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In the name of God

Published : Jan 28, 2011 00:00 IST

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The Governor of Punjab province becomes the most high-profile victim of the country's blasphemy laws.

in Islamabad

THE assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer on January 4 in an upmarket locality of Islamabad is being billed as the most sensational killing in Pakistan since the December 27, 2007, attack on former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He was shot by his own bodyguard, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, as he walked to his car after lunch at a caf with a friend. While Benazir's assassination changed the course of Pakistan's political history and added to its woes, Taseer's murder has brought the fear of a terrorist attack from the streets into people's homes, a thing no other act of terrorism had been able to achieve.

It is no longer a case of becoming a hapless victim of a terrorist attack.

The killing of Taseer, purportedly for describing the blasphemy laws as black law, the frequent suggestions that he invited death upon himself by doing this, and the lionisation of Qadri are generating divergent views even within households and posing a clear and present danger at a very micro level. As a result, barring the brave-hearted liberals and seculars, the subject is discussed in muted tones even among the converted' for fear of touching a raw nerve.

That the space for discourse had shrunk was clear within hours of Taseer's assassination. Nowhere was it more evident than in the mainstream media. In a country where martyrdom is ordained on all victims of unnatural death the word shaheed (martyr) is immediately prefixed to their names television channels were reluctant or slow in according the same status to Taseer.

Slowly but steadily, the religious right wing began determining the narrative, more so with the political class literally going into hibernation on the issue. While the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was quick to condemn the assassination of its tallest leader in Punjab, it maintained a deafening silence on the blasphemy issue. This silence emboldened the right wing to issue diktats against those mourning Taseer's assassination. Clerics were asked not to lead his funeral prayers. Taseer's burial was delayed by nearly an hour as his family and PPP leaders went in search of clerics who would be willing to offer prayers.

So, within hours of his assassination, whatever hope liberal Pakistanis had of the political class rallying together to take on the fundamentalists was dashed. Feeling abandoned, they kept their spirits from flagging with the few mechanisms they have access to peace marches, newspaper columns, feverish blogging and intense debates on social networking websites.

But they know their limitations. In the face of people willing to pick up the gun in the name of God, liberal and secular Pakistanis scattered as they are are hemmed in by their tools of engagement and belief in the rule of law. Knowing only too well that wishy-washy liberalism cannot fight fanaticism, some among them have begun talking about fighting fire with fire but know it is easier said than done.

Suggestions like declaring Qadri and his supporters as blasphemers, and clogging courts with blasphemy cases against them, have been doing the rounds, but this is still in the realm of loud thinking. And that is the biggest fear that haunts civil society its own retreat.

Parallels are being drawn with the lawyers' movement for the restoration of the judiciary, but those activists had the backing of the political class. Feeling absolutely let down by the political class, Imtiaz Gul, the author of The Al Qaeda Connection: The Taliban and Terror in the Tribal Areas, said Pakistan would sink further if politicians did not take on the obscurantist forces. Civil society can only mobilise opinion; political parties have to provide the leadership.

Farzana Bari, Director of Gender Studies at the Quaid-e-Azam University and a member of the Awami Jamhoori Forum, insisted that liberals and political parties were to be blamed equally. He was abandoned by opportunist liberals and his own party when he needed them the most. Instead of showing their support on the street to the cause Taseer stood for, liberals intimidated by the mobilisation capacity of religious extremists and the potential threat to their lives opted for silence.

MARKED MAN

Taseer became a marked man in November 2010 after he picked up the cudgels for Aasia Bibi, a Christian sentenced to death by a sessions court under Section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) for allegedly making derogatory remarks against the Prophet in an argument with women from her village. Head money was declared for anyone killing him. No action was taken against those who issued open threats to him and party colleague Sherry Rehman who also presented a Bill in the National Assembly to amend the law.

Taseer became the most high-profile victim of the blasphemy laws that have consumed 34 lives since Sections 295 B (defiling the Quran) and C were added to the PPC during the Zia-ul-Haq era. While no one has been executed in Pakistan under Section 295C, as many as 34 people including Muslims have been murdered for alleged blasphemy by individuals or frenzied mobs since 1986 when this clause was introduced by the then Parliament elected under military dictator Zia-ul-Haq's supervision. At least seven of those killed were found dead under police watch.

The irony is that it is not just the minorities who are feeling the brunt of the blasphemy laws. The latest report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, released in March 2010, revealed that the majority of the 41 complaints of blasphemy registered by the police in 2009 involved Muslims, as rival sects of Islam have increasingly begun to use these two sections of the PPC against each other to settle personal scores.

BLASPHEMY LAWS

Every attempt to amend the blasphemy laws under civilian and military rule has met with similar resistance. Questioning the need for such a law in a predominantly Muslim country, former federal Law Minister Iqbal Haider recalled that he was declared wajib-ul-qatal (permissible to be killed) after a news report claimed that he wanted to repeal the blasphemy laws when he was just working on amendments, that too with support from other political parties, in 1994.

More recently, military ruler Pervez Musharraf suggested amendments but had to back off. Now the PPP, despite having amendments to the blasphemy laws as part of its election manifesto, is following a similar trajectory. In fact, civil society had pinned a lot of hope on President Asif Ali Zardari when in the wake of Aasia Bibi's death sentence he set up a committee under the Minority Affairs Minister to engage with stakeholders on amendments to the blasphemy laws.

Gradually that resolve began to wilt under pressure from the courts and the religious right-wing parties. Although these parties do not count for much in terms of numbers in the National Assembly, they have access to a wide network of mosques and madrassas across the country and wield an influence that outweighs their electoral capacity.

The first blow from the courts came when the Lahore High Court issued an order barring the President from pardoning Aasia Bibi, who had sent her mercy petition to Zardari through Taseer after he visited her in the Sheikhupura jail following the award of death sentence to her. Another petition was filed in the Lahore court urging it to prevent Parliament from discussing any amendment to the blasphemy laws.

APPEASEMENT POLICY

Beleaguered by political crises on almost a weekly basis, the government finally caved in towards the close of last year when religious parties called for a shutter-down strike in protest against amendments to the blasphemy laws. Still hope was kept afloat with suggestions that the PPP was trying to buy time to build a consensus as part of its oft-repeated policy of reconciliation.

Some observers even within the PPP hope that Taseer's assassination will serve as a wake-up call to the party, indicating that it can no longer continue with its appeasement policy. Conscious of the widespread disappointment within the liberal chattering class, PPP managers maintain that this is a burning national issue on which the whole country and society is clearly polarised. This can't be resolved by one single entity. This can't be resolved by political classes or the government alone.

Pointing out that the fight is being fought in the living rooms today between best friends and families because everyone has their own interpretation of religion, the PPP presents a counter-argument: Do you expect the government to regulate such a personal issue without spilling blood, and without hurdles and opposition? The government is busy walking a tightrope on an issue on which there are clearly two opinions in society. The government can't take a side in haste without evolving and leading a political process of consensus.''

For the moment, it seems to be adopting a wait-and-watch policy. Some of its managers are drawing strength from the fiery and multifaceted debate on the issue. When was the last time Pakistan saw this much momentum on an issue which has hitherto been taboo? Maybe it is time for us to stop blaming one entity or another and start working together to find a common ground and consensus to resolve an issue which is literally splitting families and households now.

The government is undoubtedly hemmed in by the volatile situation it has on its hands not just on the blasphemy issue but on all other fronts, including a flagging economy, the blow-back effect of its partnership in the war on terror, and seething tempers owing to spiralling prices.

But some of its Ministers are further muddying the waters. While Babar Awan floated a conspiracy theory directed against the Punjab government led by the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) a tactic viewed largely as an attempt to open a new narrative to dilute criticism over its silence on the blasphemy issue Interior Minister Rehman Malik practically endorsed taking the law into one's own hands for the sake of religion when he said that he too would pick up the gun if someone insulted the Prophet.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 28, 2011.)

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