Will The Political Establishment Wake Up?

This post by Agha Haider Raza was originally published at his blog on 12 January 2011.

Our country is at a crossroad.  Pakistan has come to a point where thousands believe they are righteous and have divine authority to carry out God’s acts on this earth.  The repugnant response by the supporters of Salman Taseer’s alleged killer has truly been mesmerizing.  Qadri’s fan base has distorted Islam to such an extent that it has become laughable to comprehend how they perceive themselves to be protecting the sanctity of Islam.  Are they protecting the very Islam, which teaches that murder of one human is the equivalent of killing mankind? Are they protecting the very Islam, which allows for questions over ambiguity? Are they protecting the very Islam that believes in modernity and equality for all? The unfortunate reality today is the religious parties although do not have the political capital; they have influence over our society.  These parties need to be exposed to the Pakistani public through education and the media.  Their dangerous interpretation of Islam needs to be questioned and highlighted.  Many in our country have been manipulated through religion and this should not be tolerated anymore.  This twisted ideology has taken too many innocent lives in our country.  Surely this madness needs to come to an end?

Mumtaz QadriMuch has been discussed, gossiped and publicized on Governor Salmaan Taseer’s inhumane assassination a week ago.  Above the chorus about the Governors personality, character and political viewpoint, what I find completely baffling is the absence of condemning cold-blooded murder.  I am not talking about the monotonous paragraph that has appeared on behalf of our government officials denouncing the murder, “we condemn the killing…will investigate”.  What we need from our ‘democratically elected’ leaders is, showcase to Pakistani’s around the country the draconian way of life many of our ‘religious scholars’ have adopted.

I find it highly unfortunate that the President of Pakistan and co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party, Asif Zardari, has not used stronger words to deplore the heinous act.  Furthermore, only two politicians, Imran Khan and Shujaat Hussain have linked Taseer’s murder to the growing extremism that many of the political establishment enjoys turning a blind eye towards.  Murder is not justified – under any circumstances.

Those who argue that Islam has no place for modernity are incorrect.  The Prophet (PBUH) was a 7th century Arab who married an older businesswoman.  He broke with tradition.  The Prophet broke idols that were in the Kaa’ba.  He broke with tradition.  The Prophet stopped female infanticide during his time.  He broke with tradition.  Islam was introduced at a time of jahaliyat and it was Prophet Muhammad who brought about a social change, expanding the concept of modernity.  Why have we been estranged from the very foundation of Islam?

What is the purpose of believing in the Day of Judgment if we are judging people and deciding their fate in this world? Is it not blasphemous for Qadri to be carrying out God’s work? If Taseer was wrong in what he said or did, why was Qadri allowed to take away the Governor’s opportunity of repentance?  Is it not blasphemous of Qadri to kill a human being when (in Islam) only God is the decider of our destiny?

The clergy has always been a powerful institution throughout history.  One cannot deny the power and sway they maintain, but in a religion where we believe that God has the divine authority, I find it hard to believe how a moderate country like Pakistan has allowed the ‘right Ummah’ to become the ‘righteous Ummah’.

It also seems very hypocritical that we seem to merrily criticize any other religion on this earth.  We mock the Jews, pass judgment on the concept of the Holy Trinity and laugh at believers who worship their own deities.  And yet, when it comes to Islam, we don’t stand for any religious tolerance.  How does one expect others to respect our religion when we don’t return the favour?  What right do we have in condemning Aasia Bibi (who is a Christian) for blasphemy, when we are guilty of the same charge when it comes to her religion?  Have we forgotten what the white stripe represents on our national flag?

The rising bourgeoisie in Pakistan needs to be exposed to heinous crimes that are being committed at the beck and call of the religious right.  Such parties are entitled to voice their opinions and sentiment, but they are not allowed to instigate violence.  The religious party (JuI) has been active prior to partition (1947).  They have never been able to secure the Federal Government.  If Pakistan believed in the ideology the religious parties put forward, we would have been a very different country today.  It is in fact, the Pakistan Peoples Party, a grassroots, liberal, secular party that is not surprisingly, the largest political party as well.

The Establishment needs to wake up and smell the putrid air that has encompassed Pakistan.  Pakistan no longer believes in their concept of ‘strategic depth’, Pakistani’s don’t want any further deaths in Kashmir, Pakistani’s don’t want to fund madrassah’s that mass produce suicide bombers.  It is the very seed that was planted decades ago, which we reap today.  It is the very ideology that was preached during the 1980s, which convinced the alleged assassin Mumtaz Qadri to empty two magazines on Governor Taseer.

The blasphemy laws in Pakistan are no doubt a very sensitive issue.  But so was the Hudood Ordinance, which was rectified by Parliament.  Pakistan went through a very turbulent period under General Zia-ul-Haq.  Laws were incorporated that reeked of a very conservative and distorted form of Islam.  But as the Governor rightly said, these are ‘man-made laws, not God-made laws’.  They can and should be amended.  The Political Establishment needs to challenge and enlighten those parties, groups and individuals who believe in suicide bombings, murder and religious intolerance.

Governor Taseer was murdered for what he rightly believed in a law that is dangerous to a prosperous society.  This law has been interpreted to a point where a citizen believes it is lawful to murder another citizen.  The blasphemy laws have been interpreted in a manner, where a citizen believes he does not need to respect the law enforcement agencies, the judicial courts or the legislative authority of Parliament.  Max Weber famously articulated that a state solely possesses a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.  When the power of violence shifts from the state to the people, we also see a shift from a state to anarchy.

Maybe this is what President Zardari meant when he awkwardly stated, Mumtaz Qadri threatened democratic institutions.  The only logical explanation would be that if the blasphemy laws can be interpreted in a manner that threatens institutions, would it not be appropriate to repeal or amend such a law?

A Modest Proposal

You shoot me, I shoot you right back. I have been thinking about the blasphemy laws and the veneration of Mumtaz Qadri, and I must admit that it has taken me a while to understand what is going on. But now that I have finally wrapped my brain around it, I wanted to be sure to share with my moderate and liberal friends who I fear are still trying to makes heads or tails of the situation.

Let’s start with a review of the facts:

First, Asia Bibi was convicted of blasphemy for allegedly saying that Jesus was equal to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Or something. Nobody really seems to be certain what she said. But we’re certain that it was insulting, whatever it was. After all, she’s a Christian, and that’s insulting enough.

When people began investigating the background of the case, though, they discovered that actually it all seems to have started because of an argument over a goat. Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer took up the case saying that he wanted to make certain that the woman was not punished if she did not commit any crime.

Sahibzada Fazal Kareem, head of Sunni Ittehad Council, told AFP that a pardon of Asia Bibi “would lead to anarchy in the country”. Asia Bibi still sits in prison with no pardon.

Second, Mumtaz Qadri of the Elite Police Force turned his gun on the man he was sworn to protect and shot him the back. For this, he is being termed ‘Ghazi’. Lawyers showered the confessed killer with flowers, and Jamat Ahle Sunnat clerics threatened politicians and journalists with death if they do not support Qadri’s act.

Why did Mumtaz Qadri commit this act? The man he was sworn to protect, Salmaan Taseer, had termed the blasphemy laws ‘man-made law’ and said that it should be reviewed. Mumtaz Qadri disagreed with him.

Some have mistakenly said that Qadri killed Salmaan Taseer because of blasphemy, but this is not correct because Salmaan Taseer never committed any blasphemy.

Actually, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi also agrees that the law is man-made law and not divine law. Dr. Khalid Masood also has noted that the blasphemy laws are mis-used to promote injustice and that justification for these laws is questionable based on Quran. This is something that has been discussed and debated and there are differing positions even between respected scholars.

Salmaan Taseer, even if you disagree with his position, was not convicted of blasphemy. He was tried by no court and no sentence was handed down. His killer was not authorized to commit this act by any judge. Qadri was not even authorized by any fatwa. We know this because Mumtaz Qadri has said it himself. He simply woke up one morning and decided to shoot a man in the back because he disagreed with him.

Therefore we have now shown that Mumtaz Qadri shot a man in the back because he disagreed with him on an issue. So, we must ask, if shooting a man in the back because you disagree with him makes you a Ghazi, shouldn’t we all shoot in the back those who we disagree with? After all, don’t we all want to be Ghazis?

Think about the lawyers who are cheering their new hero. It makes perfect sense why they would idolize him. Everytime they go into a courtroom it is because there is a disagreement. And resolving these cases takes countless hours of preparation and sometimes years of making motions and giving evidence. Cases could be closed much more quickly if they just shot each other in the back.

For a similar reason, it is obvious why the Mullahs are supporting Qadri. Think of the theological disagreements that they have been studying and debating and arguing over for a thousand years or more. So much time could be saved and used for more important tasks like beard conditioning and turban folding if a cleric could just shoot the scholars he disagrees with in the back.

Or how about politics? Think of all the energy that is spend on campaigns and rallies and voting. It would be so much simpler if we should we all just go out and shoot supporters of the other political parties.

How about cricket? With today’s fast-paced society, test matches are nearly impossible to watch. Even ODIs are too long for many people. We’ve already created 20/20 to move things along more quickly, but imagine how soon a match would be completed if we just did away with bowling and batting and fielding and simply went straight to shooting everyone in the back.

As you can see, it makes perfect sense. This would surely increase our GDP also as we would create a booming new industry for guns, ammunition, and funerals. If we put a tax on bullets, we could raise enough money to close the tax-to-GDP gap that has the IMF so concerned. Plus, we would never have to listen to anyone we don’t agree with. What an incredibly wonderful world. So it’s settled from now on, there is only one rule – if you don’t like what someone says, shoot them in the back.

Let me know if you disagree. I’ll be happy to shoot you in the back.

Editor’s Note: This piece is satire only. Please do not shoot anyone in the back, front, or anywhere else. If you disagree, please simply leave a comment instead.

Salmaan Taseer: “This is a man-made law, not a God-made one.”

The following discussion between Governor Salmaan Taseer and Ayesha Tammy Haq was published on a few short weeks ago by Newsline Magazine. As you can see, Salmaan Taseer approached the topic with reason, tolerance, and intellectualism. He advocates working within the political and legal system to protect the rights of the nation’s minorities.

Q: Why did you take up Aasiya Bibi’s case?

Salmaan TaseerA: Aasiya Bibi’s case is particularly relevant. She is a woman who has been incarcerated for a year-and-a half on a charge trumped up against her five days after an incident where people who gave evidence against her were not even present. So this is a blatant violation against a member of a minority community. I, like a lot of right-minded people, was outraged, and all I did was to show my solidarity. It is the first time in the history of the Punjab that a governor has gone inside a district jail, held a press conference and stated clearly that this is a blatant miscarriage of justice and that the sentence that has been passed is cruel and inhumane. I wanted to take a mercy petition to the president, and he agreed, saying he would pardon Aasiya Bibi if there had indeed been a miscarriage of justice.

Q: When do you expect the president to issue the pardon?

A: The case will come before the High Court and be heard, and if for any grotesque reason the judgement of the Sheikhupura district judge is upheld, then she will be given a presidential pardon.

Q: You have been criticised for circumventing the legal process.

A: Yes, particularly by a television talk show host. I would like to ask that host if some maulvi accused her of blasphemy and she spent a year-and-a half in jail and was then offered a presidential pardon, would she turn around and say, “no wait until my appeal has been heard.” This kind of ‘mummy daddy’ approach is probably fine for others, but I wonder if she would apply it to herself. I don’t think I have circumvented anything; all I have done is to draw everyone’s attention to this case. I have also showed my solidarity with minority communities who are being targeted by this law and, in doing so, I have sent across a strong message.

I have received thousands of messages from people from all walks of life. The result can only be good. This law that no one dared speak about is now being discussed, criticised and its repeal sought. I have heard anchors, journalists, members of civil society, people like Ghamdi, Imran Khan even Rana Sanaullah and many more saying amendments are required. The important thing to remember is that this is a man-made law, not a God-made one. What I find particularly distasteful is that when you speak of amendment, people assume you condone the crime. If I am against the death sentence, it does not mean I condone murder.

Q: Do you advocate repeal of those provisions in the Pakistan Penal Code better known as the Blasphemy Law?

A: If you want my personal opinion, I don’t like this law at all. I understand we are working in a coalition government and that being the case what we can do is to amend the law in such a way that the maker of a false accusation is tried under the same law. There should also be a proper filtration process where someone like a DCO should confirm that there is a case to answer. This will help ensure that pressure from maulvis and fanatics does not result in the victimisation of helpless people. One of the maulvis demonstrating against me said that they killed Arif Iqbal Bhatti, a judge who released someone accused of blasphemy. Surely, at the very least, he should be tried for incitement to murder.

Q: Yes, but the perpetrators get away…

A: The real problem is that the government is not prepared to face religious fanaticism head on. This also gives us a bad name in the world.

Q: Babar Awan, the federal law minister, has said there is no question of repealing the law on his watch. How do you respond to that?

A: Well, I do not agree with Babar Awan, it is as simple as that. That opinion is not a majority opinion in the party. Sherry Rehman has tabled a bill to amend the PPC. Most people in this country – and I am not talking about the lunatic fringe – are moderate. They do not like this law and have demonstrated against it.

Q: Will the PPP support Sherry Rehman’s effort?

A: President Zardari is a liberal, modern man; most people I know in the PPP are liberal and modern. I think the MQM, ANP and most of those in the PML-Q have the same point of view. So if push came to shove and there is no bowing to pressure from the lunatic maulvi, then it can very easily go through. And I think if Nawaz Sharif will show a little bit of moral courage for a change and keep away from his constituency of religious fundamentalism and place himself on middle ground, that too would be a very positive thing. This amendment should come through not on a party basis but across party lines. So you vote with your conscience.

Q: People may have demonstrated against Aasiya Bibi’s sentence, but fatwas have been issued against you.

A: People also issued fatwas against Benazir Bhutto and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. They issued fatwas against basant. These are a bunch of self-appointed maulvis who no one takes seriously. The thing I find disturbing is that if you examine the cases of the hundreds tried under this law, you have to ask how many of them are well-to-do? How many businessmen? Why is it that only the poor and defenceless are targeted? How come over 50% of them are Christians when they form less than 2% of the country’s population. This points clearly to the fact that the law is misused to target minorities.

Q: How do you think the media has handled this issue?

A: I am very impressed. Nearly 90% of the media in Pakistan has spoken out against this. I have watched talk shows, spoken to anchors, read numerous columns and opinions, and barring those with a deliberate agenda, not just every media person but also guests on talk shows have openly condemned the Blasphemy Law. They all say it should be amended, which is something which has been the most encouraging result of my move. Because I took a stand, many people have lined up and taken a stand and that, in turn, will empower judges and law-enforcement agencies to the extent that they may not bow to pressure. I think that now a policeman registering a case of blasphemy or a judge hearing a case will investigate before registering or at least think twice before hearing such as case.

Q: What kind of perverse pleasure is there in oppressing the weak and vulnerable?

A: Unfortunately and sadly there are people who feel bigger when they pick on someone who cannot fight back. It’s called bullying. I went to Sheikhupura jail to stand up against a bully and it has encouraged others to do so as well. That’s what taking a moral stance is. I am honestly happy to say that I am heartened by the huge response from ordinary folk. Even people who are deeply religious have spoken out against this black law. Ghamdi, for example, has stated clearly that this has nothing to do with Islam – Islam calls on us to protect minorities, the weak and the vulnerable.

The Perils of Being a Riot Culture

RiotNo nation, no matter how young, can excuse criminal violence. The measure of a successful democracy lies in the strength of its laws, and the debate amongst its elected leaders with the public to amend or repeal them. If the structure of society cannot be respected, and a nation enters lawlessness, the results will be untold bloodshed and the death of many dreams.

If we cannot come together as a country to silence the voices that yell for the blood of others, we will be admitting that our existence as a civil society is a façade. I say this as a true Patriot, one who is tired of watching her country spiral into an ugly riot culture.

It is said that the loud voices of a few drown out the opinion of the silent majority. One hopes that is true in the case of the riots against Aasia Bibi. I, a fairly mild-mannered person, was overcome with anger and disgust when I first heard about the case of a 45-year old, mother of five sentenced to death for blasphemy. I know without a shadow of a doubt in my heart that the majority of Pakistanis do not support the decision to kill her, yet the riots continue.

The vocal religious lobby has once again painted a picture of Pakistan that shames the average Pakistan. Pakistanis follow the laws of their religion (which endlessly preaches love and harmony amongst all), and they also follow the laws of common decency.

But we cannot have a debate on Aasia Bibi. If we could, perhaps the following could be pointed out:

  • • If we looked into our religion, we would see that our Prophet (peace be upon him) set forth a constitution upon his migration to Medina. The first article of the constitution was that all the inhabitants of Medina, the Muslims as well as those who had entered the pact from the Jews, Christian, and idolaters, were “one nation to the exclusion of all others.” All were considered members and citizens of Medina society regardless of religion, race, or ancestry. People of other faiths were protected from harm as much as the Muslims, as is stated in another article, “To the Jews who follow us belong help and equity. He shall not be harmed nor his enemies be aided.”
  • • Since the upper hand was with the Muslims, the Prophet strictly warned against any maltreatment of people of other faiths. He said:“Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I (Prophet Muhammad) will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment.”My mother would also tell me the story of how the Prophet (pbuh) won over the love and respect of those who had previously cursed him, thrown stones at him, and damned his followers. I believe, according to the laws and example of our Holy Prophet, the blasphemy laws are entirely unIslamic.
  • • An honest debate about the Aasia Bibi would bring up the facts: the other women, who refused water from a non-Muslim, cursed Aasia. By defending herself and her faith, she has been found guilty of blasphemy!

As I said, an honest debate brings out many factors and points that the majority of Pakistanis find themselves agreeing with. Yet the riots continue, on and on and on, on a myriad of subjects.

The poor suffer twice for the riots: the destruction in their cities scars their lives, and secondly, their society is pushed farther away from a day where opportunity is made available to them.

We can allow the yelling right wing to scream of their hatred of all who disagree with their repulsive worldview. We can allow them to represent Pakistanis as angry, spiteful people. We can continue to watch our media remain neutral. We can continue to allow our principles to lay shattered at our feet. Or we can stop accepting this as “the way things just are,” a phrase I have heard muttered in sad resignation by many fellow Pakistanis.

If we allow for these vile barbarians to write the narrative for Pakistan, we do our country a great disservice. The riot culture, and all that it stands for, must end. It can only be countered by civil debates and discussions on a local and national level. Cooler heads must prevail in setting a standard for debating issues. Our greatest talent is our “aqaal,” or ability to reason, and that must serve as a main tool as we right wrongs and progress forward. The real peril of being a riot culture is that we would no longer have any other culture.

In Pakistan, A Tale of Two Women

There is no doubt Pakistan has experienced a tumultuous 2010. Heartbreaking reports of terrorism filled the headlines as floods submerged one-fifth of our nation. Our great country is working to better itself on multiple fronts – social, political, and economic – and our current place on the world stage allowed the entire world to bear witness to our progress. Two women, in completely separate instances, have captured some of the biggest challenges we must overcome. They are Dr. Aafia Siddiqui and Aasia Bibi. These two women would become respective symbols for right wing and liberal groups, as activists on both sides sought to define Pakistan’s national identity.

Aafia SiddiquiThe arrest, trial and verdict in the case of Dr. Aafia Siidiqui captured the world’s attention. An American-educated neuroscientist, she was convicted after a jury in a US federal court found her guilty of intent to murder Americans in Afghanistan. In September 2010, she was sentenced to 86 years in prison. A Muslim who engaged in Islamic charity work in the US, she moved back to Pakistan in 2002. It was reported that her second husband’s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (the infamous alleged planner of the September 11th attacks) mentioned her name to his interrogators, saying she was involved in similar activities, and thus led to her own interrogation by authorities.

Asia BibiAasia Bibi has nothing in common with Aafia’s background or the terrorism links. But her situation too, captured the world’s attention and brought sharply worded criticism towards the Pakistani laws that seemingly punish minorities.  Her story begins in the blazing summer heat of 2009, when other rural workers refused water from her because she was a Christian. The 45-year old mother of five was charged under Pakistan’s archaic and cruel blasphemy laws. The case has drawn international condemnation, and even Pope Benedict XVI has called for her release.

With the issues highlighted in both cases, we can see Pakistan faces challenges on all fronts – security, political, and social.

Multiple protests and riots have erupted all over Pakistan as supporters of Aafia Siddiqui, as her case has added to the fuel to the “Hate America” fire. She has become the poster child for the idea that Americans hate Pakistanis, and have framed an innocent woman. In a country overflowing with conspiracy theories, it is hardly surprising that Aafia’s tale has proven to intensify the right wing base.

Aasia Bibi’s case has brought to light the vicious anti-minority laws on the books, and a movement to amend those heinous laws has begun. But just as the right wingers sought to capitalize on this issue as well (a cleric has offered 500,000 rupees to anyone who kills Aasia), it seems the PPP has stepped up to honor its platform of equality for all.  Punjab’s Governor, Salmaan Taseer, has been outspoken on this issue, and will seek a pardon from President Zardari to stop the order of execution. We can only hope the appeals court will spare her life.

Terrorism, security issues, minorities’ rights are some of the many issues Pakistan has to face in the coming year. The hope and prayer will always be that in the end, we have created a more perfect society, one that treats all its citizens well.