By Qurat ul ain Siddiqui
KARACHI, Pakistan: On Jan. 4, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was assassinated in Islamabad by a member of his security detail. Soon after, Taseer’s bodyguard and assassin, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, surrendered and confessed to the killing. Qadri further said that he had killed Taseer for “committing blasphemy” by criticizing the country’s blasphemy laws.
Supported by large segments of the Pakistani population, the blasphemy laws in Pakistan are viewed as a safeguard to protect against anyone discrediting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. This support also stems from a perception that they have been directly derived from the Quran, even though there is no evidence to support this view.
Taseer’s position on this set of laws became public when he visited Aasia Noreen, a Christian Pakistani woman who has been accused of blasphemy, to offer her his support. Noreen is sentenced to death by a court in Punjab’s Nankana district and an appeal against the decision in mid-November in the province’s highest court, the Lahore High Court, is still pending.
Taseer’s assassination and the public reaction to the stated motivation behind the murder have raised trickier questions. Although the act has been widely condemned in Pakistan, even by many among those who have had no issue with the blasphemy laws, over 300 lawyers are willing to defend a confessed murderer as public prosecutors fear for their own safety. In this circumstance, the issue no longer seems to be the laws themselves, but how intolerance and religious extremism continue to thrive in Pakistani society.
Although Taseer had not violated any law by criticizing the blasphemy laws, his offer of support to Noreen angered religious and political groups. This anger did not end with Taseer’s death: a group of more than 500 Pakistani religious scholars issued a stern warning against mourning his death, stating that those who grieve would be “indulging in blasphemy” themselves.
Investigations into the murder are ongoing and it is yet to be determined whether Qadri acted alone or with a particular group. The police have been looking for a cleric from Rawalpindi who Qadri claimed motivated him to murder Taseer.
What is evident, however, is that the act itself — and the subsequent reaction from various national quarters — has undermined Pakistan’s justice system. It has demonstrated a lack of confidence in Pakistan’s governing offices and judiciary to protect its citizens as well as deal with public concerns effectively.
To prevent such an incident from happening again, the country’s criminal justice system must effectively fulfil its legal obligations and thereby make abundantly clear that the state’s writ will be maintained.
In addition to following due legal process in Taseer’s case, the government must devise a broader strategy to neutralize the effects of religious intolerance. Starting with education policy, the state should ensure that neither curriculum nor instructors preach or abet hatred. To be able to achieve an environment in which the education system promotes tolerance and discourages aggression, independent review boards can be of much assistance.
Moreover, the state should actively uphold the legal statutes that outlaw all incitement to hatred and violence on grounds of religion, race, language, community or “any other ground whatsoever”. This will be an effective check on those who arbitrarily issue religious decrees against individuals and groups. Simultaneously, it may also help in fashioning a more benevolent and tolerant society in the long run.
At the same time, the state should issue guidelines for religious leaders and clerics so that they refrain from encouraging acts that fuel conflict and violate the state’s laws. With the state’s support and patronage, religious leaders could be motivated to play a constructive, cordial role in society and preach tolerance.
Along with counteracting extremism at the community level, the government should guarantee all individuals and communities are afforded security and fundamental rights as enshrined in the Pakistani constitution. The government should make the amendments necessary to make any controversial laws, including the blasphemy laws, compatible with the greater good of society.
Ensuring good governance, making the required adjustments to the education system, motivating religious leaders to play a more unifying role in society and making the necessary amendments to laws so citizens’ fundamental rights are upheld will help to create an environment of pluralism and spiritual generosity.
Qurat ul ain Siddiqui is a journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).