Pakistan’s blasphemy laws make it a crime to defile the Quran or to defame Prophet Mohammad, punishable by life imprisonment and death respectively. But the laws have been roundly criticised by civil rights groups as appropriate safeguards against misuse as they have become notorious for being used to settle petty private disputes.
Religious minorities have been especially vulnerable to the blasphemy laws with around half of all charges being brought against them — even though a mere 3 per cent of Pakistan’s population of Pakistan is non-Muslim.
Hundreds of blasphemy cases have been brought against minorities in Pakistan in the last 26 years. One of those was against Asia Bibi, a poor farm worker from rural Punjab sentenced to death for apparently defaming the Prophet after some Muslim co-workers refused to drink water with her because she is Christian. Asia’s case came to prominence globally when it was highlighted by the international media.
In Pakistan Salmaan Taseer was the most senior political figure to publicly appeal for Asia Bibi to be released and for the blasphemy law to be reformed. Taseer received almost daily death threats from religious zealots for his stand, but few could have predicted that one of his security guards would gun him down at close range. Mumtaz Qadri, Taseer’s murderer, freely admits to killing the late governor because of his criticism of the blasphemy law.
Most disturbing of all, it appears Qadri told other members of Taseer’s security detail about his plan, and they allowed him to shoot Taseer 27 times before dropping his weapon and surrendering.
Normally fractured Islamist groups have found common cause in supporting the murder of Taseer, the liberal governor of Punjab who was critical of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws — and their support is echoed by the Taliban. This unusual coalition has helped silence the already restricted debate on the blasphemy laws in Pakistan.
The murder of a high profile politician by a member of his own security detail has shaken the country in several significant ways.
Nothing has been more ominous than the way it has united Pakistan’s generally fractious Islamic groups. Although religious groups have consistently supported the blasphemy laws in their current form, in recent years rival Muslim sects have been in increasingly violent conflict with each other, conflict what has been punctuated by the murder of leading Wahabi and Sufi clerics whose deaths are blamed by both camps on each other’s followers. It is therefore notable that these otherwise warring groups united to endorse the murder of Taseer.
Their support for the blasphemy laws is shared by the Taliban. This confirms and indeed demonstrates an alarming nexus between the Taliban insurgency Pakistan is fighting along the border with Afghanistan and mainstream religious opinion in urban centres like Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar.
As Bilawal Zardari Bhutto, co-Chair of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and son of Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, railed against the murderer of in London after the murder, members of the Pakistan Taliban insurgency sent out an ominous warning.
"We appreciate Mumtaz Qadri’s efforts in killing the blasphemer Taseer. The Taliban are also after other secular politicians and no one will be left, they will be killed the way Taseer was killed," said Mullah Noor Alam, a middle-ranking Taliban commander currently in North Waziristan when he spoke exclusively to New Matilda. Alam said those were his personal views as well as those of the insurgency.
Such views are not isolated to the Taliban. A week after Taseer’s murder on 4 January, tens of thousands gathered in Karachi to support Mumtaz Qadri and similar rallies occurred in most major cities including one in Lahore this week that garnered 40,000 people. Alam’s comments were echoed by many who attended the Karachi rally. "Whoever blasphemes will face the same fate as Salmaan Taseer," poor labourer Abdul Rehman told New Matilda.
Facebook fanpages and other websites proliferated in the wake of Taseer’s murder, extolling the virtue of Qadri as a "ghazi" or warrior of Islam and defender of the Prophet. Although most of the Facebook sites have been taken down, a frenzy of apparent celebration has continued to sweep through Pakistan, including in Qadri’s hometown and Army headquarters Rawalpindi. The celebration is fed by conservative TV commentators and a well organised religious lobby that can arrange public gatherings on short notice.
These sudden developments suggest that the battle against religious extremism in Pakistan is beyond the scope of military planners — whether in Rawalpindi or in international capitals. Qadri openly admitted to killing Taseer but although he has already been brought before the federal Anti-Terrorism Court his trial has yet to commence. Pakistan’s judiciary has an opportunity to challenge self-proclaimed defenders of the faith from continuing down the spiral toward lawlessness by taking the law into their own hands.
But if anything Pakistan’s senior courts have shown a sympathy towards the Islamists, as several high profile recent developments demonstrate.
In November the Lahore High Court took the unprecedented and apparently unconstitutional step of barring Pakistan President Zardari from pardoning Asia Bibi until it hears an appeal against a sentence.That does not appear likely for some time given passions surrounding her case and the genuine fear that someone might try to kill her if she appears before the court.
During hearings into a recent constitutional amendment last year, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry of Pakistan’s Supreme Court said Islam and not the elected parliament was the highest authority in the land. Another judge on that bench wondered whether Pakistan could afford "afford to follow western parliaments which have decided in favour of gay marriages." Both statements played to the strong Islamist sentiment here that liberal forces and greater secularity are a threat to Pakistan’s Islamic identity, a key argument of those who supported the murder of Taseer.
Along with the PPP’s Bilawal Zardari Bhutto, individual members of the Urdu-speaking community’s Muttahida Quami Movement and the ethnic Pashtun Awami National Party, the other major secular political parties in the country, have quietly condemned Taseer’s murder. But none of these parties have officially affirmed their support for reforming the blasphemy laws at the centre of the crisis.
The PPP-led federal government has gone even further to say it will defend the current laws from any reforms.
Civil society groups inside Pakistan have championed the cause with a slew of anti-blasphemy law rallies, websites and court petitions allowing the voices of moderate Pakistanis to be heard. These rallies were dwarfed by those organised in support of Mumtaz Qadri. Given the danger of openly opposing Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws these days — and how few political supporters there are for blasphemy law reform aside from former Information Minister Sherry Rehman and Bilawal Zardari Bhutto — such displays are a brave show of force. Some civil society groups even lodged complaints with police and the Supreme Court against local preachers for inciting the murder of Asia Bibi and Sherry Rehman. Still, the courts have an unreliable record in prosecuting those who commit acts of violence in the name of Islam.
And alone among mainstream Pakistani religious leaders, Javed Ahmed Ghamadi has called for the blasphemy laws to be repealed, arguing that they have no basis in Islamic law. But Ghamadi has lived in Malaysia since last year, when police discovered a plot to assassinate him. Such is the stifling environment in Pakistan now that even reasoned debate can have deadly consequences — and the implications of this local blasphemy debate in the wider region remain to be seen.
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