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Remembering Salman Taseer

Remembering Salman Taseer

Today marks the third death anniversary of Salman Taseer. Usually political figures, even those assassinated, are remembered on their birthdays, but Taseer is different, mainly for what his death represented: the end of hope etc.

It’s interesting to go back and examine the run-up to his murder. One of the reasons I remember being particularly upset by Taseer’s killing was how disproportionate it was, even for the Islamic Republic.

On November 11, 2010, Aasia Bibi was sentenced to death for blasphemy. She asked for and received help from Taseer, who promised to take her case to President Zardari for a pardon. Taseer called the blasphemy law a “black law” and called for its amendment — not even its full repeal. Aasia also received support from Shahbaz Bhatti, who said that she was innocent of blasphemy — again, not actually calling for the law’s repeal.

The religious right, as it is wont to do, sprung into action immediately. It organized protests and demonstrations two days after Taseer met with Aasia Bibi, its modular form of politics, and threatened to keep doing so until Aasia was killed. This was their rationale:

They announced observing Friday (Nov 26) as a protest day against the governor`s statement and his intention to seek relief for the convict.

Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) amir Munawwar Hasan has also condemned the campaign launched by the governor and the country`s secular lobby for the release of Asia, and said the nation would foil every conspiracy to abolish the blasphemy law.

In a statement, he said any such attempt would prove to be the last nail in the coffin of the PPP government.

He said the JI would consult other political and religious parties to chalk out a joint line of action against the secular lobby`s designs.

Besides some foreign powers, the secular lobby and the foreign-funded NGOs having `anti-Islam` and `anti-Pakistan` agenda were pressurising the government into releasing the convict in a blatant interference in the country`s judicial system and its internal affairs, he alleged.

He said none of the human rights or women`s rights bodies had made any protest when a US court sentenced Dr Aafia Siddiqui to 86 years in jail without any proof and no ruler, including the governor, felt any sympathy for her.

However, on the conviction of Asia, Taseer promptly reached the jail to ensure “justice” to a blasphemer and even President Zardari hinted at releasing her, the JI chief lamented.

Nutty conspiracy theories, false equivalences, weird anti-NGO fetish, this really won the religious-right BINGO award. Others of their ilk went further, and insisted that instead of the state killing Aasia, some vigilante should do it:

PESHAWAR: A hardline cleric has offered a reward to anyone who kills a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy against Islam.

Maulana Yousef Qureshi made the announcement Friday at a rally in Peshawar. He said his mosque would give $6,000 to the person who kills Aasia Bibi.

On January 4, Taseer was assassinated. “Salman Taseer is a blasphemer and this is the punishment for a blasphemer,” was what his killer said. And that was that: neither the blasphemy law’s amendment, nor its proponents such as Bhatti (murdered) or Sherry Rehman (exiled), nor, most importantly, Aasia Bibi were heard from again.

No one does efficient politics quite like the religious right in Pakistan; no one goes from problem to solution to victory faster.  All told this entire episode took less than eight weeks, and was only slightly more depressing than its immediate aftermath, when Qadri was showered with petals and shouts of “ghazi”. At least the state found Qadri guilty of murder, but even that was under duress, and the judge who sentenced him had to flee for his life.

They are the veto point to end all veto points. Their victories extend from Big Things like the country’s name and the Objectives Resolution and the constitution and the penal code to the minutiae of bureaucracy, like passports (the religion column) and ID cards (the Ahmedi pledge). They have a unique ability to constrict discourse. I mean, think about the bargain they have struck with the rest of the country: forget repealing  the law, forget amending the law, you can’t even talk about amending the law, and not in a “we will send angry emails or play dirty politics at the thaana-kutchery level” kind of way but in a “we will pump 26 bullets in your back” kind of way. Take a look at another example, this time from early in Musharraf’s tenure:

Pakistan’s human rights commission has reacted strongly after the country’s military ruler gave up plans to change the way in which a controversial blasphemy law is implemented.

A number of Islamic organisations had threatened to hold demonstrations on Friday to protest against the proposed changes.

But General Musharraf has said that he now plans to leave the laws completely unchanged.

How matter of fact is that? Like I said, efficient politics. And again note the law wasn’t being repealed or even amended in this case. Moreover, given the country’s founding myth and DNA, this power is not extended to just one law or policy area. They can make whatever they want about religion and make it off limits — who wants to be insufficiently Muslim in the Islamic Republic? It really is amazing to see how much they have accomplished just with these tactics, and I haven’t even gotten to their ideological allies TTP, ASWJ etc., whom they owe a great deal to.

Anyway, back to Taseer: he was a very brave man whose cause died with him, unfortunately. RIP.

Photo: PBS

About Ahsan Butt

Assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason.

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