Pakistan: The Voices of Reason Must not be Silenced by Fear

By Sadiq Khan for The Independent

The news that Salman Taseer, the powerful governor of Pakistan’s most populous province, had been gunned down by his own security guard for standing up against the country’s draconian blasphemy laws, came as a bleak reminder of political fissures that divide the country.

The sickening scenes of Taseer’s murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, being showered by rose petals as he entered court to lodge his guilty plea were starkly juxtaposed with images of candlelit vigils at the spot where he was shot 27 times in the back.  These contrasting responses to Taseer’s assassination are illustrative of a fundamental split between those who want to see Pakistan fulfill her potential as a thriving, liberal and tolerant democracy and those that want to terrorize and isolate Pakistani citizens under a misguided and perverted interpretation of Islam.

While denouncement of last week’s criminal act was muted amongst Pakistan’s clerics and politicians – including those from the Pakistan Peoples Party, to which Taseer belonged – British citizens of Pakistani descent have been vocal in our condemnation and our mantra is clear – this death due to terrorism, as with the 25,000 others in Pakistan in recent years, is not in our name. It is not in the name of Islam and it is not in the name of Pakistan.  And while saddened by this loss, the real tragedy of Salman Taseer’s murder would be if it stopped other progressive, liberal people in Pakistan speaking up for fear of violent repercussions.

Qadri, though responsible for his own deplorable actions, was spurred on by inflammatory rhetoric from extremists preaching hatred and inciting violence against all those who stand up for the pluralist founding ideals of Pakistan. It is not only in Pakistan where irresponsible political language has repercussions beyond the boundaries of discourse and spill over into violence, but in Pakistan there is a danger that the voices of reason will be drowned out by the increasing clamor of hate, or silenced in fear.

Moderation and liberalism in Pakistan must not be allowed to die with Governor Taseer. Right-minded politicians and religious leaders must speak up, knowing that the UK as well as Muslims and non-Muslims around the world, are behind them.  Addressing a distinguished audience at the memorial meeting for Taseer at the Pakistani High Commission in London this week, MPs from all major British political parties spoke in solidarity with Pakistan and I was encouraged by the various Pakistani leaders who attacked those who corrupt Islam’s peaceful message and sought to assure Christians and other minority groups that they will be defended and protected.

If a society is ultimately judged by how it treats its most vulnerable and marginalized, then Pakistan is at a crossroads. Those, like Salman Taseer, who believe in a modern, peaceful Pakistan, governed by the rule of law, under which all people are equal and all faiths are free to worship, need to speak out in defense of it and in condemnation of the alternative.

After being struck by a natural disaster that swept away the lives, crops and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in Pakistan last year, there is the potential that Pakistan could slip into a political disaster of its own making. Salman Taseer paid the ultimate price in trying to ensure this didn’t happen, but let that not be in vain.

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