Pakistan: The moral collapse of a nation
A month before the governor of the Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was lowered into an early grave, an imam at a mosque in Peshawar asked the Taliban to kill a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy, if the Pakistani state did not carry out the death sentence. Nawa-e-Waqt, the second most read Urdu-language newspaper in the country, wholeheartedly approved of the 500,000 rupee bounty that the cleric Maulana Yousuf Qureshi put on Asia Bibi's head. Its lead editorial went on to threaten anyone, like Taseer, who supported the woman's cause and campaigned for a repeal of the infamous blasphemy law. "The punishment handed down to Asia Bibi will be carried out in one manner or the other, and who knows whose position and rank will be terminated as a result of the debate on the repeal of the blasphemy laws," the newspaper wrote. That was on 5 December. A month later Taseer was killed by his bodyguard, a 26-year-old policeman, Mumtaz Qadri. Neither the cleric nor the editors of the newspaper are being charged with incitement.
The celebration of Taseer's assassination has continued ever since. Making common cause with radical Islamists, lawyers showered petals on Qadri. They surrounded the anti-terrorism court at Rawalpindi and at one point the judge refused to hear the case and police considered dropping a reference to the anti-terror act and trying Qadri in a district court. When the hearing went ahead after five hours, no public prosecutor turned up because of fears for their safety, according the report in Dawn.com. Nationally, Taseer's death was greeted with cold-hearted intolerance from rightwing religious leaders – several of whom said he got what he deserved – and with spineless capitulation from the rulingPakistan People's party, of which the Punjab governor was the fifth most important member. Shortly after he visited Asia Bibi in jail with his wife and daughter, a mob rioted outside the governor's house. Prominent TV commentators joined in. The law minister, Babar Awan, then caved in, saying there was no question of reforming the law. Now Awan has rushed for cover behind a judicial inquiry, painting the killing as part of some unnamed conspiracy to destabilise the country.
The truth is all too clear. Who is responsible for Taseer's death? Some of the very politicians, lawyers and journalists who championed the cause of democracy, parliament and the rule of law against military dictators. Now they support, or fail to speak up against, a law which has become the weapon of choice of dictators, mobs and bigots. Where is the justice in a law widely abused to settle personal scores and to discriminate against minorities? No proof is needed. The alleged blasphemer can be locked up and executed on the say-so of witnesses and yet the slander can never be repeated in court, let alone proved, because to do so would compound the crime. Asia Bibi has spent 18 months in one of Pakistan's most hellish prisons, the last month of it in solitary confinement. At least 10 people have been killed while awaiting trial on blasphemy charges since 1990, according to human rights workers.
The state now has two specific problems: what to do with Asia Bibi and Mumtaz Qadri, short of hanging one and freeing the other. But it has surely larger ones. Every time television commentators, judges and politicians appease religious fanaticism, the social space occupied by them grows. It is already out of all proportion to the electoral prospects of the religious parties who back and give them shelter. The slow, agonised fissuring of the state of Pakistan is to be measured not only in bombs and the blood of innocents. Nor only by earthquakes and floods. It can be measured, too, by a moral collapse, a cowed ambivalence of the silent majority. Those who are too frightened to confront sectarian bigotry today will find themselves being consumed by it tomorrow. Benazir Bhutto, Salmaan Taseer, who is next?
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