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Saturday, January 8, 2011
Religion:Killed for defending a person's right to his / her faith
Salman Taseer’s death provides a parable of why his country, which promised so much, has slipped so far
Jan 6th 2011 | from PRINT EDITION
IN HIS first speech to Pakistan’s constituent assembly, on August 11th 1947, the country’s president, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, made clear his belief that religious toleration should prevail in the country he had brought into being. “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan.” It is a dreadful measure of how far Pakistan has sunk since then that Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, was murdered on January 4th because of his outspoken support for that principle.
Mr Taseer, a member of the Pakistan People’s Party and a close ally of the president, Asif Ali Zardari, had been campaigning on behalf of Asia Bibi, an illiterate Christian farm worker who in the course of a row with neighbours over drinking water was accused of blasphemy, convicted and sentenced to death. He had called for her to be pardoned, and also for the law, under which death for blasphemy against the prophet is mandatory, to be changed. His murderer, one of his bodyguards, said this was why the governor was killed.
The wider horror
The blasphemy law is bad enough in itself, but it also gives official sanction to a growing atmosphere of religious intolerance in Pakistan. Nobody has been executed under the law, but some fundamentalists regard it as their duty to do what the legal system has failed to do, and 32 people charged or convicted under the law have been murdered. Clerics called a national strike on December 31st to oppose a change in the law; whether out of support for the fundamentalists, or out of fear, it was widely observed.
Religious intolerance has also manifested itself in a horrifying wave of sectarian violence. In August 2009 the burning of a Christian church, after claims that a Koran had been desecrated, killed nine people. In May last year attacks on two mosques of the Ahmadi sect—which some mainstream Muslims regard as apostate—killed 95. In September an attack on a Shia procession killed 35 people.
Responsibility for turning Pakistan from the country that Jinnah hoped it would become into the bloodstained place it is today must be widely shared, but there are a few obvious culprits. First among them is the army. Zia ul Haq, the military dictator who took power in a coup in 1977 (and who imprisoned Mr Taseer and had him tortured), introduced sharia law, set up many of the religious schools that have produced the extremists who now plague the country, and promoted fundamentalist officers. His successors in the army have nurtured extremist groups to use them as tools within Afghanistan and against India, with little regard for their own country’s safety.
The politicians are not guilt-free, either. As a class, their venality has given democracy such a bad name that mullahs who decry it get an enthusiastic hearing; but some individuals have extra burdens of guilt to bear. Nawaz Sharif, twice prime minister, formerly chief minister of Punjab and whose brother now holds that post, has long numbered fundamentalists among his allies, and it was during his time in power that the mandatory death sentence was introduced. After the Ahmadi massacre in Punjab’s capital, Lahore, neither of the Sharifs visited the mosques to pay their respects to the community.
But the Pakistan People’s Party must take its share of the blame, too. Its manifesto committed it to repealing discriminatory laws, and President Zardari made much of Ms Bibi’s case. But instead of granting a swift pardon (which he did for his interior minister, Rehman Malik, who was convicted of corruption last year) he dithered until the case became a cause célèbre for fundamentalists and then lost his nerve. The government abandoned the only two politicians brave enough to pursue the matter—Mr Taseer and Sherry Rehman, an MP who had introduced a private member’s bill to amend the law—and said it would not change the legislation.
For evil to prevail, as the old saw goes, all that is required is for good men to do nothing. But Mr Taseer’s fate shows how high a price those who do something may have to pay.
Brave people who are isolated are easy to pick off. Pakistan’s slide into darkness will be stopped only if its political class hangs together and clings on to the values Jinnah predicted would make the place “one of the greatest countries in the world”. It is a phrase that rings with tragic irony today.