Salmaan Taseer’s defiance of convention and collective cowardice is one of the watersheds of Pakistan’s contemporary history. His defence of a poor Christian woman purely on the grounds of humanity has chiseled his memory and legacy in stone. Taking a position on a narrowly defined religious issue is rare in today’s Pakistan. Even rarer is to defend someone on the grounds of humanity in a republic that uses religion for its identity and rationale, and where public opinion has been crafted to perpetuate such attitudes.
Within Muslims, this struggle between reason and bigotry is not new. It has existed for well over a millennium. Rationalists have always been the target of fanatics and their patrons in power. In South Asia this is even more complex where the historic evolution of Muslim beliefs and practices has followed an inclusive trajectory imbibing the folk, non-Islamic traditions as an expression of lived, dynamic Islam. In each era, the power of orthodoxy was challenged by unique men and women who took dissent to be more important than the Mullah’s edicts. Bullleh Shah, Dara Shikoh, Princess Zebunnissa among others faced persecution. Dara Shikoh had to lose his throne and his life in pursuit of a humanistic vision that sought to reiterate essence over form, spirit over ritual and synthesis over division. The bigots declared that he was a heretic and his own brother leading the pack, ordered his killing.
Taseer’s politics was fiercely anti-orthodoxy based on his progressive worldview. Unlike a few progressives, he was a staunch Pakistani nationalist and viewed Pakistan as a modern and enlightened country. This was a position espoused by his party – the Pakistan People’s Party – through the 1970s and onwards. In the 1990s, disillusioned with the changing nature of Punjab politics and his own party’s drift towards pragmatism, he took a break and focused on expanding his business empire. Musharraf’s rule came as another faux moment that brought him back into active politics. A short stint under Musharraf as an interim minister was a tricky decision but it was his re-entry into political life. He had decided to end his political ‘exile’.
The PPP returned to power in 2008 and in May appointed him as the Governor of Punjab province where his political foes – the Sharif brothers – were in power. Taseer within a few weeks made his presence felt. As a titular head of the province without executive powers, he acquired moral authority by taking bold ideological positions that were at variance with the ruling party. Consequently the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz had to appoint a few ministers whose task was to respond to all that Taseer said and did as the Governor. This was a sign of Taseer’s re-emergence as a progressive voice in the province that has accepted the post-Zia wave of radicalisation. Punjab by then had turned into the home ground for many militant networks and extremist ideologies. From the sectarian hate machines to the Punjabi Taliban to the soft-Islamism of the Barelvi school, this was a province radically different from what Taseer was used to. He ignored all of this and spoke his mind. His public statements against Saudi-sponsored radicalism were the subject of TV debates. This was not irrelevant but a struggle within Pakistan. Lahore’s roads are full of cars that display signs: ‘Al-Bakistan’ – a clear sign of Arabisation of an otherwise secular culture of the province. Taseer was a bulwark against this trend.
He was termed as ‘westernised’ and ‘liberal’ by the ministers of the ruling party. Even his children became targets of a media hate campaign. These were ominous signs and the case of Asia Bibi became the bête noire of Pakistan’s Mullah brigade. Taseer took a bold stance, visited the victim of an odious law in jail and vowed to fight for her rights. Sensing the strong opposition, his party backed out of the fight and ultimately Taseer was left alone with a small, insignificant civil society backing him. This was also a moment of PPP’s capitulation to the Mullahist Pakistan and the consequences were disastrous.
An elite police guard took it upon himself to punish this alleged sinner for he had challenged the operation of the law that has continued to haunt Pakistan’s minorities and other weaker groups, the most recent case being that of a Christian couple burnt alive after being lynched by a self-righteous mob. The accusation of blasphemy was purely political and played by sections of the irresponsible media that continue to promote hate speech. GEO network has a so-called religious scholar who invites bigots on his show to declare Ahmedis as wajib-ul-qatl (fit for murder) and gets away with it.
January 4, 2011 was not simply the day Taseer was murdered by a loony wolf, to take the term used by an American anti-terrorism expert Max Abrahams. It was the culmination of killing reason in Pakistan where civilized discourse has given way to threats and bullets and where military courts and public hangings are akin to ‘justice’.
But Taseer’s sacrifice and his brave walk towards the death trap will remain an inspirational symbol. Recent efforts by young men and women in Pakistan to challenge the Mullahism emanate from Taseer’s legacy. This will not be an easy or short battle. It is likely to continue and each time there will be mention of justice, rights and rationality, Taseer will be mentioned. Not unlike in Bulleh Shah’s case, the Mullahs declined to offer his funeral prayers and like Dara Shikoh, there were front-page advertisements declaring him a blasphemer. But all of that means nothing for posterity.
Taseer will live as an icon for a sane, just Pakistan. And such an intimation of immortality is a greater punishment for his killers and detractors — even more than a public hanging.