Thursday, January 06, 2011

A lesson of Salman Taseer's Murder: Authentic belief is too dangerous to be borne

Taseer's murder was merely one episode in a familiar pattern of minority abuse in Pakistan. There have been many attacks on Shias and Ahmedis and Sufi shrines in Pakistan, but in this case the attack was implicitly against Christians. Taseer's mistake was to stand up for a helpless Christian woman. Aasia Bibi has been accused, not convicted, of insulting Muhammad, a crime considered worthy of death according to Pakistan's blasphemy law. As a Christian she belongs to a community that in Pakistan is small and very poor.

But Taseer's murder will affect the country at large as well as the Christian community, which of course has reason to be terrified. The murder will cost the ordinary citizens of the country plenty, for now no one will dare to say what they truly believe. Fear reigns.

For many Pakistanis the killing was in fact no crime. The religious establishment seems to consider Taseer's activities and declarations in support of Aasia Bibi worthy of death even without a trial. They have transformed Taseer's murderer into a hero. According to Reuters [1/5/2011]
Five hundred moderate Pakistani religious scholars have warned that anyone who expresses grief over the assassination of Governor Punjab Salman Taseer, who opposed the country’s blasphemy law, could suffer the same fate.
A threat against public grieving, a warning against authentic outrage, by "moderate" religious scholars.

The breadth of support for killing Taseer extended even to his other guards, who were aware of Qadri's plans to kill him and had agreed in advance not to stop him as he pumped more than two dozen bullets into Taseer's body.

The viewpoint that Christians are a threat to society -- which was implicitly challenged by Taseer's defense of Aasia Bibi -- is familiar in neighboring countries. In the last few weeks a number of Afghan Christians have been put in prison on spurious grounds. One person in Mazar-i Sharif has been warned to recant his faith or otherwise be condemned to death. Others in Kabul await a similar verdict. Likewise in Iran Christians have in the last few weeks been rooted out of their homes at night and carried off to prison without explicit charges. Some have been beaten [according to sources close to their families -- but as is well known, the Iranian government has treated their own dissenting mullahs no better.]

What could could be the danger that such folks constitute to their societies? What risk to society was entailed in Taseer's defense of Aasia Bibi? Apparently the presumptions of a democratic society have yet to become ensconced in the public imagination; such ideas are unfamiliar and apparently threatening. The idea that minorities need to be protected, that authentic beliefs can be allowed, that different points of view have a right to be heard, or at least tolerated, appears to be alien in these societies. No, not alien: dangerous, dangerous enough to deserve capital punishment.

In the western world where these issues were hashed out in previous generations we take the right to belief and opinion for granted. The reality is that in the hashing out process -- even in the western world -- folks suffered for the right to believe and practice what they believed. Innocent people were brutalized, wars were fought, careers ruined, families destroyed. It is easy for us to suppose that our perspectives are natural. They are not: they were created in social contexts that were initially threatened by such notions. The right to authentic belief had to be thought up, formulated, proposed, defended in societies that could not countenance a world without enforced conformity. And so people suffered on all sides of the issue. [See Dec 12 note, "Another Accusation of Blasphemy"

The freedom to assert what you honestly think, what you sincerely believe, was never exactly free. It was costly and therefore should be considered precious -- how precious has been demonstrated before our eyes in Pakistan. We are all diminished when a human being cannot be allowed to raise authentic questions, hold personal views about moral and spiritual issues, or practice their own forms of worship, or insist on the right of minorities to be treated honorably.

So what price will Pakistan pay for the murder of Salmon Taseer? Plenty. The loss of authentic debate in public affairs with cost in due process, in effective administration, and in investment. Now it is clear to everyone in Pakistan, displayed before the eyes of the world: minority views, minority opinions, are a threat to the social order, so threatening as to be worthy of death, even open murder on the street. In such a place who will dare to be authentic? Only those like Salmon Taseer who are ready to give up their lives.
1/20/2011 [A correction on the above]
My friend and former colleague, Dr Kathie Laird, who has been following Pakistan affairs for some years, wrote a note to correct my statement about Aasia Bibi. Thanks, Kathie.

I think she has, in fact, been convicted.

>Per Jinnah Institute (etc.): Aasia Bibi, a Christian labourer and mother of five, sentenced to death under the Blasphemy Law by a court in the Nankana Sahib district of Punjab was to be hanged on November 8 2010.

>Per PPP-affiliated site: President Asif Ali Zardari on Friday stayed the execution of a Christian woman who was sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy. The woman, Aasia Bibi, was given the death sentence by an additional sessions judge in Nankana Sahib district a week ago on charges of committing blasphemy.


1 comment:

Ali said...

The intent of this terrorist act was to silence one prominent Pakistani liberal but the widespread approval of this despicable murder has taught the few liberal-minded Pakistanis left standing to think twice before they ever speak their minds again.

Although there may still be a a minority of Pakistanis who are still capable of thinking with their heads and are not possessed by fanatical sentiments, they are probably unsure as to what they can do in the aftermath of Salman Taseer’s murder and its popular celebration by Pakistani political and media figures.

Yes, there were a lot of people who felt differently and bravely demonstrated this by attending the governor’s funeral and through other genuine displays of grief. But none of this is likely to translate into a popular movement willing to engage in a generational struggle against the fanaticism and ignorance that dominates Pakistan.

It may not be the right lesson, or even the most appropriate response to this kind of fanaticism, but I doubt many sensible Pakistanis will see the worth of fighting a battle they don't have a prayer's chance of winning. In the absence of a serious reform movement or any such tradition, what Pakistan does have, along with the intellectual bankruptcy of its political class, is an abundance of general apathy.

What we might instead see is an exodus movement of Pakistani liberals leaving their country. In one way or another, those who choose to turn their backs on Pakistan and leave, or are brave enough to remain but smart enough to keep quiet, all will be resigned to accept that the progressive vision of Pakistan they would prefer is not the one many of their religious-minded Pakistani compatriots want.