ISLAMABAD — The assassination of the governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s most politically powerful province, Salman Taseer earlier this morning provides the latest example of how religious intolerance, coupled with contentious laws, can wreak havoc on human lives. If the confession of the killer — Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri — is any indication, then Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws have claimed another life, in addition to the more than 30 people accused of blasphemy and later killed by angry mobs or individuals over the last quarter-century.
Qadri, 26, according to Interior Minister Rehman Malik, told police he killed Taseer "because he had called the blasphemy law a black law." Reportedly a member of an elite police force, Qadri was part of the security detail deployed to protect Taseer in Islamabad. The governor was on his way to an upscale market for a cup of coffee near his Islamabad residence when he was killed.
Taseer’s assassination stunned Pakistanis but surprised none; by openly criticizing the country’s controversial blasphemy laws, Taseer also had upset religious groups, including even mainstream religiopolitical parties. "I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing," was one of Taseer’s recent tweets on the laws, imposed in the late 1970s by former dictator General Zia ul-Haq, whose Islamist legacy continues to haunt Pakistan today.
Taseer’s opposition to the sentencing to death of a Christian woman named Asia Bibi in November of last year for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed in 2009 was the latest reason for religious parties to criticize Taseer. In June 2009, Bibi was asked to fetch water while out working in the fields in Pakistan’s central province of Punjab. Muslim women laborers objected, saying that as a non-Muslim, she should not touch the water bowl. The wife and mother was later arrested by the police and prosecuted on a complaint by Muslim women that she made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed. Following her conviction, Bibi’s lawyer petitioned the Lahore High Court, and in mid-November, Taseer visited Bibi in prison and told the press that he would personally pass on her appeal to Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari.
In early November, even Pope Benedict XVI called for Bibi’s release and said Christians in Pakistan were "often victims of violence and discrimination." Although Pakistan has yet to execute anyone for blasphemy, the case of Asia Bibi highlights the controversy over Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which opponents say encourage extremism.
Reaction by the religious right
On Dec. 31, when members of Pakistan’s religious parties took to the streets across the country to warn the government against even contemplating a review of the blasphemy law, Senator Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, secretary-general of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F), said that he regretted that so far no action had been taken against Taseer and Sherry Rehman, a member of the PPP who had proposed a bill in the National Assembly to amend the law last year and has since been the target of the ire of religiopolitical groups. Haideri told a gathering of followers in the southern metropolitan Karachi that his party would strongly resist any moves to amend the law, and he demanded assurances by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani that the government would not try to do so.
The same day, Tehreek Namoos-i-Risalat — an alliance of religious parties in defense of the Prophet Mohammad — demanded that the government dismiss Taseer and throw Rehman out of the party and the parliament.
The JUI-F had until two weeks ago been part of the coalition led by Gilani. Last week, two central ministers assured the JUI-F and other religious parties that the blasphemy law would not be touched.
"We had tried several times to make Salman Taseer stay silent on the issue, but he kept on condemning a law that the parliament had passed," Hanif Tayyab, a former minister and religious scholar told Express TV. "We must also look into what caused the killer to go after Taseer," Tayyab said in what appeared to be the traditional argument peddled by religiopolitical outfits on Islamist laws.
Pakistani political parties must view the fact that Taseer was murdered by his own personal guard at such close range with caution and consider how long they can keep acquiescing to the demands of religiopolitical parties that, on the one hand, are part of the democratic process, but on the other, continue to defend contentious religious laws whose potential misuse continues to threaten the lives of Pakistanis — from the fieldworker Asia Bibi to the governor of Punjab Salman Taseer.
Imtiaz Gul heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies — CRSS-Islamabad — and is the author of The Most Dangerous Place.