The Murder of Salmaan Taseer
Salmaan Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, has been shot dead by one of his own security detail for the supposed crime of defending Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman threatened with execution under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The law was introduced by the British and given extra teeth by military dictator Zia ul-Haq, and is commonly used for the pursuit of grudges against the weak. The most disturbing aspect of Taseer’s murder is that both puritanical Deobandi and traditionalist ‘Sufi’ Barelvi religious leaderships have expressed support for it. Many Pakistanis are lionising Taseer’s murderer. For decades sections of Pakistan’s ruling elite have peddled religio-nationalist chauvinism as a stop-gap substitute for social justice. The result is today’s ugly combination of elite and mob rule. I reviewed a book by Taseer’s son here. Below, novelist Mohammed Hanif reports from Karachi:
Minutes after the murder of the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province Salmaan Taseer I saw a veteran Urdu columnist on a news channel. He was being what, in breaking news jargon, is called a “presenter’s friend”. “It is sad of course that this has happened but . . .”
I watched in the desperate hope that he wouldn’t go into the ifs and buts of a brutal murder in the middle of Pakistan’s capital. By this time we knew that Governor Taseer had been shot dead by a man in police uniform, probably one of his own police guards. The news ticker on screen informed us that the postmortem was under way. Later we would find out that he took 27 bullets. Not a single shot was fired by his security detail. It seemed too early for analysis, but the presenter’s friend looked mildly smug, as if he had been mulling over arguments in his head long before the governor was shot. Although it wasn’t required, the presenter egged him on. “But you see these are sensitive matters. He should have watched his words. He shouldn’t have spoken so carelessly.”
What were the late governor’s words? I knew about his outspoken stance on the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death in a blasphemy case. In a village near Lahore, she served water to some Muslim women who refused to drink it from her glass. (This is quite a common expression of prejudice against lower-caste Christians in Pakistan.) They argued. A couple of days later, the village mullah filed a case saying she had insulted our Prophet.
I knew about his habit of making fun of his political foes, mostly through Twitter. But I still wanted to find out what his exact words were. If a billionaire who is also a governor and enjoys the highest level of security imaginable in Pakistan, can be shot for saying something, it’s in everyone’s interest to find out what those words were. I mean what if you were to utter those words by mistake?
The presenter chipped in helpfully. “Yes, he did call our blasphemy law a black law.” Thoughtfully, the presenter’s friend nodded his head in agreement.
Only last month I had followed another blasphemy case. A pharmaceutical salesman walked into a well respected paediatrician’s clinic in the city of Hyderabad and tried to sell him his company’s medicines. The good doctor was in a bad mood. He tossed the salesman’s visiting card in the bin. The very next day the salesman got together some local religious party activists and got a blasphemy case registered against the doctor.
How did the wily salesman manage to achieve that?
You see, Mohammed was part of salesman’s name, as it is with half the male population of this country, including this scribe. So if you toss away a piece of paper with the word Mohammed written on it, you are obviously committing a blasphemy against our beloved Prophet. And there is a law against that in this country, introduced by Pakistan’s military dictator and part-architect of the global jihad industry, General Ziaul Haq. The law is popularly known as the Namoos-e-Risalat Act; the law to protect the honour of the Prophet, and there is only one punishment: death by hanging. A number of non-Muslims as well as Muslims have been awarded this punishment, but nobody has actually been hanged yet. Higher courts usually overturn the punishment. In many cases a mob, or motivated gunmen, have carried out the punishment themselves.
Taseer had obviously not committed any blasphemy against the Holy Prophet or any namesake of his. As coverage progresses, politicians and pundits lectured the dead governor about the importance of choosing one’s words carefully and respecting the sensitivities of one’s fellow Muslims, especially if one lives in a Muslim country. A couple of liberal TV journalists almost stumbled over their words trying to explain that the governor had never committed any act that could be called blasphemous, he had only criticised a law. It is a man-made law, we were reminded by an occasional sensible voice. And the governor only criticised that man-made law, “because no true Muslim,” every single politician, journalist, pundit was at pains to point out, “can even think of committing blasphemy against the Holy Prophet.” As if it were a proven fact that all non-Muslims have nothing better to do than thinking of devious ways of maligning our Holy Prophet’s name. They were careful to add “may peace be upon him” every time the name was mentioned. Some of them offered to sacrifice their own lives to protect the honour of our Holy Prophet.
It sickened me to think that the honour of the Prophet of the second largest religion in the world needed protection from these people. And then it occurred to me that they were actually sending secret signals to any would be killers that said, “Look we speak the same language, we are not blasphemers like that governor guy. We watch our words. We know about the sensitivities of our Muslim brothers. In fact we are as sensitive as you are.”
Taseer’s body was still in the morgue when I started to find out more about the sensitivities of our people. Whereas most people rushed home and sat glued to their TVs, probably agreeing or disagreeing with those TV presenters, many of those interviewed at random seemed to approve. “Well, murder is wrong, but he did say bad things about our Prophet,” one man said. Another claimed that if he had got a chance he would do the same thing. When asked how they knew that Taseer had committed blasphemy, they just shrugged as if saying they just knew. As if they had decided that he just seemed like the kind of guy who would do something like this.
Even before Taseer was given a burial, his killer had become a hero of sorts. Constable Mumtaz Qadri belonged to Punjab’s Elite Force, a police force usually deployed to provide security to VIPs. And although he had acted alone, at least some of his colleagues knew that he was planning to assassinate the governor. He had made them promise that they wouldn’t shoot him in the act. Hence, after pumping 27 bullets into the governor’s body, he calmly handed himself over to his colleagues who had apparently kept their promise. They tied his hands and legs with a nylon rope and took him away. By the evening, Qadri’s picture had replaced a thousand profile pictures on Facebook. He was a mujahid, a lion, a true hero of Islam. We wish there were more of him.
Little is known about Qadri at this stage, except that he attended pro-blasphemy law rallies and was considered a bit of a religious nut. His name tells us that he wasn’t born into the kind of family where lessons of jihad are served with school meals. Qadris are a subsect of Barelvi Sunni Muslims, who were traditionally more likely to enjoy Qawwali music and distributing rice pudding to celebrate their spirituality. Pakistan has seen so much sectarian strife over the last two decades that no single group is now above the fray. Last year, a wave of suicide bombings across the country targeted Sufi shrines, the places millions of Pakistanis have traditionally preferred to mosques. Now the devotees of these shrines publicly pledge to save them through an armed struggle. But when it comes to the honour of our Holy Prophet the devotees of these shrines and those who consider this whole shrine thing a big bad blasphemy, all come together. And everyone else stays silent or applauds them on Facebook.
So who are these people who lionise the cold-blooded murderer? Your regular kids, really. Some Pakistani bloggers have tried to get these fan pages banned for inciting hate. But as soon as one shuts down, another five crop up. Those who have trawled the profiles of these supporters have said that they have MBA degrees, they follow Premier League football, they love the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Miley Cyrus figures on lots of these pages. And as the Pakistani blogger who blogs under the name Kala Kawa pointed out: “If you go through the profiles of Qadri supporters on Facebook, you’d think Justin Bieber was the cause of extremism in Pakistan.”
Many of Taseer’s Twitter followers were retweeting his old messages full of courage, humour and, above all, his humanity, his decision to stand with Pakistan’s most powerless citizen, a poor non-Muslim woman languishing in a death cell. In one of his messages, he had said that he’d not bow down even if he was the last man standing. Only eight hours before his assassination, he tweeted an Urdu couplet by Shakeel Badayuni featured and translated by a Pakistani media blog Cafe Pyala:
“My resolve is so strong that I do not fear the flames from without
I fear only the radiance of the flowers, that it might burn my garden down.”