Liberal Pakistan under Extremist Assault

Salman Taseer visits Asia Bibi; photo via Salman Taseer's flickr accountLiberals in Pakistan are struggling to stand their ground in the face of religious extremism and terrorist violence that, on January 4, claimed the life of one of their leaders, Salman Taseer. As the governor of Pakistan’s largest province of Punjab, Taseer campaigned against the abuse of the country’s blasphemy laws. The biased application of these laws have upended the lives of hundreds of innocent people.

Asia Bibi, a Pakistani woman of Christian faith, became the most prominent victim of such bias. In November 2010, a district court sentenced her to die for “blaspheming” the prophet of Islam, a charge she denies. The sentence shook liberal Pakistan, producing a groundswell of support for her. Its echo was heard as far afield as the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI publicly pleaded with Islamabad to set Asia free.

Pakistan’s blasphemy law is in desperate need of reform. But outsiders should refrain from calling for its repeal, given the fragile political balance inside Pakistan today.

Taseer’s Lonely Battle

Governor Taseer was moved to fight for Asia’s life out of fear for the future of Pakistan as a religiously tolerant society. He resolved to persuade Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari to pardon her. He also planned to use this opportunity to highlight the frequent misuse of blasphemy laws. Before he set out on his effort to lobby Islamabad, he first visited Asia in her prison cell on November 22 in the full glare of television cameras. Asia convinced him that the charges against her were fabricated. She handed him a petition for a presidential pardon. The visit triggered a heated debate in the national and international media about the merits of Asia’s conviction. Also, it spotlighted Governor Taseer’s courage in attempting to save the life of a fellow Pakistani who cannot fight for herself.

Taseer’s visit to the prison elicited mixed reactions. Although liberal and progressive Pakistanis cheered him on, a section of religious leaders decreed him beyond the pale of Islam for meeting with a “blasphemer.” Such decrees are the Catholic equivalent of excommunication. Taseer dismissed the decree as the ramblings of “phony mullahs.”

Despite this attempt at putting on a brave face, Governor Taseer appeared lonely in his battle to reform blasphemy laws and save an innocent life. At one point, he could not name more than four leaders who echoed his cause. On December 31, the religious right shut down all of Pakistan with rallies and strikes in support of the blasphemy laws. In the face of these winds of opposition, Governor Taseer stood erect but alone. He vowed to continue fighting “even if I am the last man standing.” It was this loneliness that took him to Islamabad on the fateful day of January 4, where he twice met with the minister for information to figure out a way to counteract the vilification campaign by extremists who had put a bounty on his head. However, the divisions sown by his right-wing enemies had suddenly grown too wide to heal.

Fractious PPP and Blasphemy Laws

Even Taseer’s party – the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — was deeply divided on the issue. The Minister for Law Babar Awan, for instance, fumed that no one should “think of finishing this law” as long as he was on the job. The Minister for Interior Rehman Malik, who by virtue of his office is the country’s top cop, outdid his fellow minister with rhetorical flourishes of his own: “If someone dishonors Islam in front of me, I will shoot him dead.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the former minister of information and a sitting member of the National Assembly Sherry Rehman introduced a bill in parliament to amend these laws. To further confound this fractious situation, Prime Minister Yusuf Reza Gilani dismissed Rehman’s bill as her own personal initiative and closed the book on the subject, stating that his government “had no intention of amending the (blasphemy) laws.” President Asif Ali Zardari, who also co-chairs the PPP, apparently stood above the fray and said nothing on the subject.

The internal divisions in the PPP, which is a liberal-progressive party, mirror the country’s electoral landscape. Pakistanis of all faiths, including values voters, overwhelmingly vote their pocketbooks and elect progressive parties to government. On religious matters, however, they only listen to leaders of faith. This is how they keep Caesar and God separate.

Yet religious parties could never poll more than five percent of the national vote. The only time they did better was in 2002, when General Pervez Musharraf, now Pakistan’s disgraced leader, engineered the national elections in their favor to keep the center-left PPP and the center-right Pakistan Muslim League (PML) out of power. Religious parties, however, appeal to voters on value issues and, by playing up hot-button controversies, deploy such voters against their elected leaders in the name of faith. In turn, the state is simultaneously challenged by al-Qaeda terrorists, Taliban militants, and political insurgents, which complicates any potential challenge to the blasphemy laws.

Why Blasphemy Laws Are Off-Limits

Blasphemy is a hypersensitive issue for most Muslims in comparison with the two other major monotheistic traditions, Judaism and Christianity. Although Islam shares Abrahamic ancestry with these two religions, it diverges from both in its doctrine of “literalism.” That the Koran is a revealed text of divine authorship is an article of faith for all Muslims. In Judaism and Christianity, only an orthodox minority holds such views about the Old Testament or New Testament. Literalism eternalizes the Koran and the prophet of Islam, placing both above and beyond the reach of free speech.

In the early 1980s, Pakistani intellectual and attorney Mushtaq Raj tested the limits of free speech by penning a treatise entitled Heavenly Communism, which the religious right condemned as a mockery of Islamic icons. Raj, however, escaped their wrath because there was, then, no statute on the books to punish his “crime of thought.” This episode stirred extremists into mounting a long battle in the nation’s courts and legislature to first criminalize blasphemy and then stiffen penalties for it in the early 1990s.

Blasphemy laws have since carried life sentence for desecrating the Koran and the death penalty for defaming the prophet of Islam either in words, deeds, or images. It is often applied by district courts. But their sentences are always overturned in high courts or the Supreme Court. Of hundreds of people who have been tried and sentenced, none was executed. Yet an overturned sentence is no solace for those who are accused of blasphemy. They often become victims of mob lynching. Thus far, at least 32 people charged with blasphemy have been lynched.

Liberals resent these laws for two reasons. They choke off any rational debate on religion and perpetuate the victimization of economically and socially marginalized communities within and between faiths. Second, they empower all kinds of religious leaders, literate, subliterate, and illiterate, to monopolize the discourse on what constitutes blasphemy and how to deal with it. All this makes even the discussion of blasphemy laws, let alone their reform, a life-and-death issue, as became evident with Governor Taseer’s assassination.

Yet even conservative commentators increasingly realize that these laws are often abusively applied, making religious minorities (both inside and outside Islam) their chief victims. There is an equally growing recognition that evidence against defendants in blasphemy cases need to be held to higher and more objective standards, and plaintiffs who falsely accuse defendants, such as Asia, ought to be held to account as well. The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), Pakistan’s highest forum of Islamic jurisprudence, has even proposed the death penalty for false accusers in blasphemy cases.

What to Do

As a long-term goal, the PPP government should build on these emerging trends to create consensus around reforming the blasphemy laws. In the interim, it should work harder to help Asia in her upcoming appeal process, bring Governor Taseer’s assassin to justice, and stand up to religious extremism by enforcing the state’s writ. It should learn from its earlier mistake of igniting the blasphemy controversy without doing sufficient homework for its comprehensive resolution and without anticipating the extremist backlash.

This grave error breathed life into the moribund religious right. The government’s immediate concern should be to defuse this raging controversy and get it out of the headlines. World leaders would help matters if they desist from making unrealistic demands on Islamabad to repeal the blasphemy laws, as Pope Benedict XIV did on January 10. Repeal is a tall order for a weak coalition government that has just recovered from a near-collapse. No wonder that Minister for Law Babar Awan rejected the pope’s call as interference in Pakistan’s judicial process. If anything, the pope’s call only served as a red flag to the religious right, which answered it with more street marches and inchoate [15] If anything, the Pith what effectPakistani constitution that permits courts to strike down laws deemed “repugnant” fury.

Although it forcefully condemned the extremist violence that took Governor Taseer’s life, the United States stayed out of this controversy. On January 11, when he was in Islamabad on a day-long trip, Vice President Joe Biden said: “Societies that tolerate such actions end up being consumed by those actions.” He made time to speak with Governor Taseer’s family and offered condolences on his own behalf and on behalf of President Barrack Obama and the American people. The major U.S. concern is to keep extremist forces from destabilizing Pakistan, a concern that has prompted Washington to provide economic and military assistance to Islamabad. “The United States remains committed to helping the government and the people of Pakistan as they persevere in their campaign to bring peace and stability to their country,” remarked Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in a statement that condemned Governor Taseer’s assassination.

Controversies like the one whipped up over the blasphemy laws will only take the government’s focus away from far greater threats to Pakistan and its religious minorities, such as Taliban militancy and al-Qaeda terrorism. The United States, deeply invested in Pakistan’s stability, does not want this to happen. That’s why Vice President Biden “delivered a bold message of support for Pakistan” on January 11, saying that “our relationship… is absolutely vital … to the interest of the United States … and to the Pakistani interest as well.”

President Obama echoed these sentiments by emphasizing “U.S-Pakistan strategic partnership” in his hurriedly scheduled Oval Office meeting with President Zardari, who was in Washington on January 13 to attend a memorial service for the late U.S. representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrook. Liberal and progressive forces in Pakistan also realize that religious extremism feeds on weak states, which they need to combat by rallying behind the state of Pakistan.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Tarique Niazi teaches environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire and can be reached via email: [email protected]