The assassination of the Punjab governor has not only stolen a good friend from Pakistani Christians and women’s rights campaigners, it has sent a stark and open warning to those trying to bring changes in blasphemy laws - nobody is safe anymore. If VVIPs like Salman Taseer, who was shot dead by one of his elite bodyguards yesterday in Islamabad, can be a target, anyone can. Taseer’s murderer surrendered to police and told them he killed the governor because “he described the blasphemy laws as a black law.” The governor, who studied at the Catholic St. Anthony’s School of Lahore, was renowned in Church circles for his outspoken views on the need for the repeal of the laws. He won the hearts of the Christian community last November when he and his family met Asia Bibi shortly after Pope Benedict urged clemency for her, the first women condemned to death for blasphemy. Since then, Taseer has been labeled an “infidel” and has received regular threats from extremist factions. A local Muslim politician in the Punjab city of Multan offered a reward of 20 million rupees (US$233,000) for his assassination while Islamist parties used him as a focus in the countrywide protests last week against proposed changes to the controversial laws. Sadly, Taseer’s assassination is not the first case of its kind in South Asia. Indira Gandhi was killed by her two bodyguards in 1984, of course, while Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of Bangladesh was assassinated by army officers in 1975. But the killing of the Punjab governor is different in the sense that it was religiously motivated. Shahbaz Bhatti, the Catholic Federal Minister for Minorities, highlighted this in his comments to the media. “The governor was declared wajib ul qatal (apostate) and had been receiving threats due to his principal stand against misuse of blasphemy laws. I appeal for an investigation of those who issued fatwas against him in the streets," he said.
|Map locating Islamabad, where the governor of Pakistan’s most politically important province was murdered |
It is a matter close to Bhatti’s heart - and personal safety - as he has been engaged by President Asif Zardari to form a committee of scholars and experts to recommend ways to prevent the misuse of blasphemy laws for personal and political reasons. Taliban groups have issued a similar fatwa against Bhatti for this commitment. Sadly, this could become a feature of the Pakistani political scene. Many commentators fear there will be more assassination attempts on government figures opposing these laws. Taseer’s murderer could soon be a hometown hero to fanatics, some speculate. This abandonment of reason is the biggest challenge for Pakistan, trapped as it is between religious extremism and the war on terror. Any attempt to change the blasphemy laws is immediately conflated in extremists’ minds with anti-American sentiments, while that is fanned by their “leaders” who claim the reforms are being dictated by the US. But the really sobering message from Taseer’s murder is that the lack of tolerance in society has now crept its way into the country’s own establishment. The government is now facing a major headache providing security even for the elites. The governor’s assassination has also again put a question mark over whether there is a place for freedom of speech and legitimate difference of opinion in the country. Is there no room for discussion on blasphemy laws? Should we lose all expectation that the UN and the rest of the world will intervene? Not all Pakistani Muslims are fundamentalists, of course, and this latest turn of events has etched even deeper divisions between them and liberal groups. But that is little comfort to Christians for whom developments could not be worse. Church offices were shut down as soon as the news of assassination was reported. Driving home, evading protestors on the road, was reminiscent of the panic after the 1997 assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Will the mob do more damage and the government topple again? Now more than ever, we need a united Church to put its support behind its only hope - civil society. Christian leaders must continue to struggle for this, despite all challenges and sacrifices they maybe called upon to make. In this communication age, it desperately needs to prepare a qualified spokesperson to represent their point of view in the media. The Catholic bishops must come to forefront of this battle for survival and deal with the questions Taseer’s murder poses to ordinary Christians in their everyday lives. Praying for the spiritual encouragement of leaders opposing blasphemy laws is important, but standing together with them on the frontline is the need of the time. PA12706.1635