The death of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, has brought Pakistan to the forefront of world affairs in a way that 20 million displaced Pakistani flood victims could not. In August, Taseer told the BBC of the need for urgent international aid to reach flood victims in his state after some $2 billion to $3 billion worth of crops were destroyed, including 260,000 hectares of cotton and rice, maize and other cash crops. Taseer warned that the floods had hit some of the most poverty stricken areas of rural Punjab, which he described as “a breeding ground for potential recruitment” by religious extremists. International aid was important, he said, because ”this is the kind of nest which can grow the vipers”.
Ironically, this extremism was Taseer’s undoing. He was shot by a member of his own security detail. The assassin reportedly told investigators that he killed Taseer due to the politician’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
Taseer was a complex political figure. His political mentor was the father of Benazir Bhutto, who was executed after a show trial conducted by a US-backed military dictator. Years later, Taseer served as a minister in a caretaker government appointed by another US-backed military dictator. General Pervez Musharraf, who many Pakistanis not-so-affectionately label as “Busharraf”, appointed Taseer as governor of Punjab in 2008.
Many Western observers describe Taseer as “a liberal politician”. In a sense, he was more liberal than other members of Pakistan’s wealthy elite. He belonged to the ruling Pakistan People’s Party of the late Benazir Bhutto. He opposed various religiously inspired provisions of the Pakistan Criminal Code that entered the statute books during Bhutto’s reign and which she did not oppose to gain support from religious parties.
These provisions included laws that made it an offence to engage in acts deemed blasphemous. The laws typically were used against members of Pakistan’s religious minorities. Among the most vulnerable minorities are the Sikhs. Before Pakistan was carved out of colonial India in 1947, Punjab was a land where followers of many faiths flourished. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, emerged from this area. Punjab is the final resting place to numerous Sufi Muslim saints, and was also where any number of less orthodox Muslim sects were born.
The partition of India saw a splitting of Punjabi society. Millions of Sikhs and Hindus rushed in one direction to the Indian side of the border, while millions of Muslims rushed in the other direction. A million people of all faiths lost their lives. One Sikh who managed to escape was Amarjit Singh who was to become a brigadier in the Indian army. Amarjit’s daughter Tavleen Singh became a respected Indian journalist. In 1980, she had an affair with Taseer and they had a son named Aatish, who was reared in his mother’s Sikh household in Delhi.
In his 2009 book Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands, Aatish Taseer writes that his father’s version of Islam was less about religious observance and more a kind of pan-Muslim nationalism. Certainly, Salman Taseer preferred to keep his relationship with an Indian Sikh journalist and his illegitimate child secret given the effects such a scandal would have on his political career.
At the same time, he championed the rights of Christian and other minorities and openly took on the powerful religious parties that backed blasphemy laws. Over the years, these laws have been used to harass and victimise Pakistani Christians. Among them is Aasia Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian mother of five from rural Punjab, who is in custody for alleged blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad. Her supporters claim that the allegations arose from personal disputes with other women in her village.
Taseer and his daughters visited Aasia Bibi after she had been in custody for some 18 months. He described Aasia Bibi’s punishment as “harsh and oppressive” and appealed to the Pakistani President for a pardon. Taseer also described the prosecution of poor members of religious minorities as a mockery of Pakistan’s Islamic heritage.
Few Pakistani politicians have had the courage to oppose such laws so openly and brazenly. Religious law has become a tool of state-sanctioned oppression of the most vulnerable of all faiths. Congregations of attention-seeking imams join forces with corrupt police to arrest and even kill alleged blasphemers on the flimsiest of evidence. Personal scores and commercial disputes are dealt with in this irrational manner.
Pakistan’s religious right, along with their supporters in the small business sector, had called for Taseer to be sacked. Pakistan’s The News International reported that 100 activists from the Tehrik Tahaffuz-e-Khatm-e-Nabuwat (Movement for the Preservation of the Doctrine of Finality of Prophethood) rallied and cheered after Taseer’s slaying. They carried placards and handed out sweets.
On New Year’s Eve, Taseer sent this message into Twitterspace: “I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing”. It remains to be seen whether any other politician will be brave enough to stand in the way of Pakistan’s religious right.
Irfan Yusuf is an associate editor of altmuslim.com, an attorney, and the author of Once Were Radicals: My Years As A Teenage Islamo-fascist.