Blasphemy and Betrayal: The Murder of Salman Taseer

Just after the creation of Pakistan in 1947, the nation’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, declared to the population traumatized by the upheavals of partition,

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

Would that Jinnah had survived longer (he died in 1948) to secure that principle in Pakistani society. Instead, the now over sixty-year struggle to determine the relationship between Islam and the state in Pakistan has claimed another victim in Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province.

A Public Murder

The assassination of Taseer on January 4 in the national capital Islamabad, by a bodyguard assigned to him, highlights how unresolved the issue of religion and the state is in Pakistan to this day. Rooted in the partition itself, Pakistan’s ambivalence about how involved the state should be in matters of religion is complicated further by military and intelligence agencies often at odds with both the democratic leadership and world powers, and popular devotional Islam under attack not just by militant extremists but also by groups like the Ahl-e Hadith and Ahl-e Sunnat. The entrenched nature of these challenges make it difficult to see a way forward that will bring stability and justice to a nation much in need of both.

Ostensibly, Taseer’s assassin, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, killed the man he was charged with protecting because he believed Taseer to be a blasphemer. He shot Taseer multiple times at point blank range in a public market and then waited to be detained, allegedly expressing pride in his actions to the media that quickly surrounded him. It is the issue of blasphemy and the symbolic nature of a much-publicized case involving Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of maligning the Prophet Muhammad, that brought Taseer so centrally into the public eye in recent weeks.

The governor was one of the few government officials willing to speak out forcefully and publicly; not only about the trumped up case against Aasia Bibi (who was accused by neighbors with whom she was involved in other disputes at the time of the accusation) but also about the need to reform the blasphemy laws instituted during the military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq from 1977-1988.

The blasphemy laws (Penal Code 295-298) make it illegal to: “outrage religious feelings,” defile the Qur’an, or deride the Prophet, his family, the first four Caliphs, and the companions of the Prophet. What constitutes outraging or defiling behavior has varied from distribution of purportedly anti-Islamic literature to placing a calendar with passages from the Qur’an onto a work table.

The blasphemy laws, along with the hudud ordinance (laws bounding certain areas of acceptable behaviors and their punishments concerning theft, apostasy, alcohol, and zina or illicit sexual relations), were part of Zia’s program to bolster his regime by claiming religious justification and authenticity. The timing of Zia’s rule was particularly unfortunate as it coincided with the militarization of the region during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, acceleration of the conflict in Kashmir, and—not coincidentally—the rise of the Taliban.

These laws capped the efforts of ideologues like Maulana Maududi to place the Pakistani state in the role of enforcing religious doctrine and practice. In practice, women and minorities have suffered most greatly from these legal innovations of the Zia era. Many human rights groups, including Amnesty International and the United Nations, have documented cases of capricious, discriminatory, and abusive applications of these laws. Contradictions persist as the largely Anglo-Indian legal model Pakistan originally instituted was put into the service of the judgments claiming sharia as their source, that is to say that the legal system that led to the application of hudud punishments was not based on traditional Islamic jurisprudence.

Yet in a nation where rule of law has been repeatedly compromised by corruption, military dictatorships, and unequal access, the concept of religiously based law has a great deal of appeal to many people as a theoretically incorruptible and impartial source of judgment. In practice this has not been the case and, though hudud punishments like amputations and stonings are extremely rare in official judicial cases, there have been cases of local committees interpreting and applying their own judgments, with horrific results.

What these sometimes well-publicized cases often do not reveal are the systemic injustices that enable them to occur: the feuds and rivalries, economic competition and underdevelopment, patriarchal and abusive families, and grinding poverty. In particular, the sense that the state is ineffectual or inaccessible to the average Pakistani makes it even more difficult for political leaders to challenge laws to which they, symbolically, profess that they must be subject to as divine law.

Blasphemer or Martyred Hero?

Indeed the popularity of these religious laws in some circles has actually led some clerics to issue edicts that Muslims should not attend the funeral prayers for Taseer. A spokesperson for the Jamaat-e Ahl-e Sunnat quoted on al Jazeera declared, “there should be no expression of grief or sympathy on the death of the governor, as those who support blasphemy of the Prophet are themselves indulging in blasphemy.” Reports from various sources in Pakistan indicate a widespread sympathy or, in some ways worse, apathy about the killing, even as many thousands rallied at the slain leader’s funeral. Perhaps most poignant, journalist Ahmed Rashid, who attended the funeral, reported that the family had trouble finding a cleric to officiate, ultimately resorting to a maulvi (religious scholar) employed by the political party to which Taseer belonged. The debate over whether Taseer was a blasphemer or a martyred hero may break down along party lines, but it also taps into the deep, historical ambivalence about religion and the state.

Political Implications

Salman Taseer was a businessman, publisher, and politician who knew full well how controversial and dangerous his position on the blasphemy laws was, indeed he tweeted about it on several occasions. Furthermore, he and his party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), were at odds with the regional government in Punjab, which is controlled by the Muslim League (Nawaz) run by former president, and former PPP coalition partner, Nawaz Sharif. There is a long history of disputes between the governor and the chief minister of Punjab before the blasphemy issue came to the center of the storm.

So, many questions remain about the murder, the motive, and whether Qadri acted alone. It is also unclear how long the PPP government will last given the steady erosion of their coalition since the the Muslim League (Nawaz) broke away shortly after the elections that brought Zardari to power in 2008 and another partner, the MQM left a few days ago. For these reasons and others it is doubtful if the PPP will use the death of Taseer as a rallying point to reclaim Pakistani civil society and promote a rebirth of the liberal values that Jinnah, the Qaid-e-Azam or Great Leader, articulated after the birth of the nation.

Indeed, several ministers interviewed in the press seemed to distance themselves from Taseer’s courageous position on the blasphemy law, recognizing that General Zia’s legal legacy is a minefield too risky for self-interested politicians to cross.