Two months ago, after Governor Salmaan Taseer’s murder and the jubilant support for the policeman who killed him, religious scholars in Pakistan told us that since common people don’t know enough about religion they should leave it to those who do – basically anyone with a beard.
Everyone thought it made a cruel kind of sense. So everyone decided to shut up: the Pakistan Peoples party (PPP) government because it wanted to cling to power, liberals in the media because they didn’t want to be the next Taseer. The move to amend the blasphemy law was shelved.
It was an unprecedented victory for Pakistan’s mullah minority. They had told a very noisy and diverse people to shut up and they heard back nothing but silence. After Pakistan’s only Christian federal minister, Shahbaz Bhatti – the bravest man in Islamabad – was murdered on Tuesday, they were back on TV, this time condemning the killing, claiming it was a conspiracy against them, against Islam and against Pakistan. The same folk who had celebrated one murder and told us how not to get murdered were wallowing in self pity.
In a very short span of time, Pakistan’s mullahs and muftis have managed to blur the line between what God says and what they say. The blasphemy law debate was about how to prosecute people who have committed blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an. Since repeating a blasphemy, even if it is to prove the crime in a court of law, is blasphemous, no Pakistani has a clear idea what constitutes blasphemy. Taseer had called the blasphemy law “a black law” and was declared a blasphemer. The line between maligning the Holy Prophet and questioning a law made by a bunch of mullahs was done away with. What would come next?
During the last two months sar tan se juda (off with their heads) has become as familiar a slogan as all the corporate songs about the Cricket World Cup. Banners appeared all over Karachi and Islamabad last week demanding death for a Pakistani writer. The only problem is that nobody quite knows what she has written. Her last book came out more than eight years ago and, if it wasn’t so scary, it would be ironic that it is called Blasphemy. It was a potboiler set mostly in religious and spiritual leaders’ bedrooms. The banners condemning her say that not only she has insulted the prophet, she has insulted religious scholars.
So now disagreeing with anyone who has a beard and armed bodyguards can get you killed. The PPP government has tried to appease this lot by silencing the one-and-a-half liberal voices it had. What it didn’t realise is that you can’t really appease people who insist their word is God’s word, their honour as sacred as the Holy Prophet’s. In Pakistan, silence is the mother of all blasphemies. Most Pakistanis are committing that blasphemy and being punished for it.
Mohammed Hanif is a journalist and author of the novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes