Friday, January 7, 2011

Salman Taseer: Pakistan must face up to the enemy within

Eight hours before an officer on Salman Taseer's security detail emptied a Kalashnikov into his back, the governor of the Pakistani province of Punjab posted his own epitaph on Twitter.
"I am unafraid of the embers that are flying through the darkness," reads the couplet by the poet Shakeel Badayuni (in translation), "but I fear that the flame-like bloom of my flowers might reduce my garden to ashes."

Mr Taseer's murder makes clear that Pakistan remains on the edge of the abyss. Thousands of lives, and billions of pounds, have been lost in an effort to defeat the insurgents who threaten to seize control of the nuclear-armed state. And it is becoming clear that the Pakistani state either isn't willing, or isn't able, to confront the Islamist movement that it has nurtured for decades – and which now threatens to turn the country into a burnt-out dystopia.

The police officer who killed Mr Taseer was enraged by his decision to seek clemency for an impoverished mother of five who is on death row for violating Pakistan's blasphemy laws. In June 2009, Asiya Noreen, a member of the only Christian family in the village of Ittan Wala, was asked to fetch water for a group of women working in the blazing sun. Some of the women refused to accept the water, because of her low caste, sparking off an argument. Mr Taseer, who visited Mrs Noreen in prison, said she was beaten and gang-raped.

Later, the other women involved claimed that she had blasphemed the Prophet Mohammed, and in November, a judge handed down a death sentence. Pakistani liberals were appalled. Shahbaz Bhatti, the minorities minister, said the charges were "baseless". Sherry Rehman, an influential politician, sought to amend the blasphemy laws, a move backed by Mr Taseer, who said they were "man-made, not God-made."
But the religious Right hit back. The ultraconservative Deoband movement allied with clerics from the Barelvi sect, often claimed to represent a tolerant, anti-Islamist tendency in south Asian Islam. In December, the alliance was able to bring tens of thousands of people on to city streets in defence of the blasphemy laws.

Fearing the clerics' wrath, Pakistan's government panicked. Babar Awan, the justice minister, announced that he would not countenance amendments to the laws. Days before his death, Mr Taseer complained that the government was "not willing to face religious fanaticism head on".

It isn't hard to understand why. Pakistan's political system, regularly disrupted by military rule, long failed to address the need for development, or to improve the chronic inequality that besets the country. Instead, says the Pakistani scholar Ayesha Siddiqa, the politicians sought the clerics' support, in an effort to legitimise their position.

In 1956, Pakistan's first constitution decreed that the country would be an "Islamic Republic", in which no laws could contravene religious practice. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto's father and, ironically, Mr Taseer's mentor – went further, declaring Islam the state religion and setting up a council to bring secular law in line with sharia. In 1974, he made it illegal for Ahmadis, an Islamic movement founded in the 19th century, to describe themselves as Muslims.

Over the years, the process continued. Zia-ul-Haq, who deposed and later executed Mr Bhutto, mandated harsh punishments for "whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed". Nawaz Sharif, the subsequent prime minister, made this offence punishable by death.

Pakistan is reported to have prosecuted 1,276 individuals for blasphemy between 1986 and 2010 – up from nine cases in the period from 1929 to 1982. No death sentences have so far been carried out, but several people have been murdered while on trial. Last summer, Rashid Emanuel, a Christian pastor, and his brother were shot as they emerged from court. In 2003, Samuel Masih, was beaten to death while on trial by a police officer who wanted "to earn a place in heaven".

Efforts to reform these laws have been fitful. General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's former military ruler, sought to sidestep the Hadood laws, which require rape victims to find four male witnesses, but the federal sharia court recently struck down his reforms. The government has also failed to repeal the Qisas and Diyat Laws, which treat murder as a civil offence – allowing influential perpetrators to buy their way out of prison.

The events this week, following Mr Taseer's death, illustrate how toxic the climate has become. The clerics representing the purportedly moderate Barelvi tradition ordered that there "should be no expression of grief or sympathy" over his death. Even within Mr Zardari's cabinet, the pro-Islamist voices are becoming stronger. Last month, Attaur Rehman, the tourism minister, described the Taliban as "true followers of Islamic ideology".

"Fighting terrorism isn't just about drones and troops," says Rafia Zakaria of Amnesty International. "It's about ensuring respect for the law and human rights. Here, you have people inciting assassination, and others applauding them – and the state refuses to act."

Taseer’s assassination

PESHAWAR: Activists of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) here on Thursday staged a protest to condemn the assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and urged the government to unveil the hidden hands involved in the incident and award them strict punishment.
Led by PPP city district leaders including Syed Ayub Shah, Azam Afridi, Saeed Ahmad Khan and Tahir Abbas, the infuriated activists burnt tyres and blocked the main road for traffic near Hashtnagri while chanting vociferous slogans against the PML-N government in Punjab.
Carrying banners and placards inscribed with slogans in favour of their party and leadership, the protesters urged the government to take action against those taking law into their own hands in the name of Islam.
Addressing the protesters, the speakers condemned the assassination of Salmaan Taseer and termed it a cowardly act. They said such acts could not stop them from their mission for which their leaders had sacrificed their lives.
They appreciated their party and its leadership for refusing to bow to any dictators and preferring death and suffering instead. Extending their sympathies with the members of bereaved family, the speakers stressed that no sect should be allowed to impose its particular point of view on others as it would lead to chaos in the country. “There are 72 sects in the country and if they try to impose their own will on others, there will be chaos and lawlessness all around,” one of the speakers said.
Terming Salmaan Taseer’s death as a great tragedy, the PPP leaders said Islam did not allow killing of any human beings. They said such senseless killings would earn a bad name for the country. Terming the PPP as a party of martyrs, the speakers vowed to continue their mission till the establishment of a peaceful, just and progressive society in which every person would have equal rights.

Investigating tragedy


Emerging from the darkness that has engulfed this country in the wake of the tragic demise of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer are many myriad questions. Reports have indicated that while the murderer, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, emptied numerous bullets into his victim, no one else from among the security personnel stopped him during this rampage. However, further investigation reveals that the position from where Qadri fired and the way he carried out the operation made it very precarious for anyone to stop him. What actually happened is still a matter of speculation and the fact that some members of the elite force in the governor’s security convoy have been arrested is proof that the plan could very well have been known by other members of the convoy. What is genuinely irksome is the fact that the Islamabad police failed to provide security to the slain governor. In case of VIP movement, security is always provided by the police in whose jurisdiction the movement is taking place. The fact that the Islamabad inspector general of police had been aware of Salmaan Taseer’s presence in the capital but still failed to provide security is a question that will demand immediate answers.

One of the most alarming and glaring aspects of this case is the deployment of Qadri to the governor’s security detail. That an extremist could be allowed to get into such close proximity to a man who needed the best possible security (especially after the tough stance he had taken to get justice delivered to Aasia Bibi) is a cause for extreme distress. The whetting process for the selection of security personnel has come under intense scrutiny now as many questions are being asked as to the functioning of this all-important task. Just how careless have those in charge of the protection of our politicians become? More unsettling is the prospect that there was some conspiracy at work, allowing Qadri to be close to the governor, making his mission successful. If this is the case, investigating authorities will have to dig deep and look harder into the grimy circumstances surrounding Mr Taseer’s death. What this murder has made clear is the fact that these security convoys are penetrable and as such there now remains no fool-proof guarantee for VIPs, especially those who have taken a firm position on the blasphemy laws – they may be a minority but they are a desperately needed voice in this ocean of extremist madness.

Meanwhile the whole world has condemned the assassination. Everywhere from the US to Turkey and to the UN, an outpouring of condolences has come in to comfort the nation. Protests by workers of the PPP have started countrywide. It is recommended that the process of the law not be stalled when it comes to making sure that Qadri is brought to justice. With his case being sent to an anti-terrorism court and Qadri now being put on a five-day physical remand, we wait to see speedy and efficient justice. Any laxity could have the potential to drive party workers out into the streets in droves. It could also give the religious parties time to consolidate their efforts to make sure that Qadri is not punished. That is the last thing this blighted nation needs.

Qadri could become a warped hero for the obstructionist forces. The governor’s murder has clearly shown how the progressive political and democratic forces in this country are under siege. It has outlined the ever-deepening divide that has polarised society with galloping extremism on one end and the promise of a better, more progressive future tightly packed into a silent little corner on the other end. It is time to reassert political democracy to silence these voices of hate. For Salmaan Taseer that will be the best revenge. *

Salmaan Taseer...The forever governor

By Reem Wasay
Daily Times

The underbelly of extremist Islam is swarming with individuals who would rather promote a desecrated dogma than salvage a strengthened sanctimony of compassion, human rights and tolerance

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Salmaan Taseer left the Governor House with both honour and dignity intact. In a country where the megalomaniac pull of power and politics has sold many souls to the devil, our forever governor was a force to be reckoned with. Contrary to popular opinion, Salmaan Taseer did not offend people – he intimidated them. In a society harnessed to hate, that is a dangerous precedent to set. Coming from a family distant from the flaws of feudalism, Salmaan Taseer was a rarity; he rose to gargantuan heights on no secondary shoulders but on his own two feet. Where dynasty and imaginary lineage have, for decades, mauled the mandate of true democracy and progress, Salmaan Taseer became a somebody from the long line of nobodies who live and rise among us. Defining a liberal Pakistani dream, Mr Taseer epitomised everything that this land promised its newly christened citizens back in 1947. His very existence demonstrated to people that even in this gloom and pallor of a state riddled with rustic curses, one man’s determination can free him of the antiquated sermon of submission that all us Pakistanis have fallen prey to. His life, travels, views, raw honesty, ascendance and dynamism emboldened the quiet moderates to voice their ideologies without fear for the very first time in a manner unheard of in a country rocked and ruled by men and women who have no identity because they have departed from integrity and progress. He was an intimidating man because he did not suffer the malaise of hypocrisy that has penetrated the pith and principle of most human beings in this land. He spoke his mind and he spoke it without fear, but with plenty of wit and, at times, stinging valour; it stung because he said what we all felt and knew was right but were too intimidated by the wrong factions to say it. Intimidation is a strange thing; it can either make you cower in submission or it can make you a gallant of Goliathan proportions.

Salmaan Taseer intimidated his peers, his subordinates, his fellow liberals and even the swarm of extremists who orchestrated and celebrated his death but are, in actuality, responsible for making the man into the first true martyr for a more liberal, more just Pakistan. ‘Muslims’ are so fond of quoting worldly examples to expunge their irrationalities that I would like to take a leaf out of the bigot book for this. Many Muslims hold the opinion that God shows to the believers the true value of a man’s worth only in his death. Salmaan Taseer died fighting for a cause he believed in and that makes him a hero. Dear fanatics, what do you think God is trying to tell you? His last rites, the mammoth turnout of mourners to pay their final respects, a hero’s goodbye and the colossal grief that has confounded the country are not the reactions awarded to a sullied soul. In a nation where men and women have been booted out of power and governors have been unceremoniously kicked out of the Governor’s House – some without shoes on – Salmaan Taseer left with homage and honour. If we are so blinded by convictions, let us take stock of the man’s final farewell.

The Blasphemy law has demonstrated in practice that it is not a devout law; it is atonement for the lunatics who achieve their only worth in life on the burdened back of our Prophet’s (PBUH) exploited honour. The underbelly of extremist Islam is swarming with individuals who would rather promote a desecrated dogma than salvage a strengthened sanctimony of compassion, human rights and tolerance. The real blasphemy does not take place in open fields between women of two different cultures, different beliefs and different opinions; it takes place in the house of God where different edicts are screamed from the speakers by men who have made themselves false prophets – as warned from the times of Abraham. Blasphemy occurs when the gunning down of a progressive is met with celebration instead of castigation and sanction instead of sentence. When mullahs incite further anger over the sands that falter on the grave of a man who had so much more to say, they practice blasphemy. They read upside down from their scriptures when they condemn any attempts at mourning and offering prayers for the fallen. They, by the very essence of their existence, are walking, breathing examples of blasphemy because they have intervened between God and man; they have demonised our own personal spirituality with their rituals, symbols, rules and rewards for violence. When a certain maulana on the television recently said that the governor’s death had no association with blasphemy but the anger generated in the people due to his “excessive” lifestyle, the bearded bastion’s arrogance screamed of blasphemy for he failed to grieve the death of a fellow citizen, something our Prophet (PBUH) would weep over. Such mullahs and radical rejectionists practice blasphemy by baying for the blood of a woman the governor died trying to set free.

It is time we fought fire with fire. If they can call voicing an opinion blasphemy, we can demonstrate extremist existence as blasphemy. A voice of moderation and liberal ideas has been snuffed out between the thorny fingers of misconstrued and manufactured ideologies. His death must not be in vain. It is time the PPP sprout a spine and address the very laws their governor died to amend. In the end, he was the lone voice in a rampage of irrationality; his party deserted him but he did not abandon a just cause. Blasphemy is real when we do nothing over the death of a true progressive. Blasphemy becomes us when we sit back in silence and drown out the rabid, white noise of the mercenaries of the minarets by ignoring these issues, a stance that Salman Taseer did not take. He truly was “the last man standing”; let us pay due tribute and work to amend the cruelty that comes with the blasphemy clauses.

The writer is an Assistant Editor, Daily Times.