Posts Tagged ‘ Salman Taseer ’

Is Pakistan’s Hard Line on Blasphemy Softening?

By William Dalrymple for The Guardian

It is rare these days to read any good news coming out of Pakistan. It is rarer still to read good news concerning matters of religion. However, in one week two stories seem to show that Pakistan is for once bringing the force of law to bear on those who abuse religion to provoke violence against minorities.

Last Sunday Mohammed Khalid Chisti, the mullah who had accused a 14-year-old Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, of blasphemy, was himself arrested and charged with the same law. The turnaround took place after the muezzin of his mosque gave evidence that he had framed the girl and falsified evidence. More remarkable still, the far-from- moderate All Pakistan Ulema Council came to Rimsha’s defence, calling her “a daughter of the nation” and denouncing Chisthi: “Our heads are bowed with shame for what he did.”

On Tuesday an even more unexpected event took place. Malik Ishaq, the leader of the banned Sunni terrorist group Lashkar–e-Jhangvi, which is accused of killing hundreds of Shias, was arrested on his return from a fund-raising trip to Saudi Arabia. Lashkar operates quite openly in Lahore despite being officially banned; yet on this occasion Ishaq was immediately brought to court. There he was accused of involvement in more than 40 cases in which 70 people have been killed. He now resides in Kot Lakhpat jail on 14-day judicial remand.

When Pakistan was created in 1947 as a homeland for Indian Muslims, its clean-shaven, tweed-jacketed, spats-wearing and pork-eating founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, made sure the constitution of his new country provided the right for all its citizens to profess, practise and propagate their religion: “You may belong to any religion, caste or creed,” he said in his first address to the constituent assembly of Pakistan on August 11 1947. “That has nothing to do with the business of the state. In due course of time Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims will cease to be Muslims – not in a religious sense, for that is the personal faith of an individual – but in the political sense as citizens of one state.”

It was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who started the rot. In 1974 he bowed to pressure from the religious right and had the country’s small Ahmedi minority declared non-Muslim. The situation became worse still in the 1980s with the military coup of General Zia. Zia was responsible for initiating the fatal alliance between the conservative military and the equally reactionary mullahs that led to the use of Islamic radicals as part of state policy. At the same time Zia started tinkering with the law. He introduced the Islamic punishment of amputation for theft, and established the Hudood ordinances of sharia law, which asserted that the evidence of one man was equal to that of two women, and made any sex outside marriage a punishable offence for women. Rape was to be punished with the public flogging of the female victim as well as the perpetrator.

Between 1982 and 1986 Zia introduced radical changes to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws – the notorious sections 295 B and C of the penal code – prescribing life imprisonment for anyone who defiles a copy of the Qur’an and death for insulting or criticising the prophet Muhammad. Because there is no strict definition of blasphemy, and virtually no evidence above the word of the accuser is needed to bring a guilty verdict, the laws have often been exploited by individuals with grudges against innocent non-Muslims. In 1988 Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad publicly committed suicide to protest against the laws; and although no one has yet been executed under the statutes, an estimated 1,200 to 4,000 blasphemy cases have been filed. The number of cases has multiplied in recent years, and the result is often prison sentences of three years or more.

Christians are widely derided in Pakistan; most are descended from “untouchable” converts who still perform the most menial tasks: cleaning the sewers and sweeping the streets. There has been a steady stream of attacks on the community, most bloodily in the murder of 16 Christians at a church in Bahawalpur in 2001. But it is not just Christians who have suffered. Hysteria about blasphemy has also been used to target Hindus, Sikhs, Ahmadis and Shias. In addition to formal convictions, there were at least 34 extrajudicial killings of people accused of blasphemy between 1990 and 2010. Of those, 15 were Muslim, 16 Christians, two Ahmadis and a Hindu. Indeed it is the Shias, not the Christians, who have suffered the brunt of the violence meted out by Lashkar–e-Jhangvi.

The high-water mark for religious intolerance in Pakistan was reached last year when the former governor of the Punjab, Salman Taseer, and the only Christian minister in the government, Shahbaz Bhatti, were both shot dead for suggesting that the blasphemy laws should be reviewed. Last week’s turnaround seems to represent a dawning realisation that things had gone too far – that a descent into mob violence was imminent. “There has been some genuine remorse on the right,” Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir told me. “They realised a line had been crossed.”

This is certainly good news, but it is only a beginning. Rishma remains in custody and Malik Ishaq has yet to be convicted. “I am not optimistic that the laws will be repealed,” says Jahangir. “In fact, you cannot even discuss it.” While politicians such as Imran Khan have bravely called Rishma’s arrest “shameful … against the very spirit of Islam”, neither he nor any other major political figure has called for an outright repeal of the blasphemy laws. Nor, given the fate of Salman Taseer, are they likely to any time soon.

And as long as the laws remain on the statute books, cases like these will continue to occur, and major injustices will continue to be perpetrated on all of Pakistan’s religious minorities.

Pakistan Should Abolish Overly-Abused Blasphemy Laws

By Arsalan Iftikhar for The Washington Post

My grandfather was one of the most well-known literary figures in Pakistan’s history and once famously told me that, “Anger is the most extravagant luxury in the world.” I am always reminded of my beloved grandfather’s poignant sentiment whenever I read stories about death sentences being meted out in accordance with Pakistan’s blasphemy laws; with the most recent example being the case of an 11-year-old Christian girl in Pakistan who is facing blasphemy charges for allegedly burning pages of the Koran in rural Pakistan.

The child was arrested last week in a Christian area of the capital Islamabad, after a crowd of people demanded that she be punished for allegedly desecrating pages of the Muslim holy book. According to BBC News, it is not clear whether she burned pages of the Koran or was just found to be carrying them in her bag. Additionally, the BBC reported that doctors in Pakistan have examined this young Christian to further determine her mental capacity (some unconfirmed reports stated that she has Down’s Syndrome), with the results due to be presented in a Pakistani court in the coming days.

Pakistan’s Minister for National Harmony, Paul Bhatti, has said she is innocent of the charges and should be released. Shortly after her arrest, Bhatti told BBC News that, “The police were initially reluctant to arrest her, but they came under a lot of pressure from a very large crowd who were threatening to burn down Christian homes.”

As an international human rights lawyer, it is my personal belief that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are one of the most obvious obstacles preventing the nation of Pakistan from protecting its religious minorities (including members of the Christian, Hindu and Ahmadiyya communities). According to Pakistan’s penal code, here are the primary sections dealing with blasphemy charges and their potential criminal punishments:

“Whoever will fully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Koran or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable for imprisonment for life. Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

In recent times, these controversial blasphemy laws in Pakistan have created major international headlines and generated debate across the globe. In November 2010, a Pakistani Christian female laborer named Asia Bibi was sentenced to death after a fellow worker accused her of insulting Islam. Her sentence is under appeal, and Bibi is still in jail. Only a few months after Bibi’s death sentence, provincial Gov. Salman Taseer and Federal Minister Shahbaz Bhatti – both prominent Pakistani politicians – were assassinated in cold blood after public calls to amend the blasphemy laws.

CNN also further reported that militants attacked two mosques in May 2010 and killed more than 90 worshipers of the Ahmadiya sect, a minority Muslim group often “viewed as heretics and blasphemers by hardline Sunnis” in Pakistan.

As a proud and practicing Muslim, I have written previously on “blasphemy” issues insulting Islam around the world and how modern Muslim societies should respond to such controversies. Most Muslims are aware of a well-known Islamic parable which tells the story of the prophet Muhammad and his daily interactions with an unruly female neighbor who used to curse him violently and then proceed to dump garbage onto him every day from her perch-top window each time he would ever walk by her house.

One day, prophet Muhammad noticed that the woman was not present to throw garbage outside of her window. In an act of true prophetic kindness, he actually went out of his way to inquire about her well-being and then proceeded to visit his hostile neighbor at her bedside inside of her own home when had found out that she had fallen sick.

This genteel act of prophetic kindness toward unfriendly (and overtly hostile) neighbors is the truly Muslim and Islamic standard that we should all use within our collective lives, not threats of violence and/or death sentences which disparately impact religious minorities in Muslim-majority nations. After all, if our prophet Muhammad treated those who cursed him with kindness, shouldn’t other Muslims do exactly the same?

Thus, although Pakistan has a very long way to go in terms of protecting religious minorities within their national borders, it can take a giant step in the right direction by abolishing its overly-abused blasphemy laws and show compassion to people of other religions, something that Islam’s prophet taught us over 1,400 years ago.

Arsalan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer, founder of TheMuslimGuy.com and author of “Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era.”

Satirical Song, a YouTube Hit, Challenges Extremism in Pakistan

By Salman Masood for The New York Times

 

A satirical song that takes a tongue-in-cheek swipe at religious extremism, militancy and contradictions in Pakistani society has become an instant hit here, drawing widespread attention as a rare voice of the country’s embattled liberals.

The song, “Aalu Anday,” which means “Potatoes and Eggs,” comes from a group of three young men who call themselves Beygairat Brigade, or A Brigade Without Honor, openly mocking the military, religious conservatives, nationalist politicians and conspiracy theorists.

Their YouTube video has been viewed more than 350,000 times since it was uploaded in mid-October. The song is getting glowing reviews in the news media here and is widely talked about — and shared — on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

The name of the band is itself a satire of Pakistan’s nationalists and conservatives, who are often described in the local news media as the Ghairat Brigade, or Honor Brigade.

Local musicians have produced work in the past vilifying the West, especially the United States, but rarely do they ridicule the military or religious extremists, and none have had Beygairat Brigade’s kind of success.

Sung in Punjabi, the language of the most populous and prosperous province, the song delivers biting commentary on the current socio-political milieu of the country, in which religious radicalism and militancy have steadily risen over the years and tolerance for religious minorities is waning.

Just this year, a governor who opposed Pakistan’s contentious blasphemy law was killed by one of his guards. The assassin was then celebrated by many in the country, including lawyers who greeted him with rose petals and garlands.

The song rues the fact that killers and religious extremists are hailed as heroes in Pakistan, while someone like Abdus Salam, the nation’s only Nobel Prize-winning scientist, is often ignored because he belonged to the minority Ahmadi sect.

“Qadri is treated like a royal,” wonders the goofy-looking lead vocalist in the song, referring to Malik Mumtaz Qadri, the elite police guard who killed the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, in January after he challenged the blasphemy law.

Another line in the song, “where Ajmal Kasab is a hero,” makes a reference to the only surviving Pakistani gunman involved in the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. Still another line, “cleric tried to escape in a veil,” alludes to the head cleric of Islamabad’s Red Mosque — which was the target of a siege in 2007 by the Pakistani government against Islamic militants — who tried unsuccessfully to break the security cordon by wearing a veil.

The song even makes fun of the powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, for extending his role for another three years.

Potatoes and eggs “never tasted so good,” wrote Fahd Husain in a commentary on Tuesday in The Daily Times, a newspaper based in Lahore. “They will always be credited for being politically incorrect when most needed, and giving voice to all those Pakistanis who live in fear.”

The popularity of the song on the Internet has made it a sensation across the border in India as well, surprising the band members, who have been incessantly asked whether they feel they have put their lives in danger by ridiculing the mighty.

There are certainly enough provocations to rile nationalists and conservatives. At one point in the music video, the lead singer holds a placard that reads, in English: “This video is sponsored by Zionists.”

The band members chose to upload the song on YouTube instead of handing it to television networks because they said the work was too offbeat and might be censored. Not surprisingly, some have criticized the song and its taunts as pedestrian and in bad taste.

“We were not expecting such a huge response,” said Ali Aftab Saeed, 27, the lead vocalist, who lives in Lahore, a city that is often considered the country’s cultural capital.

He said the assassination of Mr. Taseer was the inspiration for the song and its lyrics.

Resistance poetry and literature are not new to Pakistan, and they raised spirits during the somber years of military dictatorships.

During the protest rallies of the seminal lawyers movement in 2007, when they led the campaign to oust the president, Pervez Musharraf, the lawyers would sing and dance to a poem written by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, considered a giant of Urdu literature. Habib Jalib, another famous Pakistani poet, wrote several poems against Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, the military dictator in the 1980s.

But “Jalib is irrelevant to the generation of urban, young, middle-class kids that Beygairat Brigade is addressing,” said Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a culture critic based in Karachi.

“This band is offering an alternative narrative to the one this generation has grown up on, and provides a counternarrative to establishmentarian and conservative notions of politics, history and society advocated by televangelists, conspiracy theorists and, of course, the right-wing electronic media,” Mr. Paracha added. “And what better and more effective way to do this than by using satire and pop music.”

The band members, on the other hand, have no pretensions of being revolutionaries, activists or intellectuals, though they do feel that the song represents those who do not believe in extremism and want to live peacefully.

“At the end of the day,” said Mr. Saeed, the lead vocalist, “we are just musicians who raised some questions.”

Pakistan: More To Offer Than Bombs And Beards

By Asim Haneef for Al Jazeera

If you did not know anything about Pakistan and happened to pick up a newspaper or turn on the evening news, you might be forgiven for assuming that it is possibly the most broken, troubled and violent country on the face of the earth – a basket case just moments from imploding.

In the all-important arena of international public perception, Pakistan has taken an unprecedented battering in recent years, accumulating more bad headlines than nearly any other country and making places like Afghanistan and Iraq look relatively stable by comparison.

The list of challenges it faces is seemingly unending: terrorism, corruption, drone attacks, natural disasters, poverty, a deficit in leadership, discrimination against minorities, mistreatment of women, attacks on freedom of speech, mass tax evasion, match fixing, the murder of judges, politicians, union organisers and journalists – and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

So pervasive are the headlines pointing to a crisis in Pakistan that after a while they seem to blur into one another. Whether it is “hostages held in Karachi”, “al-Qaeda hideout discovered in Swat”, “floods bring pain to millions”, “suicide bomber explodes in market square”, “senior judge in blasphemy case shot dead” or “Pakistan’s ISI actively supporting Taliban in Afghan war” the message is uniformly bad news. The result is that for many the image of Pakistan is one of bombers, beards, shaking fists, distressed women and utter hopelessness. It makes for a pretty depressing picture.

I guess that is why the work of Syed Ali Abbas and his Pakistan Youth Alliance (PYA) featured in this week’s Activate, Pakistan: The New Radicals, is so refreshing. A courageous young social activist, Ali founded the PYA together with Maryam Kanwer when he was just 21 years old. It was born in the midst of severe political turmoil, as then-President Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule and fired the chief justice on national television, while the security forces brutally cracked down on dissenting lawyers.

Fed up with watching their country’s problems on the television, the PYA initially organised protests and rallies but quickly became more active. Its core premise and mission statement is to take a stand, to get as practically involved on the ground as possible and to exemplify the change they seek through their actions rather than merely proposing it on paper.

Their main goal is to create political and social awareness among the youth of Pakistan and to unite them irrespective of their religion, ethnicity, caste, race or language on an unbiased platform through which they can engage with one another and contribute practically to building a more progressive society in Pakistan – whether through protest, social and relief work or the arts.

Earlier this year, Ali was among a small group instrumental in organising counter protests to the hate filled ones celebrating and glorifying Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab who was murdered in January over his stance on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and his ardent defence of religious minorities like Christians and Ahmadis. Ali says he did this because: “This is not what the founder of Pakistan and ‘Father of the Nation’ Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah would have wanted for this country today, especially as he repeatedly stressed the importance of inter-faith unity and religious harmony.”

Stories like these and others bring about something much needed in international news these days – a positive, hopeful narrative against the odds, showcasing some of the good news stories coming out of places like Pakistan, which often go unreported and deserve a spotlight too. So although we appear to have an extraordinary capacity to become fixated on negative headlines, there are also good things happening too and though progress and development is not as ‘sexy’ as a suicide bomber or a train-wreck, perhaps a little balance is in order, so that we do not become as, Ali says at the close of the film, “filled with dread, being hopeless about the future”.

So do good stories actually emanate from Pakistan? And, if so, where are they? Well an initiative by brothers and social entrepreneurs Majid and Mahmood Mirza aims to answer this. They set up a website simply titled Good News (www.goodnews.pk) , which focuses solely on positive developments coming out of the country. They describe the idea behind the website via Skype as being “to highlight amazing, awesome and inspirational news stories coming from Pakistan, as opposed to the usual negativities that steal the headlines”.

And they have plenty of examples ready. For instance, did you know that Pakistan has become only the sixth country in the world to map the human genome, joining the ranks of the US, the UK, China, Japan and India, which have all successfully sequenced it. Or, how about the fact that Pakistan has the largest volunteer ambulance organisation in the world started by “living saint” Abdul Sattar Edhi in 1948. Today, the radio-linked network includes 600 ambulances that work in every corner of the country. Or how about the recent news that Dr Umar Saif, an associate professor at the School of Science and Engineering in Lahore, has been recognised by MIT Technology Review as one of the top 35 innovators in the world – joining an elite group of researchers and entrepreneurs selected over the last decade, which includes Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the co-founders of Google, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and Jonathan Ive, the chief designer at Apple. Now who has heard of those stories?

Then there are serial entrepreneurs like Monis Rahman, who just four years ago set-up Rozee.pk, which is now Pakistan’s largest jobs website, with 500,000 unique visitors a month; or Karachi-born freelance designer Vakas Siddiqui laying to rest the myth that Pakistani students are limited to excellence in science and the humanities by being selected as one of the top 28 designers in the world; or filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy who has just been shortlisted for an Oscar in the ‘best documentary short’ category for her film Saving Face. Whether it be in music, fashion, academia, activism, technology, sports or science these are stories that people do not usually associate with Pakistan and which might just show that there is more to the country than just bombs and beards.

Some of these unreported positive stories, along with the courage and creativity shown by people like Syed Ali Abbas and the Pakistan Youth Alliance in challenging these problems, reflect a surprising shift in the country’s growing and increasingly switched-on, globally-minded youth. They are using outlets like social media platforms and blogs to become more aware, educated and informed about their rights and more savvy to the different methods they must perfect in order to stop their country peddling even further backwards than it already has and to lead it to a brighter day, free from the same old headlines we’re all universally tired of reading and hearing about.

Asim Haneef worked extensively on Activate, a new eight part series featuring grass-roots activists from across the globe who are challenging the status quo and bringing about a change in their society. You can follow him on Twitter @asimhaneef

Death Sentence in Slaying of Pakistani Governor

By Salman Masood for The New York Times

A court on Saturday sentenced to death an elite police guard who assassinated a leading secular politician he had been charged with protecting, a slaying that sent shockwaves throughout Pakistan and was seen as a clear marker of the growing religious intolerance and extremism in the country.

The news made international headlines not just because of the prominence of the politician killed, Salman Taseer, but because the killer was celebrated by many in Pakistan, including lawyers who showered him with rose petals and garlands at a court appearance.

Judge Syed Pervez Ali Shah announced the sentence for the guard, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, in an antiterrorism court at Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi. “Nobody can be given a license to kill on any pretext,” the judge was quoted as saying after the conclusion of the trial, which was held under tight security.

The ruling was unusual in Pakistan; frightened justices in recent years have been cowed into releasing Islamic militants or letting them off with light sentences. The judgment was especially noteworthy in such a high-profile case against a man whose popularity only grew with his confession and defense of the killing on religious grounds.

Mr. Taseer was the governor of Punjab Province and one of the country’s most outspoken opponents of the country’s controversial blasphemy laws, which mandate a death sentence for anyone convicted of insulting Islam.

Liberals and rights activists were encouraged by the verdict, but noted that it could be overturned in appeals that can drag on for years.

“Today’s judgment is a positive development whereby norms of justice have prevailed,” said Raza Rumi, a political analyst and columnist in the eastern city of Lahore. “Pakistan cannot be allowed to become a vigilante society, and the state — its judges and prosecutors — need to uphold the law.”

No matter what happens with the case, however, Mr. Taseer’s death cast a pall over discussions of the blasphemy laws — which had become something of a test case for broader debate of how religion and politics mix in Pakistan. That trend continued Saturday. The usually voluble Pakistani press dutifully covered the story, but news broadcasts were mainly devoid of the normal commentary or debate.

“Local media’s muted coverage of the sentence is reflective of the fear factor and the polarization within the society which includes media personnel,” Mr. Rumi said.

Mr. Qadri, 26, was convicted of murder and committing an act of terrorism, and was handed two life sentences.

No date for the execution has been announced, and Mr. Qadri has a right to appeal within seven days. Raja Shuja-ur-Rahman, a lawyer for Mr. Qadri, told the DAWN television channel that an appeal would be filed.

Mr. Qadri killed Mr. Taseer in a hail of bullets on Jan. 4, shooting at close range as Mr. Taseer was getting into his car.

Mr. Taseer, a businessman and a liberal politician, had emerged as a leader in a fight against the blasphemy law, which rights groups say has been used to persecute minorities, especially Christians.

The law was introduced in the 1980s under the military dictatorship of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq as part of a policy of promoting Islam to unite Pakistan’s deeply fractious society.

Mr. Qadri was hailed as a hero by Islamist lawyers, several mainstream politicians and religious leaders.

On Saturday, dozens of supporters of Mr. Qadri gathered outside the jail and chanted slogans against the sentence, while the judge slipped out a back door.

“We will free you! We will die for you!” 20-year-old Mohamemd Aslam was quoted as saying by The Associated Press. Others yelled: “Long live Qadri, long live Qadri!”

“By punishing one Mumtaz Qadri, you will produce a thousand Mumtaz Qadris!” shouted another man.

The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, to which Mr. Taseer belonged, has been accused of distancing itself from the cause of repealing the blasphemy law since the assassination.

With Friends Like Pakistan…

By Manzer Munir for Pakistanis for Peace

Many people in Pakistan these days are wondering why their nation often finds itself on the wrong side of recent history. First, there is the continued and unjust imprisonment of a Christian Pakistani woman named Asia Bibi who has been languishing in jail for nearly two years. She has been given a death sentence for allegedly making derogatory remarks about the prophet Muhammad.

Then there was the killing of Salman Taseer, who was the then sitting governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, by one of his own bodyguards for his outspoken support for Asia’s rights and her freedom. Instead of swift punishment and public outcry at his actions, the killer, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, was showered with rose petals by some cheering members of the bar association of Lahore when he came to the courthouse for formal charges of murder. Yes, members of the judiciary were cheering his unilateral action of murdering another human being simply for his support towards a condemned non Muslim woman’s rights.

You can only imagine the warped sense of logic and justice in a country where lawyers cheer the cold blooded murder of an innocent man whose only crime was to come at the aid of a condemned Christian mother of two children.

Fast forward to a few months later, the extremists managed to assassinate the only Christian member of President Asif Ali Zardari’s government when the Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, was killed in a hail of bullets by unknown gunmen who then managed to escape on their motorcycle. Bhatti being a Christian as well as a minister in the government, had campaigned for the release of Asia as well as for the repeal of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan that at help promote a culture of state sanctioned hatred against religious minorities in Pakistan.

The culture of fear and hatred as well as violence against the religious minorities has progressively gotten worse along with the security situation inside the country in the last ten years. If there is anything that has been proven by some of these recent events in Pakistan, it is only that the country has become the undisputed global hotbed of extremism, fanaticism, and Islamic militancy in the Muslim world. It has now morphed into a country where the Wahhabi and Salafi fanatics have successfully used fear and hate to silence the majority moderate Barelvi and Sufi Muslims of Pakistan.

When powerful moderate voices like those of Bhatti and Taseer are silenced despite having heavy protection, how safe can the common man feel about his life if he chooses to speak up against the radicals within Islam? To kill someone is against Islamic belief at its core, unless it is done in self defense but you would be hard pressed to hear that view from the religious fanatics in Pakistan. They have justified killing others over many insane reasons such as making derogatory remarks about Islam or the prophet Muhammad. They also rationalize the killing of someone over a family’s honor, thus honor killings where often young women are killed if they are deemed to have brought dishonor to their family. These radical Islamists will even want someone dead for simply uttering disparaging remarks against Islam or its prophet. It is both ironic and hypocritical to see that the same derogatory remarks towards other figures such as Jesus, Moses, Abraham or other prophets of the Quran do not meet the same outcry nor receive the same impassioned response from the masses as when Islam or its prophet Muhammad are criticized.

The seeds of this current fanaticism fanning the flames of hatred were planted during an earlier conflict, this one involving the Soviets against an under matched adversary in Afghanistan. It was during this time in the ‘80’s when the Pakistani dictator, General Zia ul Haq, was in power and he accepted American aid from the Reagan administration in thwarting the threat from the 1979 Soviet invasion of neighboring Afghanistan. At the time, Pakistan’s ISI worked very closely with these “freedom fighters” waging what many thought was a just jihad against a communist foe who disallowed all religious worship. In fact, a good movie to rent right now to put some of these current events in perspective would be Charlie Wilson’s War starring Tom Hanks which details this era of Pakistan-US relations and cooperation against a common enemy in the Soviets.

The trouble now however is that in this current uneasy alliance between Pakistan and the US, there is not a common enemy, at least not as how it is viewed by many in Pakistan, which recently was polled to be the most anti-American nation in the world. Even though radical Islam and fanaticism is as much a threat to Pakistan’s sovereignty and prosperity as it is to the United States, India has always been seen as the big threat by its army and rulers. Pakistan has long seen Afghanistan as a country offering it strategic depth in any future wars with India. Thus, its interests in Afghanistan do not coincide with those of the United States.

The Pakistani media also constantly feeds a steady news diet of bombings by the Taliban/Haqqani network as well as any one of the other fill-in-the-blank militants groups seemingly operating freely from within its borders. There is also the regular news reports of US drone attacks and NATO actions in the AfPak region, as well as the all ubiquitous and constant threat faced from India, who is still seething from the Mumbai bombings in 2008, which were blamed on Pakistani trained terrorists. To further add insult to their injury, not a single leader of the Lashkar E Taiba has been convicted in Pakistan for the attacks in Mumbai that claimed 174 deaths and seriously injured several hundred others.

To the Indians, the perpetrator of their version of 9/11 is not an Arab from Yemen named Osama, but rather a whole nation state with whom it has fought three wars in 60 years and who is a long time sworn enemy with which it shares a long border. Too often it is rightly assumed by many that Pakistan will not act against Lashkar E Taiba and other openly anti-Indian militant groups because these groups are seen as a strategic asset for use against India. Only the fear of an all out nuclear war between the two nations by a trigger happy Pakistan placated India enough so that New Delhi did not immediately take military action against Pakistan after the Mumbai attacks.

So this culture of fear from all enemies both foreign and domestic to Pakistan’s sovereignty is now at an all time high within the nation. With a several decade long war on its western border in Afghanistan as well as the constant threat from its arch enemy to the east in India, Pakistan has never felt more threatened or squeezed. This pressure is now only going to get ratcheted higher since last week’s killing of Osama Bin Laden at a compound in a suburb of Islamabad, Pakistan. Living for five years undetected in the compound, Bin Laden was less than a mile away from the Kakul Military Academy in Abbottabad, Pakistan’s version of the famed American military college of West Point, when he was killed by a US Navy Seal team.

For the world’s most wanted terrorist to hide in plain sight in such a manner and for so many years, rightly points a lot of suspicion on Pakistan. Long suspected by many intelligence analysts, elements within Pakistan’s spy agency, the ISI, naturally now attracts a lot of suspicion in their possible involvement in the whole affair. There are strong voices and calls within the US Congress to halt all aid to Pakistan in light of Bin Laden’s death. We certainly can assume that any other country in the world found to be harboring terrorists would already have been labeled a state sponsor of terrorism and would be facing immediate sanctions from the international community. “You are either with us or against us” were the words so famously uttered by then President Bush to Pakistan specifically after 9/11. But due to Pakistan’s importance for a successful pullout from Afghanistan of US troops, as well as its strategic position within the Islamic world, neither side can afford to cut off relations with each other.

Although the Obama administration stopped short of claiming that the corrupt civilian government of Zardari was directly involved in protecting and sheltering Bin Laden, all signs point to complicity to some extent by some segments within Pakistan’s hierarchy. There is near unanimous agreement among many in Washington, and this is true on both sides of the aisle, that there are many sympathizers of the Taliban and Al Qaeda within the ranks of the army and the intelligence agencies of Pakistan.

Having driven the Soviets out of the region with the help of militant jihadi groups like the Taliban, no doubt a cadre of army and intelligence officers must have come to espouse the belief that it is in Pakistan’s best interests to have a religiously frenzied force available to use as a weapon against India in a future conflict also. In fact, Pakistan has always had this policy of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan against India.

The death of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan by Special Forces of the American military illustrates just what a duplicitous game the country has been playing with the United States and more importantly with itself. In the war on terror America lost nearly 3,000 citizens in the attacks on 9/11. In that same period stretching the last ten years, Pakistan has lost nearly 31,000 citizens to terrorist attacks by the Taliban, Al Qaeda and other militant groups. So it has always been in Pakistan’s best interests to fight the militant threat brewing in its borders the last two decades that has claimed so many lives and caused so much instability.

The murders of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti illustrates the dire situation within Pakistani society where many young underprivileged men gravitate towards Osama Bin Laden’s ideology of hate against the US, which is seen by many, as the aggressor in an already very anti-American country. Also western ideas, religious and political liberties, and freedoms, such as those for women in western society, are all seen by the Islamic clergy and religious establishment as being against Islamic doctrine and clashing with the Muslim way of life. Therefore, the madrassahs and the masjids continue to espouse rhetoric against the American and European way of life which is seen as contradicting the teachings of the Quran. Even moderate Muslims and their sites of worship have come under heavy attack by the militants as witnessed by a new strategy of attacking Sufi Muslim shrines and mosques. Pakistan may not want to admit it, but there is a raging war going on within itself for the control of Islam and the attack on moderate Islam by the extremists within the religion.

The Bin Laden killing makes Pakistan seem either highly incompetent about knowledge his whereabouts or at the very least appear to be deeply complicit in sheltering and keeping him hidden while the United States launched the biggest manhunt in US history. At this point, the United States justly feels betrayed and distrustful towards anyone in the Pakistani establishment. After all, how are they to know who now to trust in the army or the civilian government?

It is imperative that Pakistan mount an immediate and urgent investigation that has the full cooperation and assistance of the US so that both countries can discover the source of this support system that Bin Laden has had from within Pakistan. Certainly, some heads do need to roll in Islamabad over this. Whether those resignations be of the current ISI chief, Ahmad Shuja Pasha, head of the army, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, or Zardari and Gilani themselves, as some accountability needs to occur. This is important not just for the sake of American-Pakistani relations, but just as importantly for the benefit of the Pakistani populace who is both deeply embarrassed by breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty, but also for the intelligence failure by the government of Pakistan at Osama’s whereabouts. Until and unless Pakistan makes this investigation a top priority, USA and Pakistan relations will continue to slide downhill and will mire further in distrust.

Pakistan must realize that in this global war against religious Islamic fanaticism, it cannot continue to speak from both sides of its mouth. Not when everything, including its very existence is at stake. It cannot at once be both a front line ally in the war against terror and receive billions of dollars in US aid, and at the same time, be found to shelter or allow terrorists and militant organizations safe havens and allow them to operate within its territory.

It is up to Pakistan to salvage a quickly deteriorating situation. However at the time of publication of this article, it seems that President Asif Ali Zardari’s government is off to a horrible start in mending fences with the US. First the name and identity of the CIA station chief in Pakistan was leaked by someone in the ISI to members of the local press. This leak compromised his mission and even poses a danger to his life as the anonymity of all operatives is a necessary requirement in intelligence work.

Then later in the day, in remarks given by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to its Parliament, he defiantly stated that neither Pakistan’s army nor its intelligence agency should be suspected by the Obama administration for providing support to Bin Laden. Gilani also went as far as to say that any future unilateral action by the US or any other nation inside Pakistan’s territory will be met with like force. I thought to myself, did he really just that? Did Pakistan just threaten the United States? It is appalling to see the political posturing now being done by the Pakistani government and the long term negative consequences they will have on the nation.

For a country that is receiving nearly $3.5 billion in US aid yearly, these are very tough words that will undoubtedly only make the strained relations between the two countries worse. Pakistan should realize that United States wants to feel that it can trust it to be a full partner in the fight against militancy and extremism. And unless this distrustful and at times, very adversarial relationship changes, the United States cannot help but feel that with friends like Pakistan, it does not need enemies!

-Manzer Munir, a proud Pakistani American and peace activist, is the founder of Pakistanis for Peace and blogs at http://www.PakistanisforPeace.com as well at other websites as a freelance journalist and writer. 

Low-key Easter Preparations for Pakistan’s Christians

By Kamran Haider for Reuters

Christians in the small Pakistani town of Gojra are making low-key preparations for Easter this year.

Residents of the neighbourhood, known as Christian Colony, in the town in Punjab province, are haunted by memories of a 2009 attack by a Muslim mob in which seven members of a family were killed and dozens of houses torched.

A few days before Easter, which Christians believe marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ three days after his crucifixion, bare-foot children played cricket in the town’s dusty alleys while some men chatted on a bench under a tree.

“If we celebrate it with a fanfare, we fear somebody might get annoyed and attack us,” said Khalid Anjum, 45, the owner of a small snooker hall. The only sign of the approach of Easter was a few young men rehearsing hymns in St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

“Fear is there but we cannot give up our religion,” said Wilson Rafiq, the leader of the group of singers, who plays a traditional drum set known as a tabla.

Pakistan was founded in 1947 as a home for the Muslims of South Asia at the end of British colonial rule, with the country’s founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, promising that all communities would be able to worship freely.

But today, Jinnah’s pledge of religious tolerance often seems hollow as religious violence increases. Religious minorities account for about 4 percent of Pakistan’s 170 million people, with about three quarters of members of religious minorities Christian.

The independent Human Rights Commission said at least 100 people from minority communities were killed in 2010. The bloodiest attack was on Ahmadis, a sect that mainstream Muslims consider heretical, when 86 people were killed.

This year, the liberal Muslim governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, and Christian Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, were killed in separate shootings for speaking out against a blasphemy law aimed at defending Islam.

Under the law, anyone who speaks ill of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad commits a crime and faces the death penalty but human rights activists say the law’s vague wording has led to its misuse, often against members of minority religions.

Compounding a climate of fear, Islamist militants, angered by Pakistan’s alliance with the United States since 2001, have carried periodic attacks on minorities as part of a campaign to destabilise the state.

“FEAR IN THEIR HEARTS”

In Gojra’s Christian Colony, the level of fear has increased since the sentencing Monday of a Muslim to death for shooting dead two Christians who had been accused of blasphemy.

Rather then welcoming what some people might see as justice, Christians fear that if the sentence is carried out, it will only mean more trouble for them. “Things will only get worse. If one is punished, someone else will stand up to take revenge for him,” said housewife Shahida Kashif.

“My kids still get scared whenever there’s a small disturbance. They says ‘mother, they’ve come. They’ll set fire to our houses again’. They still have fear in their hearts,” she said, referring to memories of the 2009 riot.

A mob of about 1,000 Muslims, incensed by rumours that a Christian had desecrated the Koran, rampaged through the neighborhood, firing guns and throwing petrol bombs.

Hameed Pannum Khan was shot dead and six members of his family, including two women and two children, were burnt to death when their hut was torched.

Authorities blamed militants linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban for the violence. Abdul Khaliq Kashmiri, a Muslim prayer leader, was locked up for 15 months on charges of inciting the attack.

He was recently released after Christians, fearing his continued detention would only make things worse for them, told authorities they had no proof of his involvement. Kashmiri denied any part in it and appealed for tolerance.

“Everybody should follow their own religion and should stop slinging mud at others,” he said. Christian Allah Rakha, a relative of the family killed in 2009 said the hatred had to stop for the sake of future generations.

“We all should get rid of this evil,” said Rakha, 70, sitting on a threadbare sofa in the drawing room of his single story home. “If we talk of revenge we’ll never have peace.”

Not much Islamic about Islamic Pakistan

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. hsiddiqui@thestar.ca

Assassinations are a blemish on Pakistan’s soul

By Shahina Siddiqui for The Montreal Gazette

The assassination by terrorists of Pakistan’s federal minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, follows the brutal killing of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer a couple of months ago. Both were targeted by extremists because they called for the reformation of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws. These and other attacks on Christians and Muslims in the name of blasphemy laws is a blemish on the national soul of Pakistan that cannot be washed away by empty rhetoric and the muted cowardly condemnations by the political and religious leadership in Pakistan.

There is no place for laws in Muslim countries that are the very antithesis of the spirit, soul, and letter of Islamic law. Prophet Muhammad in his lifetime was insulted, ridiculed and physically hurt, and yet he never ordered, condoned or recommended the killing or even harming of these individuals. There are documented cases where the prophet intervened to save the perpetrators from the wrath of his companions. We do not honour the prophet by murdering the innocent in his name. We honour him by practising compassion and dealing with mercy toward all of God’s creation, yes, even those who hurt us.

There is no justification for the blasphemy laws in the form they exist in Pakistan. The misuse and abuse of these laws have caused the security of religious minorities to deteriorate and be exploited, and it has become a licence to kill people, to destroy property and to create havoc for personal and political interests.

The terrorists are using this law to paralyze an entire nation into submitting to their whims through fear and trauma. The inept political leaders of Pakistan are more interested in maintaining their power and control on the country’s wealth then in actually working for the betterment of their country. The few who dare to stand up to this injustice find themselves isolated and without support.

The genuine religious leaders, on the other hand, are afraid to be labelled by these pseudo-religious terrorists as supporters of blasphemers, and thereby fear losing their own support base, their lives and their reputations. The socalled religious political parties are supporting these laws unconditionally, manipulating the love the masses have for their faith and their prophet, to ensure their own popularity and political gains.

In such a vacuum of moral, religious and human courage the terrorists thrive, the extremists dance in the streets and the ordinary Pakistanis struggle to survive. This ugly situation in Pakistan calls for an uprising of the silent majority. But the disconnect between rural and urban, rich and poor, and the excruciating poverty and illiteracy are barriers that make this an unlikely scenario.

Pakistanis, unlike their coreligionists in the Middle East, face brutality on many fronts: the war on terror that is consuming the country’s resources, the drone attacks that are killing hundreds of innocent civilians, the Talibanbacked terrorists who kidnap, torture, brainwash and blackmail poor rural youth into becoming suicide bombers who target fellow Pakistanis on an alarmingly frequent basis.

The indifference of the ruling elite – political and feudal – and the tyrannical pseudoreligious extremists seem to have paralyzed this nation into a pathological resignation to its “fate.” There is no credible leadership at the national level that is nurturing national pride, identity and vision. The people are adrift, holding on to any straw, no matter how fragile, that will keep them afloat.

In spite of these many challenges, however, I am confident – having observed firsthand the courage, resilience and moral strength of non-governmental organizations, selfless philanthropy by the affluent, and the development and growth of civil society – that Pakistanis will rise and can defend their nation. They must, however, break the chains of fear that are choking their conscience, and stand up for justice.

My prayer is for Pakistan to realize the vision of its founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah: a vision in which all Pakistanis are granted freedom and security to practise their religions and maintain their places of worship, and where all Pakistanis thrive together, as equals under the law, regardless of ethnicity, gender and religion.

What motives led to Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder in Pakistan?

By Aamer Ahmed Khan for BBC

It is hard to find an immediate motive behind the murder of Pakistan’s Minorities Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti.

The courageous battle he had vowed to fight against the country’s draconian blasphemy laws had already been abandoned by the government in the wake of Punjab governor Salman Taseer’s murder.

In fact, the final surrender had come from no less a person than Pakistan’s prime minister who had only last month pleaded with a large gathering of religious personalities to believe him when he said that his government had no intention of reviewing the blasphemy laws.

And unlike the slain governor – a veteran politician, a high profile socialite and one of the president’s many billionaire friends – Mr Bhatti neither had the status nor the political clout to influence the state’s agenda.

Some evidence of that also comes from the eerie silence on social media, from the extremists’ side.

All that one sees are some anguished rants from some of Pakistan’s best known liberals, many of whom are not even resident in the country.

Even hours after the assassination, we have seen none of the fierce onslaught against free speech that erupted on social media within minutes after Mr Taseer’s murder.

Nor have we seen eulogies of his killers mushrooming on Facebook as they did after Mr Taseer’s murder. It is a silence smug in the knowledge that their agenda is not at risk.

So why kill a man who considered himself – and was indeed considered by the world around him – to be so ineffective that he had not even bothered to seek proper security for himself, despite being constantly threatened by Pakistan’s millions of faceless fanatics?

The answer perhaps lies in the difference between the commitment of the government and the extremists to their respective agendas.

Politics v ideology

The government had unambiguously decided to lay off the blasphemy laws after Mr Taseer’s murder, its ministers hinting privately that it was a hornets’ nest best left untouched.

The country’s liberal political and social leadership had meekly followed suit and perhaps understandably so.

In their silence had rested a hope that by abandoning their agenda to rationalise any legislation-feeding extremism, they would perhaps be able to keep the extremists quiet.

It was never about any ideological commitment, just hard, cold politics that made tactical sense.

For the extremists though, it is all about ideology. It didn’t matter if Mr Bhatti’s battle had proved to be a non-starter or if he was an ineffective and powerless minister.

What mattered was that he had spoken against blasphemy laws in the past and was likely to do so again if a situation arose. That made him a legitimate target, not to be tolerated, not to be ignored.

Mr Taseer had said that he would continue to fight against blasphemy laws even if he was the last man standing. He could not stand for long.

And the ideology that led to his assassination has now sent another determined and deadly message to the state – that it will continue to fight till the last liberal falls.

This is how different the two commitments are. And for the liberals in Pakistan, this is how hopeless the situation seems to be.

Pakistan Elite Silent After Taseer Assassination

By Mosharraf Zaidi for CNN

The assassination of Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer by his bodyguard last week seems to confirm the prejudices about Pakistan as a country where moderate voices face danger, where violent extremism is widespread and where investors aren’t very safe.

Taseer, ever the entrepreneur, the tycoon and the irrepressible Pakistani patriot would resist vociferously. If he could tweet his thoughts from heaven, the prejudiced would have hell to pay. His plain-spoken manner and blunt were often a political liability. But for all his political faults, Taseer’s was a rare courageous voice.

He was murdered for speaking out in defense of a poor, defenseless Christian woman in a village — something few dared to do. It was Taseer’s unambiguous morality in his speaking out for the weak that captured imaginations of those neutral Pakistanis keen to see reason as a dominant force in their country.

Taseer was unique in life and stands virtually alone in death. The deafening silence among the pygmies that make up the rank-and-file of the Pakistani elite is the sound of fear and moral confusion.

The fear is genuine and real. More than the assassination itself, the mainstream reaction to Taseer’s murder exposes the cancerous immunity to reason in Pakistan’s Islamic discourse. Without expressing anything resembling blasphemy, educated and articulate Pakistanis chided Taseer, even in death, for writing his own death warrant. His crime? Asking for changes to the Pakistan Penal Code, whose blasphemy clauses have been regularly abused for social, political and economic gain.

The irrational right-wing Pakistani “Tea Party” is really no party at all. It is a lynch mob. And it isn’t tea that fanatics in Pakistan have been drinking for years. Instead, the Pakistani establishment has fed them a steady diet of nationalism, pan-Islamism and Takfirism [accusing a Muslim of apostasy.]

Unable to win elections, or compel social transformation on its own, the Pakistani right has always required the patronage of secret services and their financiers; American, Saudi or otherwise. It simply cannot survive without this patronage. The Machiavellian establishment, fueled by the clumsy intellect of military men and the dangerous cunning of civilian bureaucratic and political hatchet men, knows this. It is the only power base in the country that can truly respond to Taseer’s assassination.

In the heart of the most dynamic and exciting economic region in the world, Pakistan can still be a force for good. To do so, the Pakistani establishment has to take two sets of actions. The first and immediate is to mobilize the state machinery, swiftly and firmly, against those that openly call for violence.

This isn’t unprecedented. The Pakistani state has a long record of using busloads of cash, the British legacy administrative system of magisterial power, and a police force not entirely familiar with Miranda rights to obliterate dissent.

The second, the more complex and much longer-term task is the deradicalization of Pakistani Muslims. The religiously illiterate fanatic is a dangerous creature.

His blind rage is expressed in all kinds of wars that go far beyond religion. Pakistan’s class and caste wars are as old as the Indus River. Religious authority is merely an instrument of social mobility. Slaying members of the elite, even if it is not openly acknowledged, is seen as striking a blow for one’s oppressed class and caste sensibilities.

The 24-hour news media also feeds the rage, airing long and tortuous narratives that stimulate the indignities of being Pakistani in the 21st century. The U.S. war in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s tribal areas is at the top of the list of these indignities.

Deradicalizing Pakistani fanatics is not going to be easy, but it may not be as impossible as it seems. In essence, it needs to be seen as rerationalism. Too often, critics view deradicalization as an attempt to strip Muslims of their identity or as an attack on the fundamentals of a Muslim’s faith. On the contrary, fundamental Islamic values of reason, knowledge and mercy need to be included in the mainstream Islamic narrative. These qualities are facets of Islam that have become subservient to blind rage.

Luckily, there are glimmers of light. Civil voices across the country demonstrate the establishment will not be batting alone if it begins to take steps to fix its own mess. More than 60 organizations have signed up to a call for resistance by the Citizens for Democracy.

Recently, activists in Karachi, including one of Taseer’s six children, registered criminal charges against a mosque leader who was openly inciting violence against Sherry Rehman, a former journalist and now member of Parliament who has submitted a bill for an amendment to the blasphemy laws. These are reasonable people asking for reasonable actions.

Bringing reason into Pakistan’s public discourse is a critical prerequisite for a society based on the rule of law and a political process that enhances the dignity of people, rather than undermines it.

Pakistan is teetering on the brink of economic collapse and political failure. For decades, Pakistanis have rightly spoken with pride of their society’s strength and resilience. Now is the time for Pakistan to prove its resilience once more.

Civil society can take the brave first few steps, but this struggle is one that requires the assets and resources of the state. Taseer’s assassination is a test of the Pakistani state.

Mosharraf Zaidi has advised governments and international organizations, including the U.N. and the EU, on international aid and development. He writes a weekly column for Pakistan’s The News, and other publications.

Pope Benedict Urges Pakistan to Repeal Blasphemy Law

By Elisabetta Povoledo for The New York Times

In a forceful appeal for religious freedom, Pope Benedict XVI urged Pakistan on Monday to repeal contentious blasphemy laws as he called on governments around the world to do more to enable Christians to practice their faith without violence, intolerance or restriction.

The pope was speaking in an annual address to diplomats accredited to the Vatican, a long-scheduled event. But this year, his words came after bomb attacks in Iraq and Egypt — the most recent in the Egyptian city of Alexandria less than two week ago — and the assassination last week of a leading Pakistani politician who had opposed his country’s law that makes blasphemy against Islam punishable by death.

The politician, Salman Taseer, had campaigned vigorously against the law and had petitioned the Pakistani government to re-examine the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who last November was sentenced to death under the legislation.

Mr. Taseer’s “tragic murder,” the pope said, “shows the urgent need to make progress in this direction: the worship of God furthers fraternity and love, not hatred and division.”

Referring to the attacks on Christians in Iraq and Egypt, Benedict called on the governments of those predominantly Muslim countries to adopt “effective measures” to better protect religious minorities. Urging Pakistan to repeal its blasphemy law, the pope said the legislation was being used “as a pretext for acts of injustice and violence against religious minorities.”

The pope has often spoken out against religious intolerance, but his condemnations have increased after recent attacks on Christian communities in several countries, including Nigeria and the Philippines, where churches were bombed during the recent holidays.

The plight of Christians in the Middle East has been of particular concern to the Vatican, which hosted a meeting of bishops in October to address the issue.

The concerns have deepened in recent months in the face of what clerics see as sustained violence. At a New Year’s Mass at a Coptic church in Alexandria, a suicide bomber killed 23 people and wounded nearly 100. Last October, a siege at a Baghdad church killed 53 people, prompting yet another exodus of Christians from the country.

On Monday, the pope cited a message to Christians in the Middle East that he delivered during the bishop’s synod in October. “It is natural,” he said, that “they should enjoy all the rights of citizenship, freedom of conscience, freedom of worship and freedom in education, teaching and the use of the mass media.”

The pope also took Western nations to task for marginalizing religion and minimizing its role in contemporary society and called for dialogue between faiths to promote “a common commitment to recognizing and promoting the religious freedom of each person and community.”

 

In Pakistan, Another Assassination and the Lessons Unlearned

By Natasha Fatah for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

The Lion of Punjab is dead. Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab in Pakistan, was assassinated in Islamabad on Tuesday by one of his own security guards.

When the guard later turned himself in to the police, he said that he killed the man he was supposed to be protecting because he considered Taseer’s campaign against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws an insult to Prophet Muhammad.

The blasphemy laws, which have been around since the 1980s, have been at the heart of a huge religious debate in Pakistan recently after a 45-year-old Christian woman was sentenced to death, allegedly in a dispute over drinking water among farm hands.

Most human rights observers say that the woman did nothing wrong, did not break any blasphemy law, and that the law is just being used to make some kind of example out of her.

Taseer stood by the side of this Christian woman, Asia Bibi, both literally and figuratively.

He stood next to her in the courtroom, which was a brave and dangerous move for any Muslim in Pakistan, but particularly so when you are a member of government and have a profile.

He had also waged an attack on those who wanted her dead by constantly criticizing the mullahs and hard-liners on his very active Twitter account these past weeks.

In response, Islamic fundamentalist politicians and imams were constantly attacking Taseer, even going as far as to say that criticizing the blasphemy law is an act of blasphemy itself, thus making Taseer an apostate.

A member of the Pakistan People’s Party and closely tied to President Asif Ali Zardari, Taseer had dedicated his life to social and political liberalism and to taking on the fundamentalists. But now that bravery has cost him everything.

According to witnesses, the guard who killed Taseer jumped out of a car, pointed his Kalashnikov and blasted away. He then continued his rampage, shooting the governor at least nine times.

Dropping his weapon, the man then gave himself up to police, saying later he was “proud” that he killed the blasphemer.

Another disturbing aspect to this story is that the assassin had managed to get himself into the police force and then, barely four months into the job, was transferred to the unit assigned to protect the governor.

It makes you wonder who was doing the vetting and whether some other even more devious plan was afoot. But how deep and powerful this doctrine of hate must be when someone who is paid to protect you ends up being the one to take your life?

Still, while it was the guard who pulled the trigger, it was the culture of hatred, ignorance and bigotry that put the idea in his head in the first place.

And it will no doubt be the disease of apathy among the majority of Pakistan’s comfortable middle class that will ensure nothing changes, which means more good men and women who want to reform Pakistan’s society will lose their lives.

After all, it was only three years ago that the world lost Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister and leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, for the same reasons.

She, too, was an advocate on behalf of liberalism and democracy and an enemy of religious extremists and she, too, paid for it with her life. If her death could not motivate the wealthy, powerful and influential in Pakistan to stand up and change things, then I’m not sure what will.

There is strange culture in Pakistan of blaming the victim. When Benazir Bhutto was murdered, many middle-class Pakistanis, in effect blamed her for her own assassination.

They criticized her for knowing the risks and continuing to speak out. Some said that as a mother she was being selfish for putting herself in the public eye.

And now, with Taseer’s murder, there are murmurs about him bringing this on because he provoked the Islamists through his criticism of their agenda. These are the risks you take when you stand behind a Christian blasphemer, some are saying.

It is only in an upside-down world like Pakistan’s self-absorbed middle class where those who die for being brave are considered irresponsible.

And it’s not like these moderate politicians such as Taseer don’t represent the values of the ordinary Pakistani.

Overwhelmingly, whenever given the election opportunity, the people of Pakistan vote in liberal, moderate and middle-of-the-road parties. Hardline Islamist parties do not win majorities in any of the country’s provinces.

Still, there seems to be a disconnect between what the Pakistani middle class say they want — stability and democracy — and what they are willing to work for.

Yes, in the case of Taseer, they will mourn the loss of another great leader. But Pakistan has lost far too many moderate leaders like this while everything goes on as before.

Wealthy Pakistanis will continue to go to their luxurious parties at fancy hotels, where the poor and their servants are not even allowed to enter. They will continue to justify the economic divide that keeps so many of their fellow citizens in squalor. And they will continue to argue that the Islamist militants are just a creation of the Western media.

Fortunately, there are still a handful of journalists, lawyers and politicians in Pakistan who are fighting the good fight and putting their lives on the line to try to push back against the extremists who think that violence is the only way to get their ideas across.

But unless Pakistan’s elites joins this fight, nothing will change.

For Pakistan, with the current government coalition in danger of crumbling and its Taliban launched on a terror campaign in the capital Islamabad itself, Taseer’s murder is a horrible start to a new year.

Yes, there will be vigils throughout Pakistan and around the world this week for this fallen hero. But vigils are temporary and the underlying problem that Taseer was taking on will likely still be around long after the vigils have wrapped up.

Pakistani-Americans, Human Rights Groups Seek Blasphemy Laws Review

As reported by Dawn

Pakistanis living in the United States have joined human rights groups in urging the government to release Aasia Bibi and reconsider the laws that discriminate against minorities.

“We condemn the abuse of the blasphemy law and request President Asif Ali Zardari not to accede to the threats made by certain religious groups and award imminent clemency to Aasia Bibi,” said the Pakistani-American Public Affairs Committee, an umbrella organisation representing a dozen groups. In a recent meeting of its executive board, the Christian League of Pakistan in America also “strongly condemned the victimisation of innocent people under the blasphemy law”, reminding the government that “the entire world is awaiting a sane decision in the Aasia Bibi case”.

The organisation noted that President Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Human rights activist Asma Jehanghir and Punjab Governor Salman Taseer have all concluded that Aasia Bibi is innocent.

These and other Pakistani leaders also have realised that the blasphemy law discriminates against religious minorities, said a statement issued by the Christian League in Philadelphia.

“This law encourages certain elements which institutionalise intolerance in the name of religion and spread social persecution and legal discrimination,” observed the Pakistani American Public Affairs Committee. “As it stands, this law with its ambiguity
harms Pakistan and its’ citizens.”

The group warned that such news emanating from Pakistan “hinders its stature in rest of the world, which in turn negatively impacts its economic stability and trade practices”. The committee referred to a study by the National Commission for Justice and Peace, which reported that a total of 964 people had been charged under these laws from 1986 to 2009. Out of them, 479 were Muslims, 340 Qadianis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus, and 10 of other religions.

The report also noted that although none of those charged under the laws has been executed; 32 people charged with blasphemy have been extra-judicially killed.

PAPAC noted that last July, Lahore High Court Chief Justice Khawaja Sharif while overturning a blasphemy case, said that “the treatment meted out to the woman was an insult to humanity and the government; and that civil organisations should be vigilant enough to help such people”.

The group urged the larger society in Pakistan to educate the masses of the virtue of tolerance.

“Pakistanis must start a meaningful and focused dialogue to look at how the blasphemy laws are being abused and thus violating the basic premise of their creation – to protect minorities.”

PAPAC also asked Pakistan’s legislators to amend and remove ambiguity and legal discrimination from Section 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code which covers the blasphemy provisions.

Meanwhile, a leading US human rights group called on Pakistan’s government to abolish the blasphemy law and other discriminatory legislation.

The government should also take legal action against militant groups responsible for threats and violence against minorities and other vulnerable groups, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said.

Referring to Aasia Bibi’s conviction, the group noted that she had already “suffered greatly and should never have been put behind bars”.

Amnesty International, USA, also issued a statement on Friday, seeking Aasia Bibi’s release and revision of the law under which this mother of five was convicted this month.

“Critics say that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are used to persecute Christian and other minorities,” the group observed.

Pakistani Hotel Cleaner Returns $50,000 in Cash Left Behind By Forgetful Guest

By Rob Crilly for The Telegraph

 

A hotel cleaner who earns minimum wage has been hailed a national hero in Pakistan after he returned $50,000 in cash left behind by an absent minded guest.

Essa Khan found the bag of notes stuffed in a safe deposit box while carrying out a routine inspection of a room vacated by a Japanese NGO worker before another guest arrived.

After years of negative publicity from terror strikes and political unrest, politicians have lauded the housekeeper’s honesty as the “real face of Pakistan”. But Mr Khan told The Daily Telegraph he was simply doing his job.

“I have a responsibility as a human being, as a Pakistani, a Muslim,” he said on Sunday. “I never thought about keeping the money.” Mr Khan, 50, has worked for the past 20 years at the Gilgit Serena Hotel, which stands amid dramatic scenery at the foot of the Karakoram mountains, in northern Pakistan.

Hotel staff managed to track down the guest, who works for the Japan International Co-operation Agency, and return the money, which was intended to fund a feasibility study into tourism projects in northern Pakistan.

Rashid Uddin, the hotel’s general manager, said the Japanese man, who has not been named, was embarrassed to learn he had lost the cash.

“Even after three days, he had no clue that he had left the money,” Mr Uddin said by telephone from Gilgit. “He came in the next day, and it was easy to see from the look on his face just how relieved he was.” The hotel has given Mr Khan a 10,000-rupee (£77) reward for his honesty. But his general manager said his actions deserved wider recognition. “In these economic conditions, and in a region of poverty, we should be very, very proud of people like this,” said Mr Uddin.

The story has been taken up by politicians in a country tired of negative publicity. Years of suicide bombings mean tourist hotels have struggled to survive as foreigners stay away. Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, declared Mr Khan a “national hero”. “He’s a humble housekeeper and we are really proud of him,” he said. “This is the face of Pakistan that people don’t see normally.” He telephoned Mr. Khan on Sunday to promise him another reward and to invite him to Lahore for a ceremony in his honor.

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