A Year without Salmaan Taseer

This was originally published in Daily Times on Wednesday January 4, 2012 in a special supplement to mark first anniversary of Shaheed Salmaan Taseer

Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer was killed on this day a year ago by his own guard who thought Taseer has committed blasphemy by criticising a man-made law against blasphemy. The cause Taseer chose for himself was not an easy one, and he knew it.

Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, was sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy and was to be executed in late 2010. Taseer decided to stand up and speak for a woman from an already oppressed and persecuted community. I remember how his decision to go to jail and meet Aasia Bibi was opposed by almost everyone. Even the liberals and the human rights activists made frequent calls to him to convince him not to do it because it might pose him serious threats. Taseer could not care less. He went on and did not budge despite a dominant pro-blasphemy laws lobby within his own party. For him, most important was the foundation principle of his country and core message of equality and peace in his religion – Islam. His was a potent and loud voice, enough to frighten those for whom religion is merely a profession. It had to be muted.

All through November and December of 2010, there was a systematic heightening of flutter against Taseer in the media and on the pulpit. Amidst all this, he was killed on January 4, 2011. His death was traumatising, but more shocking was Pakistan’s reaction to it. The clergy put a seal of approval on his murder by calling him an ‘apostate’ and a ‘blasphemer’, the state acted as an epic impotent one and the media went on with insensitivity – all with impunity. Within an hour after the murder, two federal ministers came on national television and declared that had there been a blasphemer in front of them, they would have killed him then and there.

The clergy denied Taseer his right to last rites and his funeral according to Islamic tradition. The imam (who takes his monthly stipend from the government) of Badshahi Mosque refused to lead Taseer’s funeral prayers. The one who led the funeral prayers had to leave the country after getting death threats. TV programmes featured political and religious personalities who created the impression that Taseer had actually committed blasphemy and thus could be declared an apostate – the ultimate so-called justification for murder. One female TV anchor went to the extent of implicating Taseer in his presence who denied the charges of blasphemy on live TV more than a dozen times but the anchor seemed to be on a killing spree – she would go on and on with bizarre allegations and then reading out a fatwa (edict) against Taseer that ordered his killing.

Qadri, the killer of Taseer, was arrested from the place of murder but he escaped the standard operating procedure of being shot at by the rest of the squad. An initial probe revealed that he was blacklisted for VIP duty by the competent authority on account of his extreme radicalised religious views. No one knows why he was appointed with Taseer and why he was not immediately shot at, as per standard procedures. No one knows how he could keep shooting for over a minute and still not be stopped by any of his fellow guards. All we know is, Qadri went to a religious congregation and heard a cleric hurling edicts to kill Taseer. Four days after this ‘religious experience’, Qadri opened fire on someone he was appointed to protect.

After Qadri was arrested, the world saw a horrifying sight where a gathering of hundreds showered rose-petals at the killer, chanted slogans of support and lifted him on their shoulders. Not only that, his videos were released wherein he was sitting in the police station and reciting na’ats while the police officials looked on. A large group of around 800 lawyers pledged to support Qadri pro bono after Qadri gave a confessional statement. No one even from the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the one Taseer belonged to, had the courage to call Qadri a killer and take Taseer’s name with reverence on TV channels.

I had to face the wrath of two sitting Senators when I called Taseer a shaheed (martyr), who called me a blasphemer on the floor of the House, demanding action against me on a privilege motion. Not only that, when my friends and I organised a Chehlum (prayers on the 40th day of death) for Taseer, we had to face death threats given by clerics during their congregations and rallies. Around 10 months after the murder, a brave judge – Pervez Ali Shah – sentenced Qadri for murder. You guessed right, Judge Shah had to flee the country after open death threats were hurled at him by the clerics.

After a year, Qadri is still alive and supported although convicted. The judge who convicted him will not be alive if he stays in Pakistan, the imams who take stipend from the government and who refused to lead the funeral prayers of Taseer are still where they were, the clerics who incited radicalisation are still free to continue with it, the TV anchor who instigated Taseer’s murder still comes on TV almost every evening and bags almost double her previous salary, Qadri’s supporters in the media, police station and in the ranks of the Elite Force are still sitting where they were, the country’s blasphemy laws are still in place and Aasia Bibi is still in jail.

On Taseer’s first death anniversary, Pakistan is still hostage to bigotry, obscurantism and religious radicalisation that does not only persecute religious minorities, but minority sects within the majority community. Shias are being killed every day, Ahmedis’ persecution is the order of the day, Hindu girls are routinely abducted and forcefully converted, and Christians live under constant fear.

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