Salmaan Taseer died and Mumtaz Qadri lived. Salmaan Taseer died and Aasia Bibi still sits in solitary confinement. Salmaan Taseer died and Shahbaz Bhatti died shortly after. Salmaan Taseer died and many celebrated. Salmaan Taseer died and lawyers showered his killer with flowers. Salmaan Taseer died and the media tolerated no introspection. Salmaan Taseer died and no discussion was had on the blasphemy law. Salmaan Taseer died in vain.
That is what saddens me the most. That a man who stood up for the rights of a woman who was clearly being denied those rights, was killed in broad daylight and we learned nothing from it. There was a brief moment of justice prevailing in the judgment handed down to Mumtaz Qadri, but given that he committed murder in broad daylight, in front of scores of eyewitnesses and then readily confessed to it, the fact that we were surprised with the outcome just shows how low our expectations are. The question that still remains unattended then, that Salmaan Taseer died trying to address, is the validity of the blasphemy law.
Last year, when he died and I condemned his killing (as did so many others), one person wrote me and demanded a clarification on how I could justify defending someone who attacked “Allah’s Law”. This was evidence, to me, of a fundamental ignorance of basic Islam. If we are willing to kill in the defence of our religion, wouldn’t it make sense for us to understand that religion first? The Holy Quran doesn’t state any punishment for blasphemy and the few Hadith cases used as vague justifications are actually more focused on not questioning the authority of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) by people during his lifetime. The reference most commonly used, [Surah Al-Maidah 5:33], describes the punishment for anyone seeking to wage war on Allah and His Messenger. Even there, death is but one of four different potential punishments. Why did we decide it was our go-to option?
The second issue that comes up is, can you condemn a non-Muslim for blasphemy? A Christian, whether you like it or not, does not believe in Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Is then their entire existence blasphemous? Is everyone other than a Muslim committing blasphemy just by existing?
There is also, of course, the sheer audacity involved in presuming you can decide who is and is not a Muslim, a pastime Pakistanis love more than cricket. Such a judgment is God’s to make and one of the definitions of blasphemy is ‘the crime of assuming to oneself the rights or qualities of God’. So haven’t those who called Salmaan Taseer non-Muslim then committed blasphemy themselves?
Unfortunately, these discussions are inherently academic because the law already is in place and its enforcement has already resulted in many innocents being victimised. I say “innocents” because I refuse to believe anyone would rationally dare to insult Islam or it’s Prophet in Pakistan. It just beggars belief.
The real issue here is what do the critics of the blasphemy law, in its current incarnation, want? Maybe some of them, in an ideal world, would like it gone altogether since they see the lack of sense in it. But no one is currently saying this. Everyone knows that such a change is not possible without serious, open discussion by the religious and legal authorities. Something unlikely to ever occur in Pakistan. Even Salmaan Taseer wasn’t asking for this. What everyone is asking for is that the law be amended. That it be written in a way that it protects against the possibility of misuse and puts the burden of proof on the accuser, not the accused. Currently, as it stands, it is a law which is open to misuse and often results in an abuse of the rights of citizens of Pakistan. Should Salmaan Taseer have been more careful in his phrasing? Definitely. But then it was his opinion and shouldn’t there have been debate with him over his use of the phrase as opposed to just shooting him dead? When we reach the point where we realise this and accept it, then we can say that Salmaan Taseer died and his death had an effect. Until then, we destroyed a life for no reason at all.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 4th, 2012.