Shehrbano Taseer: Roses for Her Father's Killer

My father, Salmaan Taseer, governor of the Pakistani province of Punjab, was murdered on Jan. 4, shot dead in broad daylight by the policeman tasked to protect him. Acting out of a twisted piety, the man—Malik Mumtaz Qadri—shot my father because of my father's belief that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been misused to persecute religious minorities.*

Five days later the hardline Sunni Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party organized a rally in support of those blasphemy laws in Pakistan’s commercial hub, Karachi. This coming-out party put on display the ugly face of the tens of thousands of religious fanatics who wish to destroy Pakistan’s secular, liberal, progressive, and democratic forces.

In the days before his death, these same men had issued fatwas against my father, burned him in effigy, and put a bounty on his head. There could have been no plainer incitement to murder.

My father had spoken out repeatedly against the blasphemy laws after Aasia Noreen, a Christian farm worker in rural Punjab, was sentenced to death in November. These laws, which carry a mandatory life sentence, were enacted by the military dictator Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s.

Seeing these fanatics scream religious slogans and wave pictures of the killer Qadri, their latest messianic foot soldier, was sickening, as was seeing more than 200 lawyers—our vanguard of justice—garlanding Qadri and showering him with rose petals at his court appearance.

Sherry Rehman, a former federal minister and a current member of the National Assembly, who tabled a bill seeking to amend the blasphemy laws, has been declared wajib ul qatal—fit to be killed—by the religious fanatics.* I should mention—although I make no special claim of courage—that my own life has also been threatened. “She should refrain from issuing such statements and must remember her father’s fate,” the fanatics have warned, referring to me.

From 1986 to 2009, 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus, and 10 others have been charged with blasphemy, according to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, an advocacy group set up by Pakistan’s Catholic bishops. No one convicted of blasphemy has ever been executed by the state, but many have been mowed down by Islamist vigilantes.

The biggest danger faced by Islam comes from those who claim to serve it. Its first victims are its own adherents. But our fight against these forces of darkness—forces that seek to snuff out the voices they disagree with—must begin with the strengthening of basic law and order. The extremists are a small minority, but they’re raucously vocal, well armed, and well funded. They operate by instilling fear in those they oppose. This intimidation works all too well.

After evidence is presented in court, the fate of the men involved in my father’s murder will be decided by a judge. Yet because of poor prosecution, especially those in the antiterrorism courts, have a sorry record for convictions. I hope things will be different now, but in the past some judges have been easily threatened. This is not necessarily the product of cowardice. Poverty and lack of upward social mobility is a serious problem in Pakistan, and its consequences have infected the judiciary.

After the 2008 Islamabad Marriott bombing, the people arrested were acquitted of all charges. This is almost always the case in Pakistan. It shows a depressing inability to take on the extremists. Our judicial system needs to have a no-holds barred policy toward these terrorists, but I don’t see it yet.

It is unrealistic, however, to expect the judiciary to send a strong message when so many of our elected politicians consort with religious extremists. They provide them with logistical support, fund them, and give them a place to regroup.

A U.S. Embassy cable disclosed by WikiLeaks says President Asif Ali Zardari complained about Shahbaz Sharif, the current chief minister of the Punjab, to the then U.S. ambassador accusing Sharif of tipping off Jamat-ud-Dawah--the philanthropic front of terrorist organization Laskar-e-Taiba which was involved in the Mumbai attacks--about impending United Nations sanctions.*

Sadly, just eight days after my father was gunned down, a court in Punjab sentenced a Muslim prayer leader and his son to life in jail for blasphemy. According to reports, they were found guilty of tearing down a poster of a gathering to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. They deny the charges, but we can only fear for their lives.

My father’s assassination could teach us something, if only we let ourselves be taught.

Taseer is a graduate of Smith College and a reporter for NEWSWEEK Pakistan.

*This story has been modified from the original which appeared in the January 24, 2011 issue of Newsweek.

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