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Herald exclusive: Shrunken space
Holding a memorial reference for Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, who was shot dead on January 4 by a member of his security detail because of his stance against the blasphemy law, had not even been the original intent of the Citizens For Democracy (CFD). Founded in December last year as a network for those unhappy with the spread of religious extremism in Pakistan, and especially with the blasphemy law, at first its members wanted to hold a seminar on the law itself. They tried to book the auditorium at the Pakistan Institute for International Affairs in Karachi’s Saddar area, explains founding member Noman Quadri. They were refused. When Taseer was murdered and the issue became too hot to handle, the CFD decided to hold a memorial for him instead.
Initially the Karachi Arts Council agreed, but at the last minute withdrew. “They said they had received direct and indirect threats and had heard from sources that our event would be targeted,” says CFD member Beena Sarwar. The next stop was the Karachi Press Club, historically a place open to people who have all types of causes to publicise and injustices to protest. But press club officials refused to allow the CFD to hold the event at its premises, Quadri says . Tahir Hasan Khan, the president of the club, claims the CFD’s request was not turned down. According to him, given the sensitivity of the issue the administration needed to consult the club’s officials before arriving at a decision, which meant they could not say yes immediately. Insiders say the press club’s governing body was unwilling to give permission “because it could have threatened the club’s members”.
Sarwar believes the club did not need to consult its governing body. “We know that they can take such decisions without all that bureaucracy. They have done it many times in the past,” she says. For Quadri, then, the reason for the refusal was simple. “The club was not willing to host any event associated with Taseer or the blasphemy law,” he says.
The event was finally held at the offices of the Pakistan Medical Association. But the small space available there could not hold the crowd of about 500 that showed up, a literal manifestation of the shrinking space for moderate voices in Pakistani public discourse. Nor is this surprising when one considers how little Taseer’s own party has done to protect and expand this space. When Mumtaz Qadri publicly confessed to killing the governor, Taseer’s sympathisers were shocked to hear many Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leaders, including Babar Awan, the federal law minister, and Fauzia Wahab, the party’s information secretary, dubbing the killing a “political murder” instead of seeing it as an assassination carried out on religious grounds.
And after refraining from supporting Taseer on his stand on the blasphemy law while he was alive, the party is yet to officially organise a meeting or a reference in his honour. The only mention of his death in a party-organised event so far – apart from perfunctory messages of condolence from senior leaders and a week-long suspension of party activity – was when PPP co-chairperson Bilawal Bhutto addressed a London memorial reference for Taseer.
“The decision to not play up the religious side of the murder came from the top party leadership because the government cannot afford to open a new front with rightist groups and parties,” a PPP provincial leader from Lahore admits to the Herald. The party and its struggling government in Islamabad clearly do not want to be seen as pitching themselves against the religious right on the issue of the widespread misuse of the blasphemy law.
This reluctance to back Taseer’s views from one of the most liberal political parties in the country seems to be both a manifestation and a cause of the shrinking space for frank, rational debate on issues that are creating deep fissures in Pakistani society and ultimately leading to violence. “This is a message to all liberal and progressive people to keep quiet and scare and intimidate them,” Taseer’s daughter Sara told foreign media outlets after her father’s killing, “[it] is a message to every liberal [Pakistani] to shut up or be shot.” A Lahore-based political scientist who does not want to be named agrees with her. “The implications of Taseer’s murder by a religiously motivated man will be significant and far-reaching for our society, where religious conservatism is rapidly increasing because of the silence of successive governments on the issue in the past,” he says.
In the days immediately following Taseer’s murder, leaders of Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat Pakistan issued decrees against offering funeral prayers for Taseer or even expressing regret over his killing. Taking a cue from these statements, the khateeb of Lahore’s Badshahi Masjid and the imam of a mosque inside the Governor House, both government employees, refused to lead Taseer’s funeral prayers. A few weeks later, two senators refused to lead a prayer for the slain governor when the Senate met for the first time after his death. One of them, Professor Ibrahim, belongs to Jamaat-e-Islami while the other, Abdul Khaliq Peerzada, represents the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which prides itself on its liberal credentials. And when Islamabad-based CFD member Marvi Sirmed invited Senator Humayun Khan Mandokhel, an independent from Balochistan, to participate in a memorial service for Taseer, she received an alarming response. “[Taseer] met his fate. This is our religion. You have to accept it or leave Pakistan,” he told her.
Nor were ordinary citizens far behind. A group of lawyers cheered for Qadri and showered rose petals on him during his first appearance in an Islamabad court, and a number of rallies were taken out in various cities of Punjab by religious groups openly supporting him and his action. On social networking website Facebook, about 2,000 users hailed Qadri as a brave man willing to sacrifice everything to protect the honour of the Prophet of Islam, and that was before the group’s page was shut down. A large section of the media, particularly television channels, stopped far short of condemning the murderer and instead continued focusing on why Taseer was killed in the way that he was. Many regulars on talk shows and in newspapers’ opinion pages also focused on discussing the ‘crime’ he had committed by publicly supporting Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother condemned to death under the blasphemy law, rather than denouncing Qadri and his act. The advocates of amendments to or a repeal of the blasphemy law were painted negatively in the media, usually as intending blasphemers working on a foreign agenda to harm Islam and Muslims.
Urdu newspaper Ummat, for instance, translated an Observer article on former information minister Sherry Rehman, who has filed a bill to make amendments to the law, to imply that she had willingly and independently gone into exile in her home. This was emphasised several times in the translation despite the fact that the original article had described how threats against her life have been pouring in and the government has instructed her to provide a 48-hour notice before leaving home. Another Urdu newspaper mistranslated a New York Times article on Taseer by his daughter Shehrbano in such a way that she began to receive threats in response to it (the newspaper later fired the subeditor responsible for the translation).
“Religious intolerance has become a way of life for many of us in Pakistan,” says a Christian-rights activist who requested anonymity. “People are scared of speaking or writing on issues such as the shabby state of religious minorities in Pakistan. Taseer’s assassination will certainly add to the existing repressive atmosphere and make things more difficult for those who are working to realise the ideal of a tolerant, progressive society for all citizens of Pakistan,” he adds, saying the governor had won Christian hearts by espousing Aasia’s cause.
But even though Pakistani Christians feel strongly for Taseer and his family, they have not organised public events to pay tribute to him because they have been “advised against it”, he explains. “Church leaders don’t want the murder and their opposition to the blasphemy laws to be seen as a Christian-Muslim issue. That is why public displays of emotion on his death were avoided. We cannot afford to invite trouble. Our community has already lost a lot in violent attacks on its members and churches in Punjab and elsewhere in recent years.”
Civil society activists, Taseer’s friends and his close relatives have been able to organise candlelight vigils in Lahore, Islamabad and elsewhere in the country, and a handful of liberal politicians and human rights activists have spoken out on television talk shows in his favour. But that has been the extent of the public protest. “It is time for progressive elements to sit back and reconsider their strategy for countering the growing power of conservative forces in society, especially in the media, rather than indulge in any adventurism,” advises the analyst from Lahore. According to him, the most important task at hand for them is to see to it that Qadri is punished for taking the law into his own hands.
But it is unclear whether the state is powerful enough or has the courage to punish Taseer’s murderer. Police officers investigating the case are said to have received threats to their lives and the prosecution has been unable to find lawyers. “Few lawyers, if any, would want to represent the state in this case because of possible threats,” says an Islamabad-based reporter who has been covering the proceedings of Taseer murder case. He claims the majority of lawyers from the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, including those belonging to Punjab’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz, are supportive of Qadri, which prevents others from taking the risk of representing the prosecution. “Even the judiciary is scared of hearing the case for similar reasons and because of the active backing of Qadri and his instigators by religious parties and groups,” he adds.
More than anyone else, it is Taseer’s family that is facing a real threat, says a businessman close to them. They are said to be shunning any interaction with the domestic media for fear of stoking a new controversy. After the mistranslation of Shehrbano’s article, “they have decided to stay away from the media,” he confirms. Although they did not agree, he adds that “some people had even advised Taseer’s wife and children to quietly leave the country for some time and return when the issue is forgotten.” If Taseer’s assassination underscores anything, then, it is the Pakistani state’s increasing inability to take on extremist violence, and its helplessness in protecting those who differ from a narrow interpretation of religion that seems to be becoming mainstream.