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A blow to a liberal Pakistan

Posted: Thursday, January 06, 2011

The assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, has illustrated the increasingly chaotic environment in that country, which only promises to get worse in the new year. Weeks before his death, Taseer had the courage to say what his fellow politicians were unwilling to: that Pakistan’s blasphemy law must be repealed in order for Pakistan to enter the community of modern nations.

Many will look to his death as an exacerbation of the ruling party’s political problems. But his memory should represent far more. The nation and its people should memorialize Taseer by overturning a law that he termed “disgraceful,” and succeed in making Pakistan more tolerant and accepting of all its people regardless of faith. Regrettably, this is unlikely to occur.

The current status of Pakistan is defined by one crisis after another. The country is experiencing an economic tailspin with inflation rates soaring to 15 percent, unemployment rising and massive government borrowing. This is compounded by the country’s energy crisis, which has left the nation struggling to provide its people with gas, fuel and electricity.

Most menacing of all is the ever-present threat of extremism, which is quickly spreading from the nation’s border with Afghanistan to its interior. In fact, extremists have been able to attract the sympathy of millions of Pakistanis to their radical causes, motivating militants to attack their own people and state.

In the midst of such a crisis, one would think that all political parties would be focusing either on the practical issues of energy and social services, or attempting to create an ideological challenge to the growth of the Islamic extremist. Instead, right-wing parties have advanced the hateful agenda of the extremists by defending the blasphemy law and its use to persecute Pakistan’s religious minorities.

The law states that no individual can insult Islam or its prophet. The debate over the law was revived in recent months with the conviction of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian condemned to death for allegedly insulting Islam. Taseer immediately rejected the conviction of the poor and uneducated Bibi, and compelled others to take action against the brutal and intolerant blasphemy law.

A bill proposed by Taseer’s courageous colleague and former People’s Party minister of information, Sherry Rehman, sought to remove the death-penalty provision from the blasphemy law, while also adding more protections against illegitimate allegations. These provisions would not have repealed the law, which is what Taseer had advocated, but merely attempted to contain the injustices that have resulted from the application of the blasphemy laws. Yet such tempered calls for tolerance have been vigorously rejected by the right-wing ideologues.

The attacker leaves no doubt that his motivation for assassinating the governor was a violent rejection of Taseer’s liberal stance toward religious minorities. The assassin’s beliefs, in fact, represent a distortion of Islamic values and the birthright of the Pakistani nation. Defense of the blasphemy law and its narrow worldview is a product of generations of religious indoctrination both in the media and in schools. The spreading of religious jihad is mostly traceable to the dictatorship of the 1980s under Gen. Zia ul-Haq, who, for his own political gain, programmed many Pakistanis to tolerate religious fanaticism.

Even though the socio-political environment in Pakistan has become increasingly radicalized, leaders like Taseer demonstrate that there are still individuals who are willing to risk everything in order to make Pakistan a more just and open society. Indeed, individuals like Taseer stand apart from those in the political class in Pakistan who are afraid to speak out against Islamist fanaticism. Instead, his murder seems likely to terrorize liberal Pakistanis, and lead a modernizing middle class to lose faith in the political system.

The memory of Taseer’s impact on Pakistan’s party-politics may soon fade, but Pakistanis would be ill-served in forgetting his message of tolerance. A few days before his death, Taseer tweeted “Peace prosperity & happiness for new year ... I’m full of optimism.”

Leaders, who may fear facing the same tragic end as Taseer, must continue his mission in order to bring equality and justice to the people of Pakistan. To truly honor his memory, Pakistan’s leaders must muster the courage to repeal the country’s blasphemy law.

• Marvin Weinbaum is a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a former intelligence analyst in the U.S. Department of State. Waris Husain is a research assistant at the Middle East Institute. Readers may write to them at: MEI, 1761 N Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20036.



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