The Assassination of Salman Taseer and the Pakistani Blasphemy Law Debate

By Kabir Altaf

On January 4, 2011 Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, was assassinated for advocating amendments to the country’s blasphemy law that would prevent it from being abused for personal reasons. Taseer had also pressed for the release of Aasia Bibi, a poor Christian woman who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy and is currently in prison. In the worldview of the assassin—a member of the governor’s own security detail—by defending an imprisoned woman and considering amendments to the blasphemy law, Taseer had committed blasphemy himself and was thus condemned to death.

The assassination was a tragedy; the reactions to it are far more complex. The day after the murder, 500 Pakistani religious scholars issued statements to the effect that those attending Taseer’s funeral or even expressing regret at his death would themselves be guilty of blasphemy:”a supporter of a blasphemer is a blasphemer himself.” Many presumably “educated” citizens of Pakistan made Facebook groups in support of the assassin arguing that he was a hero of Islam for killing a blasphemer and should not be punished. And last but certainly not least, on January 9, a few days after the murder, thousands gathered on the streets of Karachi, Pakistan’s economic capital and largest city, to show their support for the blasphemy laws. The rally was addressed by the heads of several religiously-based parties. DAWN, one of Pakistan’s most liberal English-language papers, quoted Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of his own faction of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) as saying: “If you cannot tolerate the blasphemy law, how can we tolerate those committing blasphemy? Taseer is responsible for his assassination and the government shares the blame.” He added that changing the law was in the interests of the U.S. and Western governments that favored repeal of Islamic laws.

Amid the furor about the “divinely-ordained” blasphemy laws, what many people seemed to forget is that the law is in fact man-made and was introduced at a specific time in Pakistan’s history. Although the law has its roots in 19th century colonial legislation to protect places of worship, it took its current form in the 1980s during the military dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq as part of his Islamization drive. Under the law, anyone who speaks ill of the Prophet Mohammad commits a crime and faces the death penalty. The vague terminology of the law has frequently led to its misuse. Convictions often hinge on witness testimony and are linked to personal vendettas. The law is particularly worrisome to Christians, who comprise 4% of Pakistan’s population, and who argue that it offers them no protection. However, although it is clear that the law is problematic, in the current Pakistani political climate, thirty years after Zia’s Islamization drive, even suggesting that the law is man-made and should be amended costs people their lives.

From a humanist perspective, there is no question that the blasphemy law must be repealed.Among other things, it is a deterrent to free speech. While one can argue that the standards of civil discourse mean that one should refrain from being gratuitously derogatory toward anyone’s religious icons or scriptural texts, criticism and discussion of laws derived from religion needs to be allowed in a free society.

Secondly, the law discriminates against Pakistan’s minorities, not only the Christians, but also Hindus and even the Ahmedis, a Muslim sect that Pakistani law has officially declared “non-Muslim.” As a modern nation-state, Pakistan belongs to all of its citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs. Having laws that explicitly favor one religion and hold its tenets free from any sort of criticism is inconsistent with the ideals of a modern state, which is what Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had envisioned for the country at its founding in 1947. In his August 11th, 1947 speech to the Constituent Assembly, Jinnah said, “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. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State… We are starting with this principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State… you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”

It is striking how secular and humanistic Jinnah sounds in this speech. Though he fought for Pakistan as a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent, he never intended the country to become a theocratic state. Citizens were to be free to hold their individual religious beliefs and to practice them as they saw fit, yet in the political sphere they were all equal and were to be defined only in their identity as citizens. Sixty years on, Pakistan has shifted 180 degrees from the vision of its founding father. It is high time for the country’s citizens to reflect on how this shift occurred and what can be done to prevent their country from becoming a theocratic state that squashes all dissent.

Kabir Altaf is an intern for the American Humanist Association. He graduated from George Washington University in 2009 and studied abroad for two years in Lahore, Pakistan.