Thousands of people rallied in Karachi on Sunday against the controversial reform of a blasphemy law that was behind the assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer.
The rally was organised by Tahaffuz-e-Namoos-e-Risalat, a conglomerate of religious parties opposed to any changes in the blasphemy laws. Thousands of activists of religious parties blocked the main MA Jinnah road holding banners in support of Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, the alleged assassin of Taseer.
“Mumtaz Qadri is not a murderer, he is a hero,” said one banner. “We salute Qadri’s courage” said another.
“There are at least 40,000 people here and more are coming,” senior police official Muhammad Ashfaq said. Another senior police official said some 3,000 police officers were guarding the event, which had forced the closure of businesses and roads in the area. Addressing the rally participants, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, chief of his own faction of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, said that tens of thousands of people turned up on the streets of Karachi in support of the blasphemy laws which showed that nobody could even think of repealing them.
He claimed that the West, the United States in particular, was pulling the strings of the so-called liberals who were demanding repeal of the blasphemy laws. Calling it liberal extremism, the Maulana said that religious parties would protect the blasphemy laws at any cost and they would not budge even an inch in their position.
In a veiled reference to the slain governor Punjab Salman Taseer, the Maulana said anybody calling the blasphemy law a “black law” was also a blasphemer. He added that Taseer was himself responsible for his death and the government was equally complacent.
He called upon the government to stop “persecuting” Mumtaz Qadri’s family, saying that religious parties were ready to support Qadri in his trial.
Maulana Fazl warned the government to withdraw a bill tabled by Sherry Rehman in parliament for amending the blasphemy laws or else get ready for the consequences.
On his part, Jamaat-e-Islami chief Munawwar Hassan said that the slain governor had ridiculed the blasphemy laws by supporting Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row over blasphemy. “And we don’t feel sorry for what happened to Taseer.”
Hassan demanded that the prime minister make a statement on the floor of parliament that the government has no intention to amend the blasphemy laws. And the government should also force Rehman to withdraw her bill. He also called upon PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif and MQM chief Altaf Hussain to clarify positions of their respective parties on the issue.
Qari Ahsaan, from the banned group Jamaat-ud-Dawa, also addressed the crowd. “We can’t compromise on the blasphemy law. It’s a divine law and nobody can change it,” Ahsaan said.
Other speakers at rally included Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam chief Sahibzada Abul Khair Zubair, Jamiat Ulema Islam (Samiul Haq) leader Asad Thanvi, Jamaat-e-Islami Secretary Liaquat Baloch and Maulana Yousaf Kasuri of Markazi Jamaat Ahle Hadith.
Controversy over the blasphemy laws flared when Sherry Rehman tabled the bill in November calling to end the death penalty for blasphemy, after Aasia Bibi was condemned to death by a court. Rights activists say the law encourages extremism in the country already besieged by Taliban attacks.
Sherry Rehman spoke to AFP from her heavily-guarded home in Karachi on Sunday and said she would not be cowed by the protest. “They can’t silence me... it’s not any extreme position like seeking to repeal a bill, it’s very rational. They can’t decide what we think or speak, these are man-made laws,” she said.
Politicians and conservative clerics have been at loggerheads over whether President Asif Ali Zardari should pardon Aasia Bibi.
Meanwhile, Christian groups held memorial services in Lahore and Islamabad on Sunday to honour the assassinated governor Taseer.
Bishop Alexander John Malik led a rare gathering of 300 Christians at a cathedral in Lahore. “He was a voice for the oppressed section of society. We dedicate this day to him,” Malik said, before leading prayers for the governor.
With additional input from AFP
Published in The Express Tribune, January 10th, 2011.