By Haroon Siddiqui for The Toronto Star
In the failing state of Pakistan, a junior cabinet minister is killed. Shahbaz Bhatti was a member of the Christian minority. He had taken up the cause of a poor Christian woman condemned to death for allegedly defaming Islam. He knew he was a marked man. But on a recent visit to Canada, where his brother lives, he said he was determined to carry on.
Eight weeks ago, a veteran politician was gunned down for the same sin. He, too, had championed the woman’s cause and condemned the blasphemy law that imposes the death penalty for insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. Salman Taseer was the governor of Punjab, the most populous and prosperous province, and an influential billionaire tycoon, a socialite and an unrepentant liberal in a society that’s becoming militantly conservative. He was a Muslim.
Bhatti was gunned down by unknown assailants. Taseer was assassinated by a member of the elite security unit assigned to guard him. More shockingly, the assassin was hailed a hero. Hundreds turned up at his house, chanting “we salute your bravery.” About 500 clerics signed a statement calling him “a true soldier of Islam.” When he appeared in court, young lawyers showered rose petals and kissed him. At a rally in cosmopolitan Karachi, marchers waved his portrait.
This is a sick society. There’s little Islamic about the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
The blasphemy law may have been enacted by the British colonials in 1860. But it was toughened by the Muslim rulers of Pakistan in the name of Islam. And both in its wording and implementation, the law violates the most basic principles of Islamic jurisprudence. In allowing hearsay evidence and innuendo, it ignores the necessity of incontrovertible proof for a finding of guilt.
The act is allowed to be abused in personal and property disputes. (A majority of those charged have been Muslims, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a voluntary organization). Or it is wielded as a weapon in political and religious vendettas. In one particularly horrific case, two Christian brothers were framed with a handwritten note defaming the Prophet, found in a marketplace with their home address and phone number.
Yet local police and magistrates dare not toss out such trumped-up charges. Cases have to be taken to higher courts to be overturned. Not a single person has been executed under the act. Yet more than 30 people charged or acquitted have been killed.
Under Islamic law, such jungle justice constitutes a greater crime than the alleged original one. It is deemed particularly egregious when the innocents prosecuted are poor and powerless.
The blasphemy law is just one of many flashpoints.
Christian churches have been bombed. So have been mosques belonging to the minority Ahmadi sect, deemed heretic. So also mosques of the minority Shiite Muslim sect. So also Sufi shrines, along with the devotees who turn up for the anniversary festivals of dance and music dedicated to those saints.
Not just that.
Pakistani Taliban and other militants have been killing fellow Muslims who won’t side with them. Such attacks were once restricted to the remote Afghan-Pakistan border but now they are routine in the populated south. Tens of thousands have been killed, including Benazir Bhutto, assassinated in December of 2007.
Yet the government is too weak to provide basic security and too corrupt to care — both egregious Islamic crimes. The politicians and the bureaucrats are not the only ones on the take. Too many clerics are also money-grabbing machines.
Several reasons are proffered for this sad state of affairs.
One is that Pakistan has had too many military dictators, and that the longest-serving one, Zia ul-Haq (1977-88) Islamized Pakistan, which he did. But he did so in tandem with the American-led effort to Islamize the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Another inconvenient truth is that while the military used jihadist proxy militias against India and Afghanistan, political parties use them as vote banks and to flex street muscle.
The secular-Islamic divide is also cited. Yet both religious and secular elites have pandered to extremists. It was the wine-sipping prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who in the 1970s restricted liquor and declared the Ahmadi sect non-Muslim. It is his People’s Party, once again in power, that abandoned backbencher Sherry Rahman after she proposed amendments to the blasphemy law.
Meanwhile, the economy is in ruins. Inflation is rampant, the currency is losing value and the central bank is printing more rupees.
Don’t be surprised if Pakistanis begin clamouring, yet again, for the return of the military to power.
Haroon Siddiqui is the Star’s editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears on Thursday and Sunday. firstname.lastname@example.org