one of his security guards, Malik Mumtaz Qadri. The other guards watched silently.

In the long, sad, year more followed. Justice Pervez Ali Shah, the brave judge who ultimately sentenced Taseer's murderer in spite of receiving death threats, has fled the country. Aasia Bibi is rotting away in jail, reportedly in solitary confinement and in acute psychological distress. Shahbaz Taseer, the Governor's son, was abducted in late August — presumably by Qadri's sympathisers. He remains untraceable. Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of Parliament and another vocal voice against the blasphemy law, was assassinated weeks later on March 2.

Spontaneous celebrations

Political assassinations occur everywhere. But the Pakistani public reaction to Taseer's assassination horrified the world. As the news hit the national media, spontaneous celebrations erupted in places; a murderous unrepentant mutineer had been instantly transformed into a national hero. Glib tongued television anchors sought to convince viewers that Taseer had brought ill unto himself. Religious political parties did not conceal their satisfaction, and the imam of Lahore's Badshahi Masjid declined the government's request to lead the funeral prayers. Rahman Malik, the Interior Minister, sought to curry favour with religious forces by declaring that, if need be, he would “kill a blasphemer with my own hands.”

In psychological terms, the reaction of a substantial part of Pakistan's lawyers' community was still more disturbing. Once again, they made history. Earlier it had been for their Black Coat Revolution, apparently welcome evidence that Pakistani civil society was well and thriving. But this time it was for something far less positive. Television screens around the world showed the nauseating spectacle of hundreds of lawyers feting a murderer, showering rose petals upon him, and pledging to defend him pro-bono.

Another phalanx of lawyers, headed by Khawaja Asif, former Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court, rose up to constitute Qadri's defence team. In his court testimony, a smugly defiant assassin declared that he had executed Allah's will. Justice Asif agreed, saying that Qadri had “merely done his duty as a security guard”. He said it was actually Taseer who had broken the law of the land by attempting to defend a person convicted of blasphemy and, in doing so, had “hurt the feelings of crores of Muslims.”

Equally tragic incidents

Taseer's was a high profile episode, but there are countless other equally tragic ones which receive little public attention. Surely it is time to reflect on what makes so many Pakistanis disposed towards celebrating murder, lawlessness, and intolerance. To understand the kind of psychological conditioning that has turned us into nasty brutes, cruel both to ourselves and to others, I suggest that the reader sample some of the Friday khutbas (sermons) delivered across the country's estimated 250,000 mosques.

It is surely impossible to hear all khutbas, but a few hundred ones have been recorded on tape by researchers, transcribed into Urdu, translated into English, and categorised by subject at Since there was no conscious bias in selecting the mosques, they can be reasonably assumed to be representative examples.

Abusive language

Often using abusive language, the mullahs excoriate their enemies: America, India, Israel, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Shias, and Qadianis. Before appreciative crowds, they breathe fire against the enemies of Islam and modernity. Music is condemned to be evil, together with life insurance and bank interest. In frenzied speeches they put women at the centre of all ills, demand that they be confined to the home, covered in purdah, and forbidden to use lipstick or go to beauty parlours.

But the harshest words are reserved for the countless “deviant” Muslims. Governor Taseer was considered one. The former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, is another. In a foul-mouthed speech that the reader can hear on the above website, Qureshi is denounced as “ haramzada” by Maulana Altafur Rehman Shah of Muhammadi Masjid in Gujrat and described as a “keeper [ mujawar] of graves”. Quoting Nawa-e-Waqt, this maulana of the Ahl-e-Hadith school calls Qureshi a lap dog who stands with his “cheek on the cheek of Hillary Clinton.” What, he asks, could be a matter of greater shame? Parliamentarian Jamshed Dasti, also accused of grave worship, is harshly condemned for being unable to name the first five verses of the Holy Quran.

One presumes that most listeners have enough intelligence to ignore such violent fulminations. But at times their effects are deadly. One such sermon, according to Qadri's recorded testimony, was the turning point for him. He had heard a fiery cleric, Qari Haneef, at a religious gathering in his neighbourhood, Colonel Yousuf Colony, on 31 December 2010. It is then, says Qadri, that he made up his mind to kill his boss. Qadri had participated in the gathering in his official uniform, reciting the naat in praise of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). His official gun had been slung around his shoulder at the meeting. Four days later, he fulfilled his goal.

Pakistanis who still believe in the liberal dream must also grapple with their past. Qadri is not the first one celebrated for killing a blasphemer. The 19-year-old illiterate who killed Raj Pal, the publisher of the book Rangeela Rasool, subsequently executed by the British, was held in the highest esteem by the founders of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Jinnah had been Ghazi Ilm Din's lawyer. It is reported that Iqbal, regarded as Islam's pre-eminent 20th century philosopher, placed the body in the grave with tears in his eyes and said: “This young man left us, the educated men, behind.” Ilm Din is venerated by a mausoleum over his grave in Lahore.

Blasphemy unites

In today's Pakistan, blasphemy unites diverse warring sects. Significantly, Qadri is a Barelvi Muslim belonging to the Dawat-e-Islami, which is part of the Sunni Tehreek. They are supposedly anti-Taliban moderates — one of their leaders, Maulana Sarfaraz Naeemi, was blown up by a Taliban suicide bomber in June 2009 after he spoke out against suicide bombings. Yet, 500 clerics of this faith supported Qadri in a joint declaration. They said that those who sympathised with Taseer deserved similar punishment. Today, on the blasphemy issue, these “moderates” have joined hands with those who seek to kill them. Jointly they rule Pakistan's streets today, while a cowardly and morally bankrupt government cringes and caves in to their every demand.

(The author teaches physics and political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences. This is a modified version of his article that appeared in the Pakistani daily Express Tribune on January 2.)

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2021 4:11:56 PM |

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