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Blasphemy Law: Debate to Assassination

We absolutely condemn the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and all the unwarranted furor that may have led to it.  If anything, the Salman Taseer murder shows the importance of having a public and respectful debate about the Pakistan blasphemy Laws.  Along with the murder of the governor, there is the killing of any hope that this particular debate would have led to a mature revision of the law to include safeguards against its abuse and procedural hurdles to disable its use as a tool of political or financial vendetta.

The late Salman Taseer may have rhetorically referred to the blasphemy law as the ‘black law’, but it was a contribution to the debate around the laws.  It was an act of courage for him to sit down with Aasia Bibi, the illiterate Christian woman convicted of blasphemy, and he promise to try for a pardon for her.  Reduced to its absurd logical end, justifying killing over a debate over laws will lead to killing over ever more smaller causes, and in the end, only one person will be left standing.  No one person, not even advocates of a theocratic state, can ever argue that this is how to run a state.  This is a time for cool minds to prevail, and while nothing can be done to reverse the cowardly act, we can stand back and take stock of the polarisation that led to this heinous crime.

Those who encouraged the wholesale abolition of the blasphemy law did not study the origins of the law before partition or its presence in the Indian and Pakistani penal codes, both of which derive from the same law.  On the other hand, those that supported the law ‘as-is’ were ignorant of the evolution of laws and their implementation in a democratic nation-state.  The cry of ‘Western-sponsored traitors’ was as misleading as the derision of ‘obscurantist ulema‘.

Section 295 of the Pakistan and Indian penal codes was put in after the Ghazi Ilm-ud-din incident, today’s incident should be the rallying cry for another review, and not wholesale abolition, of these laws.  The forces of violence must not win, and neither is this a victory for simplistic follow-the-West approach for religion does not command the passion in the West as it does in the East, and that has been true for some centuries and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

Sadly, the healthy debate over laws in a democracy has become tainted by this heinous crime.  We have to learn to separate debate from violence.  While some may justify tribesmen militias attacking another armed force in self-defence, no violence is ever justifiable over words spoken.  Similarly, the historical fact that Indira Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her over the Indian Army’s attack on the Golden Temple is not a parallel for this case.

Is there anyone from the liberal crowd who can argue with the ulema about the theology and/or the applicability of that theology to the law?  Or is there any of the ulema who can argue on the legal evolution of this law in a democracy?  If so, speak up now and be counted.

Finally, evil as it is, this incident is,  it is the ugly side of the dirty business of democracy — in which vociferous opinions and debates are required, and other nations have had their share of assassinations during democratic evolution.  As such, it should not be used as a hand-wringing self-hate exercise by Pakistan-bashers.  Nor is it a discussion around a vocabulary alien to Pakistan: ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’.

It is ironic that the debate that led to the assassination was about how could speech lead to the death penalty.  The question now is: how do we further the debate and bring about a healthy change?  That would define the legacy of Salman Taseer and his assassin, Mumtaz Hussain.