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Blasphemy in Pakistan

Moderation is now a capital offense.

Jan 24, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 18 • By NINA SHEA and PAUL MARSHALL
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There has been little public sympathy for Taseer, but there has been an outpouring of support for his killer, Malik Mumtaz Qadri. Posters of a defiant-looking Qadri are appearing in public spaces and on Islamist websites. Pakistan’s Deobandi, Wahhabi, and other extremist groups praise the assassin. He has even been lauded by 500 scholars of the relatively moderate Barelvi sect of Islam and by younger members of the pro-democracy lawyers association. Meanwhile, no lawyer is willing to take on the prosecution. Those who mourn Taseer are alleged to be insulting Islam, as was Pope Benedict XVI when he petitioned last week for the law’s repeal.

Taseer’s assassination comes amid debates in Pakistani political circles on blasphemy law reform and Islamization. On December 19, the Council of Islamic Ideology, Pakistan’s senior constitutional advisory body on Islamic injunctions, recommended some procedural changes in blasphemy laws but opposed repeal. On December 24, Pakistan’s religious parties (including the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal ur Rehman, which recently left Zardari’s coalition government) held protest rallies against any attempts to change them. Even Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who avoided Taseer’s funeral, says he will keep the laws “undiluted.” 

Pakistan was conceived by its founding father Mohammad Jinnah as a secular state for Muslims. But since the 1970s, successive governments have given way to increased Islamization. Now, as Islamist violence threatens Pakistan’s stability and targets the ruling elite, the revolution is eating its children.

The United States has many security concerns in Pakistan, including nuclear weapons, operations in tribal areas, and ISI support for the Taliban, but addresses blasphemy laws merely as a humanitarian matter. Taseer’s killing, however, shows that they have vital security implications: They are a key mechanism in entrenching radicalism and silencing those within Pakistani society who seek peaceful coexistence and religious moderation. As Taseer’s daughter Sara observed, “This is a message to every liberal to shut up or be shot.”

Paul Marshall and Nina Shea are senior fellows at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and coauthors of Silenced, a forthcoming book on Islamist blasphemy laws (Oxford University Press).

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