The saddest aspect of the recent ruthless murder of Pakistani Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab was not so much the viciousness of the killing but the vicious celebration of his death. Taseer was shot dead on January 4, 2011 by Mumtaz Qadri, who was member of the governor’s special security squad.

After Qadri, pumped 27 bullets into Taseer, he was viewed as a hero by many Pakistanis, highlighting how deeply religious extremism has penetrated mainstream Pakistani society – shockingly both in Pakistan and abroad.

Taseer, who was close to President Asif Ali Zardari, had championed the cause of a Christian woman sentenced to death under the blasphemy laws which critics say are used to target religious minorities, often for political and personal reasons.

The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) appears to be divided over instituting a judicial inquiry into the assassination of Taseer, with two federal ministers contradicting each other on the issue. Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said on Friday that more than 500 lawyers have offered to defend Taseer’s killer, Qadri for free and showered him with flowers when he appeared in court.

This is a sad reflection on a country that was once pluralistic and tolerant. In his presidential address to the constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947, the founder of Pakistan Quaid e Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah said “what are we fighting for? What are we aiming at? It is not theocracy – not for a theocratic state. You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state….”

What happened to that mandate of liberty, faith and justice? It was hijacked by those for whom human life obviously does not hold importance.

Today the dreaded blasphemy law is like a cancer in Pakistan and totally in conflict with the Quran, which clearly indicates “there is no compulsion in religion”; it is contrary to the words of the founder of Pakistan and against every aspect of Universal Human Rights. Blasphemy laws are in violation of Articles 2, 3 and 4 of the Declaration on the Elimination of all forms of intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion and Belief and also violates articles 2 and 4 of the Declaration of the Rights of Persons Belonging to National, Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.

In fact the blasphemy law was not part of the constitution at the inception of Pakistan. It was initiated and strengthened by Gen. Zia ul Haq in the 1980’s and was instituted ostensibly to protect the honour of Prophet Mohammad, the Quran and the Companions and wives of the Prophet.

Zia ul Haq called himself a man of faith but his insecurities and lack of faith are manifest in the institutionalizing of the blasphemy law. Whatever made his think that the faith of Islam, its messenger and his family needed protection after 1400 years of the faith flourishing without his assistance?

Ironically the blasphemy law has been used in Pakistan as a systematic tool of discrimination and abuse against religious minorities, and ethnic cleansing. Under the banner of this inhuman law, it is believed that since 1987 almost 1000 people have been accused. Although religious minorities form only 3% of Pakistan’s population of almost 167 million, nearly half the victims were Ahmedis, the others Christians and Hindus. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief observed that the punishments accompanying blasphemy laws are excessive and disproportionate to the offenses. Some Islamic scholars have also condemned the existence and application of these laws.

The text of the blasphemy law is religion specific and very discriminatory. It makes no distinction between intentional deliberate action and unintended mistake in its application and has been used indiscriminately to settle personal vendettas. Pakistan is a country that has been front and center in the global arena pressing upon limitations on freedom of religion or belief and limitations on freedom of expression. In March 2009, Pakistan presented a resolution to the UNHRC in Geneva calling upon the world to formulate laws against the defamation of religion.

Pakistan blocked access to Facebook in May 2010 because the website hosted a page called Everybody Draw Mohammad Day. However their hypocrisy towards flagrant aberrations of human rights goes unpunished and unaccounted for.

On August 1, last year 7 Christian women and children were burnt alive, several dozwen people were injured and nearly 180 house looted and destroyed using special chemicals in incidents in Gojra, Korian and Kasur. These were done on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations of ‘desecrating the Holy Qur’an by the Christians’. The government failed to protect the innocent people caught up in this carnage despite prior warnings.

A fact finding mission of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HCP) found these attacks were pre-planned and not a response to blasphemy by an angry community. According to the HCP finding, announcements from mosques in Gojra on July 31 urged Muslims to gather and “make mincemeat of the Christians”.

Immediately after these attacks, Shahbaz Bhatti, Minister for Minorities declared at a news conference, “Allegations of desecration of the Holy Quran, which were used an excuse by Islamist groups to foment such a big scale of violence, were baseless…”

After these deadly incidents, several government officials tried to speak out about repealing the blasphemy law, but they were silenced. Meanwhile ridiculous misuse of the blasphemy law by those in power continues. It is alleged that a man dropped a visiting card with the name ‘Mohammad’ on it and was immediately accused of blasphemy.

Salman Taseer was one such voice of tolerance and compassion. He was trying to help Asiya Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy and in doing so, he gave his own life. The horrific aftermath of celebration, shows that the Islamists have a strong hold on Pakistani media and were using Taseer’s assassination as an example to those who might dare speak out against repealing the blasphemy law. Few people who have spoken out have been publicly warned and threatened. Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani made it clear on January 12, 2011 that the there would be no amendments to the blasphemy law.

What needs to be done urgently is:

  • urge the UN Human Rights Council to pressure Pakistan to repeal or amend the blasphemy laws in Pakistan.
  • There needs to be an international body that should bring to justice those who use the law frivolously while it exists and strengthen legal and administrative procedures to stop more abuse of the law by extremist groups.
  • The government needs to ban hate speech against ‘the other’ in Pakistan and invite the UN Special Rapporteur of Religion or Belief to assess the situation objectively and monitor the progress on recommendations made during her predecessors visit in 1995.
  • Protect political and religious organizations and institutions, judges and lawyers and other Human rights defenders who advocate for a change to the law
  • Send an independent expert on minority issues to Pakistan to judge the gravity of the situation