|Salman Taseer with Asia Bibi (center)|
The increasing radicalisation of Pakistani society was today laid bare when mainstream religious organisations applauded the murder of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, earlier this week and his killer was showered with rose petals as he appeared in court.The assassination barely drew a raised eyebrow from the White House and the State Department. The most that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could come up with was a pro forma statement of regret.
Qadri appeared in court, unrepentant, where waiting lawyers threw handfuls of rose petals over him and others in the crowd slapped his back and kissed his cheek as he was led in and out amid heavy security.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the assassination, saying Mr Taseer's death was "a great loss".There's nothing in Clinton's statement about the central issue surrounding the assassination of Taseer which is religious freedom. There is nothing demanding an end to Pakistan's "blasphemy" laws which are used to persecute Christians. There is nothing demanding the pardon and freedom of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian condemned to death for her religious beliefs.
"I had the opportunity to meet Governor Taseer in Pakistan and I admired his work to promote tolerance and the education of Pakistan's future generations," she said.
"The United States remains committed to helping the government and people of Pakistan as they persevere in their campaign to bring peace and stability to their country."
Just a few months ago Pope Benedict XVI spoke out publicly in support of Asia Bibi, saying that he felt a “spiritual closeness” to Bibi and her family. In the context of the outspoken public support for Taseer's assassin, one can imagine how the Pope's statement is viewed among the more conservative members of Pakistan's Muslim majority.
Mr Taseer was known for his positive stance towards better equality and rights for women and for minority faith groups. Several times he spoke out against the Blasphemy Law of Pakistan most notably during the recent case of Aasia Bibi, for whom he also demanded a pardon.There is an investigation underway of the circumstances under which Taseer was publicly executed.
Today at his funeral thousands attended as his black coffin was draped with a flag of Pakistan and carried by military helicopter to its resting place at Calvary Ground Graveyard.
Although Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Interior Minister Rehman Malik represented the government and the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, their were notable absentees. Those missing including President Asif Ali Zardari the President and close friend of Mr Taseer also missing were political rivals Nawaz and Shabaz Shariff from opposing Party Muslim League.
Elements of the case are suspicious such as how one member of the elite team was able to shoot the Governor without being killed himself. He was part of a 6 man crack team that were commissioned to protect Mr Taseer. Yet when retaliation shots were fired 5 innocent bystanders were shot dead and the killer was apprehended without wound. From outward appearances it would seem that the killing was a planned assassination that involved a larger party then so far uncovered.The assassin, Qadri, who was one of the bodyguards assigned to protect Taseer was a member of the Elite Police which specializes in counter-terrorism and VIP security duties. The Elite Police are trained by the Special Service Group (SSG), also known as Black Storks, which is a special operations military unit of the Pakistan Army.
Reports suggested that Qadri, 26, was a known radical in the police service who had previously been declared by his superiors to be unfit for guarding VIPs. He told interrogators he was proud to have killed a blasphemer.The absolute support of some mainstream Muslim organizations for the assassination of Taseer is demonstrated in some of the following statements.
Reports also said Qadri, part of Taseer's security force, had tipped off other guards about his plan to kill the Punjab governor. The other bodyguards did not seem to react as Qadri fired a whole clip of bullets into Taseer in a market in central Islamabad and then laid down his weapon.
"Salman Taseer was himself responsible for his killing," Munawar Hasan, the head of Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the two big religious political parties, said. "Any Muslim worth the name could not tolerate blasphemy of the Prophet, as had been proved by this incident."
Qadri was in the Barelvi sect, which is followed by most Muslims in Pakistan. However, on the issue of the blasphemy law, the Barelvi clerics had joined hands with the pro-Taliban Deobandi. The issue was sparked by Taseer's championing of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death for blasphemy late last year.
"No Muslim should attend the funeral or even try to pray for Salmaan Taseer," a statement from Jamaate Ahle Sunnat Pakistan, one of the biggest organisations of the Barelvi, representing 500 religious scholars, said. "We pay rich tributes and salute the bravery, valour and faith of Mumtaz Qadri."
Taseer's assassination showed how free speech has been curtailed in Pakistan. The religious scholars warned that others could meet the same fate.
"The supporter is as equally guilty as one who committed blasphemy," the Jamaate Ahle Sunnat Pakistan statement said. It added that adding politicians, the media and others should learn "a lesson from the exemplary death".
The impact on the public debate over Pakistan's "blasphemy" laws is devastating according to Catholic Archbishop Saldanha of Lahore, Pakistan.
The assassination of a Pakistani governor who opposed the country’s blasphemy law will make it “virtually impossible” for anyone to speak out against it, the Archbishop of Lahore has warned.On a personal note, I had written an article about Asia Bibi at the end of November 2010 following the Pope's declaration in support of her. This was the first time I had become aware of her case and the general persecution of Christians in Pakistan. I can only imagine the sinking feeling that must have come over Asia Bibi and her family when they heard of the death of Punjab governor Salman Taseer. Just imagine if they could do this to him, what would they do to Asia and her family?
“We were very shocked to hear the news,” Archbishop Lawrence J. Saldanha of Lahore told Vatican Radio. “We feel that this is definitely a move against those who are opposing the blasphemy law.”
The governor was “a quite outstanding critic” of the blasphemy law and had called for its repeal several times.
The archbishop expressed the Catholic Church’s sadness at his murder. He reported that there is increasing intolerance of any form of dissent in Pakistan and less hope that the blasphemy law may be overturned.
Meanwhile, radical Islamic groups have called nationwide strikes to counter any effort to repeal the blasphemy law.
“Initially when the High Court sentenced Asia Bibi to death, many members of civil society spoke out against this law and there was a general sense that it needed to be repealed. Now that tide has turned,” Archbishop Saldanha said.
Catholics feel increasing marginalized, he explained, and have had to increase security around churches especially during Christmas.
He said Catholics “live from day to day, hoping and praying and quietly going about their business. And not making any waves. Certainly the mood is very gloomy, and there is fear and tension. But at the same time, they come to church and they get an uplifted feeling.”
There was a general feeling of optimism surrounding the case of Asia Bibi following the Pope's pronouncement, that she would be swiftly pardoned and freed from prison. Now all of that optimism is gone. Asia remains in prison and condemned to death, and her family is in hiding. Even if she is freed, she would not be able to continue living in Pakistan or any other predominately Muslim country for fear of her life
It is up to Christians around the world to rally in support of victims like Asia Bibi and to denounce Pakistan's blasphemy laws. Certainly with all the financial assistance that the the United States gives to Pakistan for their support in the war against terrorism, our government could apply pressure to Pakistan to bring about change leading to greater religious freedom. After all isn't that one of the goals of the war against terrorism?
In a statement on religious freedom which Pope Benedict XVI released on January 1st he stated:
"Each person must be able freely to exercise the right to profess and manifest, individually or in community, his or her own religion or faith, in public and in private, in teaching, in practice, in publications, in worship and in ritual observances. There should be no obstacles should he or she eventually wish to belong to another religion or profess none at all."