Pakistan’s Blasphemy Scenario in 3D

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January 9, 2011 14:24

As if things were not already sizzling hot in the country, the assassination of a powerful Pakistani politician and business tycoon who also happened to be at the helm of affairs in almighty Punjab province set on fire the political scenario and burned down the curtains that carefully hid the crumbling walls of an extremely polarised Pakistan.

This feature explores the different dimensions of the murder of a top-class politician and business tycoon and tries to see it from the perspectives of the different classes that make up the fragile social makeup of the Pakistani society.

WHO WAS SALMAN TASEER?

Salman Taseer was born on 31 May, 1944 in Simla, northern British India into a well-off family of intellectuals. His grandfather, Mohammad Din Taseer is believed to be the first person from Indian Subcontinent who obtained a PhD in English Literature from Great Britain. His grandmother, named Christobel, was an Englishwoman and also the sister of Alys Faiz, wife of great Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Salman Taseer started his political career in the 1960s and joined the leftist Pakistan People’s Party founded by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. After the political murder of ZA Bhutto, Taseer joined hands with Bhutto’s political heir Benazir and fought for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan during the 1980s. He was elected to Punjab’s provincial assembly in the 1988 general elections on the People’s Party ticket.

His close links with the government as well as the establishment enabled him to flourish his business empire. During the 1990s, he set up a string of companies including chartered accountancy firms, brokerage houses, telecommunication and media groups. He also established a strong foothold in the lucrative real estate development business by linking up with the Hyatt Regency Hotels chain. Salman Taseer is the owner of several media groups that include the Daily Times newspaper, Business Plus news channel and WorldCall telecommunications and cable television provider.

Remaining on the political sidelines during Musharraf’s dictatorship, he became part of the caretaker government assigned to look after the general elections in March 2008. His party, Pakistan People’s Party triumphed in the general elections in the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in December 2007. He was designated for the office of the Governor of Punjab after having served as the interim Federal Minister for Industries, Production and Special Initiatives in the caretaker administration.

His private life came into limelight several times. Apart from his marriage with two Pakistani women, with whom he has six children, he also has a son with Talveen Singh, an Indian writer and journalist, who was born in London in 1980. In his memoirs, the young UK-based Aatish Taseer laments the attitude shown by his father who refused to own him and showed no affection towards him.

His lawful children, six of them from two different wives, received higher education in Western countries. They have come under public scrutiny on numerous occasions when the photographs and videos of their private parties, held within the confines of the official Governor’s house, were leaked to the media. At a time when the general public is suffering from chronic inflation and dysfunctional economy, the Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer held parties in his official residency at the expense of the national exchequer, inviting VIPs and serving them alcohol which is publicly banned across the country.

A snap from one of the official parties circulating on the internet.

So much was the controversy that one of the videos from a party was leaked by an employee of a company run by one of Taseer’s sons. As expected, the employee got beaten up badly by his son’s goons, and as usual, the case was registered by the police but not pursued due to the interference of the higher ups.

Salman Taseer championed himself as the protector of the rights of minorities and a progressive liberal politician. He openly expressed his reservations over a law that terms Qadiyanis and Ahmedis as non-Muslims and wanted to see it repealed. He also defended people from the Christian and Hindu minorities accused under the ‘blasphemy laws’ inviting the wrath of enraged religious clergy and their followers.

LIBERALS LAMENT LOSS

The liberal rich class, part and parcel of the powerful ruling elite that has ruled the country for the last 63 years, has unanimously condemned the murder. They perceive Salman Taseer as an icon of liberalism and democracy in the country and a promoter of secular western lifestyle and values. His loss, according to the so-called ‘liberal’ rich class, will promote intolerance, extremism, vigilantism and hatred.

The liberals are a powerful minority in Pakistan and are deeply entrenched in the establishment that comprises of the military, bureaucracy, feudal lords and politicians. The majority of them are Muslims but are not steadfast followers. They are naturally the allies of the west as they have their family members as well as personal assets in either North America or Europe. They aspire the western ideas and culture and follow the lifestyle not very different from any liberal western family.

Women attend a candlelight vigil in commemoration of the deceased governor of Punjab Salman Taseer in an upscale area of Lahore. Photo - Mohsin Raza/Reuters

The death of Salman Taseer is seen as a chilling murder at the hands of the religious rightwing whom they dub as ‘mullahs’. The supporters of Malik Mumtaz Qadri, they say, are ‘inhuman brutes’ who are gaining strength to strength from the ‘draconian’ Blasphemy Laws. They fear that his murder will give rise to more assassinations that will see the elimination of the few remaining moderate faces in the country and culminate in the rule of Islamic extremists.

The liberals are anxiously claiming that until the state takes firm action against the hate campaigns, many more people will spring up ready to gun down anyone who dares to speak out against injustice and emulate killer Qadri. They are alarmed by the supporters of the murderer who call him “ghazi” or warrior and openly commend his action. Many liberal Pakistani activists have voiced the same concerns in the wake of Salman Taseer’s murder.

IS THE ‘RIGHT’ ALWAYS RIGHT?

If the Pakistani liberals are mostly comprised of the rich, privileged class, the bulk of the rightwing conservatives come from the middle and working class in both rural and urban areas who proudly identify themselves as practicing Muslims and see themselves as the vanguard of Islamic values and identity of Pakistan.

This segment of the society is not necessarily highly-educated but takes great strides in achieving Islamic education either from Islamic madrasas or pro-Islamic schools that offer both western and Muslim education to the pupils. They follow a life that usually revolves around Islamic values inspired by Holy Quran and the Sunnah, the teachings of Prophet Mohammad.

Many women who hail from the conservative segment of the society prefer to stay home and become housewives. They help raise the children, cook food for the household and socialise in events like marriage or Quranic learning that are segregated. Few women who do get the permission to study at secular private institutions do cover their head as a sign of religious observance.

The religious segment of the Pakistani society often complains of discrimination and persecution at the hands of the powerful liberal elite. They say the western-influenced liberals ostracise the religious people due to their strong bond with Islam and observance of many Islamic traditions.

The Pakistani rightwing perceives the United States as the leader of the world’s liberal forces which conspires to bring down Islam through its well-coordinated conspiracies and imperialist designs against the Muslims in Occupied Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir and other parts of the world. Calling themselves as the ‘lovers of the Holy Prophet’, they see the character assassination of Prophet Mohammed by European cartoonists, in the name of freedom of expression, as a stab in the hearts of millions of followers of Islam.

After living on the fringes since the creation of Pakistan in 1947, the Muslim conservatives got their first taste of power when Bhutto’s secular democracy was overthrown by a rightwing military general in 1978. He went on to impose parts of Islamic law, known as Shariah, in Pakistan. General Zia-ul-Haq, chief ally of then US President Ronald Reagan, introduced the controversial Hudood Laws and amended the Blasphemy Laws of the Pakistan Penal Code, an originally British instrument of law introduced by the imperialists in 1896. He included notable Islamists in his government and clamped down on the liberal elite that traditionally supported deposed Bhutto’s regime.

The religious right enjoyed a reemergence on the political scene thanks to the 9/11 and American aggression on Afghanistan in response. Despite Gen. Musharraf’s secular credentials, the mullahs were voted in by the rightwing conservatives who then went on to form governments in provinces that border Afghanistan and helped the military dictator get elected as the President of Pakistan in military uniform in 2002. The conservatives may not agree with the Taliban’s Islamic extremism and blatant use of suicide bombers to target both military and civilian targets, however, the blame the Americans and their allies for the mess in the country. They demand an immediate exit of the invaders so that they can sit down with other Islamists and resolve their issues through negotiation and reconciliation.

Rightwing supporters chant slogans supporting Mumtaz Qadri during a rally demanding his release in Rawalpindi. Photo - Muhammad Muheisen/AP

Regardless of the religious observance, many people from this class consider it a responsibility to condemn the ‘naked American aggression’ against the Muslims across the world and save their religion from the designs and conspiracies that are carried out by liberal proxies in their country. The latest challenge to Blasphemy Laws posed by liberal stalwart Salman Taseer was perceived as an open declaration of war against Islam, Prophet Mohammad and his 160 million followers in the country, at the behest of Pakistan’s western masters.

A SILENT MAJORITY EXISTS

Despite liberal or rightwing writers telling you that majority is on their side and want to live a peaceful life according to their philosophy, there exists a big segment of the Pakistani society that do not want to distinguish itself neither with the liberals nor with the conservatives.

This is the underprivileged and marginalised poor and the middle class of Pakistan that is trying to make its ends meet in a life that is mired by crippling poverty, inflation, unemployment/underemployment, crime, lack of healthcare, social injustice and substandard education. This is the class that has no affiliations with the expatriates living in the west who often import western values. They have not been to the west but do not necessarily hate what it stands for. They are also the ones who do not like the mullahs who incite them against other sects or religions and advocate Islamic militancy and extremism.

The majority of the Pakistanis follow Islam but have a strong distaste for sectarianism and religious extremism. They don’t want to get bogged down in the sect differences of Sunni or Shia Islam and want to maintain a peaceful coexistence with minorities like Hindus, Christians, Parsis or Sikhs. Despite not agreeing with the teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmed of the Qadiyani sect, they condemn the killing and persecution of Ahmedis and Qadiyanis in Pakistan and hope they live according to the rights granted by the constitution of the Islamic Republic.

They are the very people who see the blood of innocent civilians shed in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir and other parts of the world by US and its allies and wish to see the occupied lands liberated. The silent majority is targeted by the ‘liberal’ superpower by drones attacks and mercenaries in the country. The people of Pakistan are baffled when the very rulers of the USA talk of winning hearts and minds of the progressive Muslim masses but continue to pursue policies that hurt their interests. They fail to digest statements issued by US Foreign Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who supports increase in fuel prices by the government of Pakistan despite being well-aware of the fact that such measures make the lives of the masses more miserable, majority of which earns less than a dollar every day.

An elderly man sits walks past banners of slain politician Benazir Bhutto and her allies in Rawalpindi. Photo - Muhammed Muheisen/AP

And if not bitten enough by the ‘liberal’ Pakistani elite that aggrandises all the power in the country, they’re struck by suicide bombings and other terror attacks by the Islamic extremists, often while offering prayers in mosques or shopping in bazaars. These hapless people get no proper treatment in public hospitals after an atrocity and cannot afford the excessive bills charged to treat minor injuries at private hospitals and clinics.

The silent majority is highly critical of the dubious western standards of freedom of speech and expression and often questions its credibility when Israel or its chief benefactor, USA, is on the receiving end. They truly believe that all religious figures including David, Jesus and Mohammad should be given a protection from the venom of the war mongers and opportunists who want to stir hatred and distrust between the civilisations of the world. At the same time, they are aware that at times people use the blasphemy laws to extract personal revenge and want a stern punishment against such criminals who abuse the laws for personal benefits.

The silenced masses of Pakistan expresses its shock at the death of a mighty politician and business tycoon but are equally dismayed at his ignorance towards their own plight. They complain that during his life, Salman Taseer never raised his voice against rampant corruption, inflation and other anti-masses steps taken by successive governments and made no efforts to connect with the majority of the people who hail from the middle and working classes. They believe that Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri had no constitutional right to take the life of the Punjab governor, however, they are at complete loss to understand why the very politician remained silent over the killings of people at the hands of US drones or mercenaries.

They want Asia Bibi, the accused blasphemer as well as Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Salman Taseer, given complete justice and a chance to prove their innocence under the constitution of Pakistan. They also want to see the ruling elite to not only stop flouting the laws of the country but also protect and fully abide by it. They dream of a day when the gulf between the masters and the subjects is no more than a few paces and both are bound by the rule of law and justice.

FINAL VERDICT

The liberals, backed by the support of the west and 24/7 Pakistani media, are outraged at the killing and are doing their best to portray Salman Taseer as a ‘courageous’ man who stood for the rights of ‘innocent’ minorities in Pakistan and a vanguard of secular values in the country. Busy condemning the mullah-led right-wing in Pakistan, they are calling for the heads of every clergyman who supported the murderer and termed his acts as noble heroics of a true Muslim. Besieged as they feel, many are readying their prospects of living a life in the west in the wake of an extremist takeover in Pakistan and keep the western values at heart closer than ever.

The conservatives, on the other hand, are overjoyed, many overtly, at the killing of a leading liberal figure known for his pro-minority stance. By terming him an enemy of Prophet Mohammad, the rightwing is threatening to take down more establishment figures who dare to change the Blasphemy Laws or alter the Islamic orientation of Pakistan. Many of the rightwing supporters abhor the extremist tactics deployed by the Islamic militants but have some sympathy for their ‘misguided’ brethren and often seek their pardon from God. The liberals, in their eyes, deserve less of a chance of forgiveness due to their proximity to the US and its allies and their compliance of western secular values which they deem anti-Islamic.

Late Punjab governor Salman Taseer visiting accused blasphemer Asia Bibi at a jail in northern Punjab on 20 November, 2010. Photo - Asad Karim/Reuters

Last but not the least, the silenced majority of Pakistan, the bulk of poor, working and middle classes want the preservation of the modern Islamic identity of the country while rejecting the calls of the imposition of the austere form of Islam that the Taliban and al-Qaeda strive to bring about. They want a complete harmony of all the religions and sects in the country and an immediate end to foreign intervention and support by neighbouring countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, India and the US. The marginalised classes, neither liberal nor conservative, want the restoration of the sovereignty of Pakistani government, an end to militarism and ushering of the people’s friendly economic policies that will benefit the masses and bring them out from the pits of poverty. They don’t want the solutions of their socio-economic problems to be imported from the west but also have no desire to be told by cavemen on how to walk in the streets and pursue incessant morality.

If democracy is the panacea of ills in the modern world, the majority of the people of Pakistan want to see its true face that guarantees a decent life, education and healthcare, balanced freedom of speech and expression, accountability, rule of law and preservation of traditional eastern values and a government that is of them, by them and only for them.

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