A Blasphemous Law

Democracy Religion

by Hassan Malik. Originally published by our partner site, World Policy Blog.

Recent events in Pakistan have highlighted the best and worst of the country’s politics and society. News outlets worldwide have been running an all-too-rare story about a rich, powerful man of privilege who risked everything to defend a poor woman on the fringes of society from a public lynching. Sadly, this story was revealed through reports of the man’s murder at the hand of his own security guard.

Salman Taseer, the erstwhile governor of Punjab, Pakistan's largest province, spoke out in defense of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman whose village neighbors had accused her of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.  Asia Bibi was convicted under Pakistan's draconian “Blasphemy Law,” which – thanks to an amendment that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif supported, cynically attempting to win Islamist votes – carries a mandatory death penalty for some offenses.  While no one has been executed under the law due to the later commutations of sentences or reversals on appeal, minorities and the poor have been disproportionately charged under it – a fact that Taseer frequently pointed out in his vocal critiques of the law.  Indeed, although there have been no officially mandated executions, on several occasions those charged under the laws and later released were murdered by vigilantes – as was a judge who dismissed the blasphemy charges in one case.

Taseer's defense of the law’s latest victim drew widespread condemnation from religious fanatics across the country.  While the tensions between Pakistan's liberal, Westernized elite and its increasingly powerful religious opposition have deepened over the last 30 years, the virulence of the hatred leveled at Taseer — including open calls for his murder — shocked even the most jaded observers. 

Attacks on Taseer went beyond his politics and public stance to include his private and family life. Photos appeared on YouTube showing his children in supposedly compromising situations: drinking, in mixed company, and, in the case of his daughters, wearing skirts while on holiday in Europe.Undaunted, Taseer quipped on Twitter that “I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 [rightist] pressure on blasphemy.Refused. Even if I'm the last man standing.”

As the news of his death spread, liberal Pakistanis and Muslims around the world hung their heads in shame and sorrow. Yet at the same time, they felt a tinge of pride that one of their leaders, faced with violent threats, had demonstrated courage in standing up for the meek.  It is hard to think of Taseer as anything but a hero when comparing his principled stance to the spineless political calculations of his peers in other countries – like Nevada Senator Harry Reid, who allowed himself to be browbeaten into opposing the construction of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” in doing so, abandoning principle for the sake of an electoral advantage. Taseer's murder should remind politicians in the West and elsewhere that the fight for liberty is in fact a matter of life and death in many parts of the world. Islamophobes who suggest that there is no place for tolerance in Islam would do well to note that Taseer was a Muslim who risked his life to defend that of a non-Muslim.

Pride in Taseer gave way to renewed despair when comments from some quarters praising his 26 year-old murderer as a defender of Islam began to fill the airwaves and cyberspace.  Some extremist organizations warned that anyone defending Taseer, or even mourning him at his funeral, would be targeted next.

Perhaps the most disturbing facet of the entire episode was the absolutely gutless stance taken by leading “moderate” Pakistani politicians. Far from acting with renewed resolve to push toward the abolition of the blasphemy law, Pakistan's forces of moderation were nowhere to be seen.  Some “mainstream” politicians, such as former Prime Minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, failed to clearly condemn the crime, making superficially reasonable calls for “caution” and saying that Taseer should have been more “balanced”. Such a stance is absurd and morally bankrupt in that it suggests that those offended by mere words are justified in the taking of human life.

Others, like Imran Khan – a former cricket star and leader of an opposition party – argued that Pakistan’s law was not unique.  In an Urdu-language television interview after Taseer’s murder, Khan claimed that even the British have an anti-blasphemy law.  In fact, after not having been seriously implemented for the better part of a century, the British law was repealed in 2008 with the public support of the Archbishop of Canterbury.  By contrast, Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law has been repeatedly strengthened over the last 30 years – first by the Wahabbist military dictator Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, and most recently by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who pushed for an amendment to the law to impose a mandatory death penalty on all offenders.

Khan's stance on the issue is disturbing not only for its distortion of history, but because it skirts the key point – namely that the very existence of a blasphemy law is harmful to society and to the religious community it seeks to protect. As Taseer repeatedly argued, the law invites abuse by enabling efforts to limit unpopular speech or to harass members of Pakistan's already fragile minority communities. Indeed, it also hinders efforts to build a civil society by stifling the free exchange of ideas, which forces people to think and rethink their positions in the face of criticism. 

More importantly, the law tarnishes the image of Islam. The notion that an illiterate subsistence farmer on the absolute margins of society – or for that matter, a mediocre, publicity-starved Danish newspaper – can in any way damage a world religion with more than a 1.57 billion followers is patently absurd. In this sense, it is the blasphemy law itself which is blasphemous, as it denigrates the religion it claims to defend and marks a radical departure from the pluralistic, inclusive brand of Islam that has thrived for more than a millennium in South Asia.

Salman Taseer's last, principled stand to defend the marginalized should shame politicians worldwide for the courage he showed in the face of terror. In Pakistan, Taseer's murder should push politicians to repeal the law outright.  Doing so will undoubtedly upset some Pakistanis, but will also reinforce the civilized principle that the best response to offensive speech lies in words, not bullets, thus moving Pakistan closer to the ideals upon which it was founded. 

Hassan Malik is a PhD candidate in international history at Harvard University.  He previously worked in investment banking for J.P. Morgan and Troika Dialog in New York and Moscow.

Free Speech, Human Rights, Islam, Pakistan, Salman Taseer