The Friday Times; Jan 7-13; Vol XXII; No 47
Salmaan Taseer, ST to many of us, is no more, killed in cold blood for saying the right thing and saying it straight without hemming and hawing. He has earned my abiding respect. He was a tall, strapping man when alive and in his death stands taller still with many of those living and appearing on tv screens looking like pathetic pygmies when cringing before the monster of obscurantism.
I want to remember ST as I always saw him, smiling, confident, witty, and couldn’t care less. I recall the morning I went to the Governor’s House to have breakfast with him, shortly after he had assumed the office of governor. He hadn’t changed a bit, dealing with people with the same ease. I had joked with him earlier: “What do I call you now? Excellency!” “Do I look like the Excellency type,” he asked in his inimitable style.
But I will leave out personal details to those of his friends who knew him far better than I did. For me he has gone beyond being a friend and colleague to many of us. His killing is a watershed; what happens now is going to determine the direction of this society and that’s what I want to talk about.
Let me state it here: ST was right to describe the Blasphemy Law, as it stands, as flawed. This is a man-made law, put together over several years in this form during the dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq. It was finalised by an assembly which was Zia’s creation and which he ultimately sacked.
However, and this is what is most crucial and diabolical, this law gets its sting not from its being in the penal code but on the basis of a normative acceptance by society. Take a reverse case: we have a law against honour killing. That law is practised more in the breach. So, the issue of normative acceptance is vital to the functioning of a law, good or bad. Bad laws will work while good ones ignored, depending on their social acceptance.
Jurists know that laws work best when the legal and the normative embrace each other. In the case of Blasphemy Law, we face two problems: the law is flawed as it stands but has wide acceptance in society which makes it so difficult to rectify it; and if we do manage to amend it, the rectified law would remain ineffective until people begin to find the idea of vigilante action on the basis of religion abominable.
As the situation stands, after someone has been accused of blasphemy, the safest place for him is the lock-up – though there have been instances in which mobs have either wrested the accused from police custody and killed them or killed the accused in jails.
It is in this atmosphere that ST chose to stand up and speak out against this law with his usual candour. That cost him his life, though we have to wait for investigations to determine that what led to his murder was a conspiracy by his official guards and did not have a political dimension.
Even so, one fact is clear. The man who pulled the trigger reflected the mindset that has taken hold of large sections of this society. Note the people cheering him when he, a murderer, was brought to court. The argument is terribly skewed: ask clerics and others and they would begin by saying that no one should take law into his hands but, and this is where it gets totally non sequitur, the Holy Prophet’s honour is an issue that moves all Muslims and therefore people should be very careful about what they say and how they say it.
This “however” lies at the heart of the problem. What it essentially says is that while one should preferably not take law into his hand, the issue of blasphemy is not an ordinary one and the onus of responsibility lies on the one who has committed blasphemy rather than the one who has wielded the knife or pulled the trigger. There are many problems with this reasoning, but one is quite obvious: is another individual or a mob going to determine when, how, and who has committed blasphemy and act as judge and executioner?
Such is the stench of the rot that Sheikh Waqas Akram, a PMLQ MNA, and Azam Swati, the disgraced JUIF former minister, appeared on Hamid Mir’s programme and put the “educated” and the “liberals” on warning regarding attempts to amend the law. Sh Waqas said that even he might kill an alleged blasphemer. Going by his argument, the murderer of ST should be garlanded and allowed to go free. In fact, how about giving him a medal of honour? The same baloney was mouthed by the PMLN’s Siddiqul Farooq on B-Plus. He talked about how this society is constituted and argued implicitly that ST had asked for it.
Frankly, given this attitude, the problem is not the law but the people. If we were really serious in honouring ST’s sacrifice, all political parties should have got together on this issue, condemned his murder without adding provisos and got down to re-working this law. Politicians should have come on tv channels and condemned in no uncertain terms the murderer and his accomplices, all of whom should be dealt with for murder most foul.
Doing this would not change the skewed norms of this society overnight but it would signal to the religious fanatics that getting real estate in Paradise would come with a heavy price here. Societies can be changed, just like Zia changed a good one and created a monster out of it. That process has to be reversed and reversal would need multiple strategies.
ST has laid down his life; what happens here now cannot concern him. But it would those charlatans who will not do what must be done to rectify matters. Religion-induced violence has many ugly facets. This is just one. The underlying sentiment is the same: my piety is more pious than yours and that is reason enough for me to kill you. Those who are hedging their statements in the wake of ST’s murder are only digging themselves and this society deeper into the hole in which it finds itself.
As for ST, may he rest in peace.
The writer is Contributing Editor, The Friday times