In Pakistan, Justifying Murder for Those Who Blaspheme
By Aryn Baker for Time
“I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us,” the doomed man said, staring straight into the video camera. “And I am ready to die for a cause.” Shahbaz Bhatti had no hesitation in his voice as he responded to a question about threats from the Taliban and al-Qaeda. “I’m living for my community … and I will die to defend their rights.” It was his last answer in a four-month-old self-produced video that was to be broadcast in the event of his death. But the radicals had the final say. On March 2, Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs, was shot dead in Islamabad. Pamphlets scattered on the ground claimed the act for a new alliance of “the organization of al-Qaeda and the Punjabi Taliban” and asserted that other infidels and apostates would meet the same fate.
Bhatti’s death had been foretold not just by himself but also in the nation’s response to a previous assassination, that of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer on Jan. 4. Taseer, a self-made millionaire, had turned his largely ceremonial post into a platform for a campaign to amend Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Bhatti, the only Christian in the Cabinet, refused to be a token and swore to battle intolerance. Both men supported clemency for Aasia Noreen, a Christian woman who had been accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. Taseer’s stance on the issue infuriated a large part of the population that, thanks to religious leaders and school curriculums, believes that blasphemy is a sin deserving of execution. In the weeks leading up to his assassination, Taseer had been denounced at Friday prayers, excoriated in the media and largely abandoned by his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) for fears that his campaign would prove politically toxic. The witch hunt culminated in a bodyguard’s pumping 27 rounds into his head and chest in the parking lot of a popular Islamabad shopping center.
Within hours of Taseer’s death, telephone text messages celebrating his assassination made the rounds. “Justice has been done,” read one. “If you love the Prophet, pass this on.” A Facebook fan page for assassin Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri garnered more than 2,000 members before site administrators shut it down. Even the leaders of state-funded mosques refused to say funeral prayers for the slain governor. When Qadri was transferred to a local jail, he was garlanded with roses by hundreds of lawyers — the vanguard of a movement that in 2008 helped unseat a military dictator — offering to take on his case for free.
At his court appearance a few days later, Qadri told the judge that he believed in a Pakistan where loyalty to the Prophet eclipses all other rights. According to Taseer’s daughter Shehrbano, her father “wanted an egalitarian society where open debate is protected and people are not killed for speaking out.” And Bhatti dreamed of a nation true to founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s vision, one where “you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship.” Which vision prevails — Qadri’s or Taseer and Bhatti’s — will decide the future of the country.
The Roots of Extremism
It is not news that Pakistan has a lunatic fringe. What is disturbing is that after Taseer’s murder, when the silent majority finally spoke up, it praised Qadri, not his victim. The public reaction exploded the myth of Pakistan’s moderate Islam; Qadri belongs to a mainstream sect that routinely condemns the Taliban. “The Pakistan we saw in the wake of Taseer’s killing is the real Pakistan,” says Amir Muhammad Rana of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies. For the past two years, Rana’s organization has conducted in-depth interviews with a broad spectrum of Pakistani citizens. “They might dress Western and eat at McDonald’s, but when it comes to religion, most Pakistanis have a very conservative mind-set.”
Pakistan’s religious parties rarely do well at the polls — a fact often cited by those countering concerns that the country is going fundamentalist — but their street power is considerable. The furor over blasphemy appears to be partly in response to significant losses for the religious right in the 2008 elections. With the current government on the verge of collapse and popular sentiment against the PPP mounting, the religious parties are betting on significant gains if fresh elections are called. The case of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor accused of killing two Pakistanis during what appears to have been a botched attempt to rob him, demonstrates the state of Pakistan’s politics. It has gone virtually unremarked in Pakistan that Qadri, a confessed murderer, has been hailed as a national hero, while Davis — who, whatever his background, seems to have been acting in self-defense — is considered worthy of the death penalty. Over the past few weeks, street rallies led by the religious right have simultaneously called for the release of Qadri and the hanging of Davis. (Read: “Pakistan’s Christians Mourn, and Fear for Their Future.”)
Using religion to shore up political support is nothing new in Pakistan. Founded as a Muslim nation carved from a newly independent India in 1947, Pakistan has long struggled to unite a diverse population divided by language, culture and ethnicity. Islam was the common denominator, but Jinnah was famously enigmatic about its role in government.
Then, in 1977, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, an Islamist military general, overthrew the democratically elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was already retrenching his secular vision of Pakistan in an effort to win religious support. To further appease Muslim religious leaders, Zia-ul-Haq strengthened the colonial-era blasphemy laws, mandating that breaches should be answered by the death penalty. Since then, more than 1,274 cases have been lodged. As repeating blasphemous words could be considered to be perpetuating the crime, many cases are accepted without evidence, a system well primed for the pursuit of vendettas. That nobody has yet been executed by court order is hardly reassuring: 37 of the accused have been killed by vigilantes. (In 1929, Jinnah famously defended an illiterate carpenter who shot to death a Hindu publisher accused of blasphemy. The plea failed, and after the carpenter was hanged, Taseer’s father was one of the pallbearers.)
The Uses of Blasphemy
When a nation rises up in support of a murderer instead of his victim, it’s hard not to believe it is heading down a dangerous path. “What is happening now won’t matter in five years,” says Shehrbano Taseer. “It will matter in 25 years. What we are seeing now is the fruit of what happened 30 years ago. If people had stood up against [Zia-ul-Haq], we would not be here today. Because of that silence we have madrasahs spewing venom, a true Islam threatened by the same people who claim to serve it, and a cowed majority too afraid to speak.”
President Asif Ali Zardari, an old friend of Taseer’s, condemned the murders but didn’t go to either funeral. After paying his respects to Taseer’s family, Interior Minister Rehman Malik gave an impromptu press conference outside Taseer’s house during which he announced that he too would kill any blasphemer “with his own hands.” A few days later, the Prime Minister announced that he would drop the issue of the blasphemy laws altogether. Meanwhile, the government is under pressure to go through with Aasia’s sentence, and now her two champions are dead.
Reaction to Bhatti’s murder has been muted, characterized mostly by denial. What little newspaper coverage there was focused on security lapses or the role of the country’s Christian community rather than on the motives of the killer. On television talk shows, members of the religious parties and right-wing commentators spun a conspiracy theory that alleged that Bhatti’s murder had been “a plot” hatched by “outside forces” to “divert attention from the Raymond Davis affair.” There was no mention of the fact that Bhatti was campaigning alongside Taseer on the issue of blasphemy.
The PPP was founded in 1967 with the goal of bringing secular democracy to a nation under military rule. It vowed to give power to the people and promised to protect the nation’s downtrodden. That Pakistan’s most progressive party — one that has already endured the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto — should cave in the face of religious fundamentalism speaks volumes about the strength of the religious right. A candlelight vigil promoting a progressive Pakistan a few days after Taseer’s assassination drew nearly 1,000 supporters; a religious rally in Karachi the same day had 40,000 in the street chanting Qadri’s name. “Taseer’s murderer was tried in the court of public opinion, and he has emerged a hero,” says a woman shopping for vegetables in the same market where the governor was killed. “If someone kills me because I criticize Qadri, will he too be called a hero?” She declined to give her name. (Read: “Murder in Islamabad: Pakistan’s Deepening Religious Divide.”)
Of course, few Pakistanis would ever go as far as Taseer’s or Bhatti’s killers. But their ambivalence can easily be manipulated. “Just because we are religious does not mean we will all be reaching for guns the next time someone says something wrong,” says Malik Khan, a university student who spent a recent afternoon at a shrine in Lahore dedicated to a revered Islamic saint. “But Salmaan Taseer was an extremist as well. He should not have touched the blasphemy law.” Khan received a text message praising Qadri and exhorting him to pass it along. It posed a moral quandary: “I don’t agree with the message,” he says. “But I love the Prophet. My thumb hesitated a long time over the delete button.” In the end, he passed the hate along.
Qadri himself was the religious-minded youngest son of a family just stepping into the middle class. Like his brother, he joined the special-forces branch of the Punjab police in 2002. He had been flagged as a security risk because of his strong religious leanings but was nevertheless appointed to Taseer’s security detail when he visited Islamabad. In his confession, Qadri said he had been inspired by the teachings of his local mullah, Hanif Qureshi. At a rally a few days later, Qureshi claimed credit for motivating Qadri. “He would come to my Friday prayers and listen to my sermons,” he said. Then he repeated his point: “The punishment for a blasphemer is death.”
But is it? Two weeks after Taseer’s murder, I visited Qari Muhammad Zawar Bahadur, the head of one of Pakistan’s mainstream religious groups and a co-signer of a statement that advised Muslims not to show “grief or sympathy on the death of the governor, as those who support blasphemy of the Prophet are themselves indulging in blasphemy.” For more than an hour, he justified his group’s stance, telling me that the Koran was clear on the issue. I asked Bahadur to show me the exact verse that detailed the punishments for blasphemy. He mumbled that “there are several passages,” as if there were so many, he couldn’t decide which one to quote. When pressed further, he consulted a Koran and read aloud a passage that spoke of killing a man who had once harmed the Prophet.
That verse has routinely been dismissed by leading Islamic scholars as referring to a specific case and having nothing to do with blasphemy. They say there is no definition of blasphemy in the Koran, nor any prescription for its punishment. “Nobody challenges these mullahs, and that is our problem,” says Omar Fazal Jamil, who runs a p.r. firm in Lahore. “We can’t invoke liberal secular values anymore. I have to have the knowledge to contradict these men who distort our religion for their own political gain. I have to be able to say, ‘No, this did not happen, this is not right, and show me where it says in the Koran that blasphemers should be shot on sight.’ ”
The Sin of Silence
In the absence of such challenges, those favoring religious intolerance will continue to have things go their way. In late 2007, Benazir Bhutto released an updated manifesto for her father’s party. “The statutes that discriminate against religious minorities and are sources of communal disharmony will be reviewed,” it said. Less than a month later she was dead, killed in a bomb attack just 13 km from where both Taseer and Bhatti were murdered. Her death was an opportunity to rally the nation against the forces of extremism. Instead the party focused on consolidating power. The manifesto remains an empty promise, and two more voices of tolerance have been silenced. For evil to prevail, goes the old aphorism, all that is required is for good men to do nothing.
— With reporting by Ershad Mahmud / Lahore and Omar Waraich / Rawalpindi