Salmaan Taseer: The man who spoke amidst deafening silence

Five years on, a lot has changed

“Many advised me not to take on the issue because my life would be threatened but it reminded me of a Faiz poem, 'aaj bazaar meiN pa bajolaaN chalo,'” said an adamant Taseer in an interview with Arshad Sharif, two days before his death. 

Salmaan Taseer must have known how dangerous it was to stand up against religious fanaticism in a country like Pakistan. He must have been told by his loved ones that criticizing something as sensitive as blasphemy laws would mean inviting death to yourself. He would have been warned by his party to tone down his campaign for the reformation in the blasphemy laws.

But he didn’t pay heed to the warnings. He said enough is enough.

“For how long are we going to live under the fear of such zealots?” he asked in a TV interview.

If it wasn’t for Taseer, who would have dared speak up?

Asia Bibi was a poor Christian woman from the district of Sheikhupura, who along with her husband worked in the fields to make her living. Always insulted by the Muslim women around her, she lost her temper one day and a scuffle broke out, which led to both sides calling names to each other.

While swearing at each other, the Muslim women derogated Asia’s religion, calling her ‘impure’ to which Asia responded equally.

The women alleged blasphemy and by the nightfall, Asia was arrested over blasphemy charges. She was sentenced to death in days to come.

Taseer, then Governor of Punjab, heard of it and investigated into the matter. Upon learning what actually happened, he went to Asia personally and helped her file a mercy petition.

As expected, tons of abuse, threats and protests welcomed him as clerics from all over the country got a product that sells the best: blasphemy allegation.

One such cleric was Hanif Qureshi. Provoking the masses in his fiery speeches, he is said to have inspired the killer of Taseer.

“We are the heirs of Ghazi Ilm-ud-Din Shaheed, we are those who love the spirit of Ghazi Abdur Rasheed. We announce it publicly that if death sentence is revoked from 295–C (blasphemy law), we know how to trigger a gun and behead the blasphemer,” Hanif Qureshi said in a speech.

There is a common belief that extremism is only limited to Salafis and Deobandis while Barelvis are mostly peaceful. Referring to this, Qureshi, a Barelvi himself, goes on to say, “Allah has honored us with strength and courage to strangle the blasphemer, to cut his tongue and to riddle his body with bullets.”

Taseer knew what was brewing yet he remained unyielding till the very end. In an interview with BBC Urdu, when asked about the fatwa against him, he bluntly said, “I am not going to give up to these illiterate people who even decreed a fatwa against Basant, Zulfiqar Bhutto and BB Shaheed. I don’t care about them.”

On 4 January 2011, five years from today, the sweltering speeches by Qureshi and other clerics bore fruit as Mumtaz Qadri, an Elite Force guard assigned to protect Taseer, killed him instead.

Five years on, a lot has changed. Mumtaz Qadri has been sentenced to death and Supreme Court recently rejected his mercy plea. Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, the head of the three-member SC bench, explicitly stated that calling for reforms in blasphemy laws didn’t amount to blasphemy itself.

While Qadri is to be hanged soon, the question remains about the steps that the government has taken to curb the ideology producing Qadris. Hanif Qureshi still roams around freely, appearing frequently on TV talk shows, posing to be a moderate cleric. There are people inside the government and state structure who are of the same ideology – the state is yet to take any action against them.

The most fitting tribute the government can give to Shaheed-e-insaniyat (martyr for humanity), is by releasing the poor Asia from jail. It will hold a great symbolic value for the oppressed and persecuted of the country.

I would like to dedicate this poem to the man who stood when no one else dared.

Sab qatl ho ke tere muqaabil se aaye hain
Hum log surkh-ru hain ki manzil se aaye hain

Sham-e-nazar, khayaal-e-anjum, jigar ke daag
Jitne chiraag hain teri mehfil se aaye hain

Uthkar to aa gaye hain teri bazm se magar
Kuch dil hi jaantaa hai kis dil se aaye hain

Har ik kadam azal thaa, har ik gaam zindagi
Hum ghoom-phir ke koocha-e-qaatil se aaye hain

Baad-e-khizaa ka shukr karo, Faiz, jiske haath
Naame kisi bahaar-shamaail se aaye hain

(Faiz Ahmed Faiz)

Umer Ali is an Islamabad-based journalist who reads and writes about Pakistan and its history. He aspires to see a tolerant and progressive Pakistan. Follow him on Twitter

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