The assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province on January 4, may have shocked many, but calls for his death had been coming for the past few months — and went unchecked.
If responsibility has to be laid at anyone’s door, it is at that of religious parties — who campaigned vociferously against Taseer for his support of a woman convicted and sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy law — and of the ruling PPP-led government for not putting those inciting to murder him behind bars.
A campaign against Taseer dominated public discourse after he visited Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death late last year for allegedly committing blasphemy, and said he would forward a mercy petition to President Asif Ali Zardari. Taseer had previously said that the controversial blasphemy law in Pakistan needed to be reviewed. His stance angered many in the country, who have been conditioned to believe, courtesy of religious leaders and the educational system, that blasphemy is a sin that justifies murder and vigilante justice.
Taseer, whose candid remarks on Twitter were a proof of the strong stances he took, brushed off the campaign against him, which had increased in momentum in the weeks before his death. He declared the protests had flopped miserably and joked: "I’m ok with my effigy being burnt and fatwas against me but I’m really angry that I’m not mentioned anywhere in WikiLeaks!"
Religious clerics — from both the Barelvi and Deobandi schools of thought — had warned the government against issuing a pardon for Aasia Bibi, saying there would be "untoward repercussions". A former judge called Taseer a blasphemer and religious political parties were at the forefront of the campaign. Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, the secretary-general of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), who recently quit the ruling coalition and were courted by the government to rejoin, also called Taseer a blasphemer for having said the blasphemy law is a ‘black law.’
Haideri’s statement is chillingly mirrored in the confession of Taseer’s assassin; the 26-year-old Elite Force squad member Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri also said he opposed Taseer calling the blasphemy law a ‘black law.’
A fatwa was issued against Taseer by the hardline religious group the Almi Jamaat Ahle Sunnat, "declaring Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer as ‘apostate’ for raising his voice to free blasphemy convict Asia and implementing the western conspiracy against the blasphemy laws in the country. According to a press release, Salman Taseer will remain apostate till the time he seeks forgiveness for this great sin and shows repentance."
But none of these men were charged with any crime. It is only after Taseer’s assassination that a man who had publicly announced a Rs. 20 million (over $200,000) prize for the governor’s murder was arrested. This is the bitter reality of life in Pakistan. Those charged with blasphemy — often on the basis of little to no evidence — have been lynched in public and chased out of their homes, while those who encourage killing blasphemers go scot-free. The law is gray on how one can charge those who wrongly accused Taseer of blasphemy. In the wake of his assassination, it may be time to revisit the constitution and define these crimes and their punishments in black and white.
That Taseer’s murder was condoned by religious groups is a shame in itself, but that they are free to make these statements is even worse. Azam Tariq, spokesman for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, called reporters and expressed "happiness" at Taseer’s death and said other "religious parties should also be happy." Tariq said, "Qadri was no scholar but he committed this act after listening to the fatwas of senior scholars."
JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rahman said his party would not allow Taseer to carry on his ‘agenda’ and involvement in the debate on the blasphemy law. The Sunni Ittehad Council campaigned against a possible pardon for Aasia Bibi, saying it would lead to "anarchy" in the country. Right-wing religious political parties were joined in their campaign against Taseer by a barrage of talk show hosts, who dominated their programming with thinly veiled condemnations of Taseer for his support of Aasia Bibi.
One of Taseer’s last tweets was: "I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing." Those words were to become chillingly true.
Saba Imtiaz works at The Express Tribune, an English-language newspaper in Pakistan.