In Pakistan, Justifying Murder for Those Who Blaspheme

  • Share
  • Read Later
Photograph by Daniel Berehulak for TIME

Adulation for an assassin In January, crowds came out to support Qadri in Lahore

(2 of 2)

The Uses of Blasphemy
When a nation rises up in support of a murderer instead of his victim, it's hard not to believe it is heading down a dangerous path. "What is happening now won't matter in five years," says Shehrbano Taseer. "It will matter in 25 years. What we are seeing now is the fruit of what happened 30 years ago. If people had stood up against [Zia-ul-Haq], we would not be here today. Because of that silence we have madrasahs spewing venom, a true Islam threatened by the same people who claim to serve it, and a cowed majority too afraid to speak."

President Asif Ali Zardari, an old friend of Taseer's, condemned the murders but didn't go to either funeral. After paying his respects to Taseer's family, Interior Minister Rehman Malik gave an impromptu press conference outside Taseer's house during which he announced that he too would kill any blasphemer "with his own hands." A few days later, the Prime Minister announced that he would drop the issue of the blasphemy laws altogether. Meanwhile, the government is under pressure to go through with Aasia's sentence, and now her two champions are dead.

Reaction to Bhatti's murder has been muted, characterized mostly by denial. What little newspaper coverage there was focused on security lapses or the role of the country's Christian community rather than on the motives of the killer. On television talk shows, members of the religious parties and right-wing commentators spun a conspiracy theory that alleged that Bhatti's murder had been "a plot" hatched by "outside forces" to "divert attention from the Raymond Davis affair." There was no mention of the fact that Bhatti was campaigning alongside Taseer on the issue of blasphemy.

The PPP was founded in 1967 with the goal of bringing secular democracy to a nation under military rule. It vowed to give power to the people and promised to protect the nation's downtrodden. That Pakistan's most progressive party — one that has already endured the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto — should cave in the face of religious fundamentalism speaks volumes about the strength of the religious right. A candlelight vigil promoting a progressive Pakistan a few days after Taseer's assassination drew nearly 1,000 supporters; a religious rally in Karachi the same day had 40,000 in the street chanting Qadri's name. "Taseer's murderer was tried in the court of public opinion, and he has emerged a hero," says a woman shopping for vegetables in the same market where the governor was killed. "If someone kills me because I criticize Qadri, will he too be called a hero?" She declined to give her name.

Of course, few Pakistanis would ever go as far as Taseer's or Bhatti's killers. But their ambivalence can easily be manipulated. "Just because we are religious does not mean we will all be reaching for guns the next time someone says something wrong," says Malik Khan, a university student who spent a recent afternoon at a shrine in Lahore dedicated to a revered Islamic saint. "But Salmaan Taseer was an extremist as well. He should not have touched the blasphemy law." Khan received a text message praising Qadri and exhorting him to pass it along. It posed a moral quandary: "I don't agree with the message," he says. "But I love the Prophet. My thumb hesitated a long time over the delete button." In the end, he passed the hate along.

Qadri himself was the religious-minded youngest son of a family just stepping into the middle class. Like his brother, he joined the special-forces branch of the Punjab police in 2002. He had been flagged as a security risk because of his strong religious leanings but was nevertheless appointed to Taseer's security detail when he visited Islamabad. In his confession, Qadri said he had been inspired by the teachings of his local mullah, Hanif Qureshi. At a rally a few days later, Qureshi claimed credit for motivating Qadri. "He would come to my Friday prayers and listen to my sermons," he said. Then he repeated his point: "The punishment for a blasphemer is death."

But is it? Two weeks after Taseer's murder, I visited Qari Muhammad Zawar Bahadur, the head of one of Pakistan's mainstream religious groups and a co-signer of a statement that advised Muslims not to show "grief or sympathy on the death of the governor, as those who support blasphemy of the Prophet are themselves indulging in blasphemy." For more than an hour, he justified his group's stance, telling me that the Koran was clear on the issue. I asked Bahadur to show me the exact verse that detailed the punishments for blasphemy. He mumbled that "there are several passages," as if there were so many, he couldn't decide which one to quote. When pressed further, he consulted a Koran and read aloud a passage that spoke of killing a man who had once harmed the Prophet.

That verse has routinely been dismissed by leading Islamic scholars as referring to a specific case and having nothing to do with blasphemy. They say there is no definition of blasphemy in the Koran, nor any prescription for its punishment. "Nobody challenges these mullahs, and that is our problem," says Omar Fazal Jamil, who runs a p.r. firm in Lahore. "We can't invoke liberal secular values anymore. I have to have the knowledge to contradict these men who distort our religion for their own political gain. I have to be able to say, 'No, this did not happen, this is not right, and show me where it says in the Koran that blasphemers should be shot on sight.'‚ÄČ"

The Sin of Silence
In the absence of such challenges, those favoring religious intolerance will continue to have things go their way. In late 2007, Benazir Bhutto released an updated manifesto for her father's party. "The statutes that discriminate against religious minorities and are sources of communal disharmony will be reviewed," it said. Less than a month later she was dead, killed in a bomb attack just 13 km from where both Taseer and Bhatti were murdered. Her death was an opportunity to rally the nation against the forces of extremism. Instead the party focused on consolidating power. The manifesto remains an empty promise, and two more voices of tolerance have been silenced. For evil to prevail, goes the old aphorism, all that is required is for good men to do nothing.
With reporting by Ershad Mahmud / Lahore and Omar Waraich / Rawalpindi

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. Next Page