By Syed Kamran Hashmi
October 23, 2015
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court (SC) of Pakistan upheld the death sentence of Mumtaz Qadri, a hero in the eyes of many religious zealots, who killed the then governor Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, while serving as a member of the police elite force appointed to protect him in 2011. Taseer was an outspoken critic of the blasphemy law.
“We have to look into whether the deceased indeed committed the act of blasphemy or he commented adversely on the effects of the blasphemy law,” Justice Dost Muhammad noted while listening to the petition. In response to his query, the defendants tried to prove that Mumtaz Qadri was a simple man, a devout Muslim who would sacrifice his life to protect the honour of the Prophet (PBUH), an irrelevant argument since that was never questioned.
As the debate further unfolded, it seemed evident that the defendants would not succeed in reversing his death sentence. Not because the judges of the apex court had made up their minds before listening to Mumtaz Qadri’s lawyers, but because they insisted on basing their arguments on invoking religious sentiments and hollow rhetoric instead of relying upon legal reasoning and logical explanations.
Regarding the blasphemy law, the panel emphasised that the people in any democratic society bear the right to criticise any law, including the ones that deals with blasphemy since these rules are enacted by the elected members of parliament who can later amend them if they fail to meet their objectives. These directives, under no circumstances, can be confused with divine injunctions that cannot be altered or refuted. Adding another angle to the debate, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, the leading member of the bench said: “Will it not instill fear in society if everybody starts taking the law in his own hands and dealing with sensitive matters such as blasphemy in his own way rather than going to the courts?”
After the verdict, the courts have done what they needed to do. The question that looms now in front of Islamabad is to determine the best time to act upon their judgement. The other concern for the government is to find out if the opinion of society at large and the decision of the SC lie on the same page. The opinion of society is scattered all over ranging from the darkest black to the brightest white, and every shade in between the two.
Some are still confused about the difference between the blasphemy law and the act of blasphemy as it is seen in the case of Mumtaz Qadri. Trust me, we can find hundreds of young, energetic and vulnerable Muslims across the country who are willing to die for the glory of Islam at any moment. No, the level of education does not count. I cannot say the same thing about the quality of education though. Mumtaz Qadri, from all Pakistani standards, was an ‘educated’ person and so were the dozens of lawyers who greeted him as a hero. They were supposed to have understood the Constitution better than layman like you and me but did they?
Then, there are people who just do not know how to treat the accused based on a dubious allegation alone, especially if the evidence against the alleged does not exist and he denies having committed such an act. Most people, perhaps out of both fear and confusion, do not volunteer to protect the victim even when they see him being lynched by the mob. They know killing an innocent man is wrong but what they do not know is how to protect their faith if the alleged is found guilty. To prevent any next target of vigilante justice, they need counselling, education, reassurance and of course government support to step up.
Furthermore, society does not know what do with a person who regrets his actions after committing such an offense. Historically, Muslim theologians have dealt with this situation with care and have tried to provide a cushion to the accused. However, the rules of the past do not apply to the ‘higher standards’ of present day Pakistan. Here, just an accusation guarantees immediate death.
In addition, there exist a group of people that, on principle, do not believe in the blasphemy law to begin with. They consider it against basic human rights, which promise complete freedom of speech. They believe the Prophet (PBUH), being the messenger of God, cannot be disrespected by an ordinary person, no matter how abusive or soft his tone gets. For them, this is like an ant trying to disrespect a lion in the jungle by challenging his authority. Does a lion lose its honour because of something as tiny as an ant?
These questions need to be addressed before Mumtaz Qadri is executed to avoid future unrest in society and to prevent him from becoming a legendary martyr like Ghazi Illumdin. The responsibility to kindle such a debate typically falls either on the media or politicians. However, unfortunately, the news channels have not taken up this issue as seriously as, let us say, they have taken up the issue of by-elections in a single constituency of Lahore, which for weeks occupied their minds.
The politicians, in an attempt to evade uncomfortable discussion, maintain their ‘neutrality’ on the subject. First, the PPP quite disappointingly did not come out in support of its lost hero even though it claims to hold liberal values dearest to its ideals. Imran Khan, who has built the reputation of calling a spade a spade in politics, keeps his lips sealed on this matter. He comes across as a scared man, as if he will either lose his reputation as a ‘born again Muslim’ or lose his life if he says anything against the perpetrator of the crime. The PML-N, without surprising anyone, avoids such religiously oriented debates at all cost. It likes to play friends or foes based on public opinion, not based on ideological principles.
The writer is a US-based freelance columnist. He tweets at @KaamranHashmi and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org