Category Archives: Salman Taseer

The Pakistan killings are not about blasphemy

Guardian, Nick Cohen

After Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, religious “scholars” doubted whether the Ayatollah Khomeini had the right to order his murder. They had no liberal qualms about executing a writer for subjecting religion to imaginative scrutiny. They believed that blasphemers and apostates must die as their religion insisted. But only if they were citizens of an Islamic state. As Rushdie was living in London in 1989, a free man in a free country, the clerics concluded that religious law did not apply to him.

The Rushdie controversy was the Dreyfus affair of the late 20th century. It established today’s dividing lines between the secular and the authoritarian, between those who were willing to defend freedom of thought and inquiry and those who wanted to censor and self-censor to keep fanatics happy. We can gauge how low we have sunk by remembering that at the start of the battle 23 years ago there was a tiny regard for the forms of legality, even among those who were otherwise happy to condemn free thinkers to death. However brutal they were, they respected their version of due process.

The Islamist murders first of Salmaan Taseer and then of Shahbaz Bhatti show that what tiny scruples blood-soaked men possessed vanished long ago. The best way to describe the terror which is reducing Pakistani liberals to silence is to enumerate what the assassins did not allege. They did not say that Taseer and Bhatti must die because they were apostates – or, to put that “crime” in plain language, because they were adults who decided they no longer believed in the Muslim god. Taseer had not renounced Islam. Bhatti could not renounce it as he was the bravest Christian in Pakistan, who campaigned for equal rights for persecuted minorities with the dignity and physical courage of a modern Martin Luther King.

Nor did their assassins claim that their targets had committed the capital crime of blasphemy. Taseer and Bhatti had not said that the Koran, like the Talmud and the New Testament, was the work of men not god. They did not denounce Muhammad’s morality or offer any criticism of his life and teaching. If you wanted to reduce the whirling, brilliant narrative of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses to a single sentence, you could say that it was in part a “blasphemous” account of the early history of Islam. Taseer and Bhatti attempted nothing so brave. They confined themselves to making the modest point that Pakistan’s death penalty for blasphemy was excessive and barbaric, and that was enough to condemn them. Their killers murdered them for the previously unknown crime of advocating law reform: blew them away for the new offence of blaspheming against blasphemy.

One Pakistani journalist I spoke to described his fellow liberals as members of a persecuted minority, who now knew that if they spoke out, they would be shot down. Salmaan Taseer’s daughter, Shehrbano, wrote a heartbreaking piece for the Guardian in which she despaired of a “spineless” Pakistani elite that was too frightened to praise her father or condemn his murderers.

In the networked world, censorship by the authoritarian state or clerical paramilitaries is meant to matter less. Technology enthusiasts can point to Twitter revolutions as proof of how emancipatory democratic ideas seep into apparently closed societies. But the ideas that Pakistanis need from America, Europe or “the west” to help fight armed theocracy are not there for surfers to find.

Fear plays its part in keeping western opinion quiet as well. It is hard to credit, but liberal society responded pretty well to the threat to Rushdie in 1989. Penguin refused to withdraw the Satanic Verses. Booksellers ignored threats and bombs and carried on selling it. But once the global wave of terror had passed, no one wanted to put themselves through what Rushdie and Penguin had been through, and a silence descended. Even the supposedly militant “new atheists,” whom genteel commentators damn for their vulgarity, steer clear of religions that might kill them. Close readers of Richard Dawkins will notice that almost all his examples of clerical folly are drawn from the Catholic and American evangelical churches, whose congregations are unlikely to firebomb his publishers.

The fear is still present. Last month, four men were convicted of slashing the face and fracturing the skull of Gary Smith, a London teacher who had made the mistake of taking the windy official pronouncements about “promoting diversity” seriously and taught Muslim girls about Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism. Political violence comes from the British National Party, English Defence League and various splinter groups from the IRA, as well as Islamists, and that is before you raise your gaze and examine the assorted gun-totting crazies who inhabit the fringe of American politics.

The difference between Islamism and the rest is that liberals are happy to denounce white extremists, while covering up militant Islam with the wet blanket of political correctness. They do not confine themselves to saying that, of course, society must protect people from being murdered for their religion, as Slobodan Milosevic murdered the Bosnian Muslims, and punish employers who refuse jobs to members of creeds they dislike, as Protestant employers in Northern Ireland once refused to hire Catholics. They maintain it is illicit to criticise religious ideas. Thus, along with the admittedly faint fear of violence, western writers who want to provide arguments against religious misogyny, homophobia, racism and censorship must also live with the fear that their contemporaries will accuse them of orientalism or Islamophobia.

The world may pay a price for the monumental blunder of treating religious ideologies – which are beliefs that men and women ought to be free to accept or reject – as if they were ethnicities, which no man or woman can change. Not the smallest reason why the Arab revolution is such an optimistic event is that al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood have been left as gawping bystanders. Their isolation cannot last. Eventually, if Arab states move towards democracy, there will be a confrontation with political Islam. Arab liberals, like Pakistani liberals, will search the net for guidance. They will discover that far from offering strategies that might help, timorous western liberals have convinced themselves that it is “racist” to criticise raging fanatics who no longer even bother to pretend that they are anything other than liberalism’s mortal enemies.


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Debate with extremists in a non-confrontational way?

Karachi Literary Festival

In today’s world, Pakistan is known for all the possible bad reasons. The wave of terrorism and extremism, which was nurtured and well protected by Gen Zia, is  now damaging our homes. How many more to loose their lives is a question which remains unanswered especially after the assassination of Salman Taseer.

Who will be the next to stand up like him and support a victim of intolerance and extremism? Again I have no names in my mind after Sherry Rehman has withdrawn the bill to amend blasphemy laws. Now is silence acceptable or are we going to speak out?
It can be the strategy which is not being productive. I, somehow, agreed to what Karen Armstrong has suggested at Karachi Literary Festival. To a question on how are you going to convince Mumtaz Qadri, she said, “debate with them in a non-confrontational way rather attacking their belief system”.

I am not at all sure that it will work 100 per cent, but the options are already not many to deal with this extremism. It is just to try out anything that pops up and carries logic.

Below is the story:
Express Tribune

KARACHI: At the Karachi Literature Festival, Karen Armstrong laid out a charter of compassion, with the dangers of an overpowering ego at the centre of her argument.

With a packed hall of people eagerly listening, the session began with a question posed by moderator Abbas Husain: if compassion is the prescription for the symptoms of the disease that is intolerance, then what is the cause of the disease? Without a moment’s hesitation, Armstrong answered: “Ego”.

It is ego, argues Armstrong, that makes us place ourselves and our beliefs at the centre of the universe. It is that same ego that then causes us to degrade and denigrate the beliefs and arguments of others, that makes us enter debates not with the intention of learning from them, but with the aim of proving the other wrong and ourselves right.

The remedy Karen Armstrong proposes for this condition is compassion. Were we to place ourselves in the other person’s shoes, the world would be an infinitely better place.

It is hard to argue with that but how on earth, as one audience member asked, do you debate with those who would rather use a gun to win their arguments? In short, how are you going to convince Mumtaz Qadri?

Armstrong responded by saying that in her experience, most hardline religious groups are motivated by fear, the fear that their beliefs and way of life are going to be wiped out. Their violence then, is a reaction to that fear. The answer, according to her, is not to attack their belief system but rather to debate with them in a non-confrontational way.

It is a neat argument, but also one that ignores the fact that for many extremist groups the quest for power is now an end in itself. And that fear is for them more a tool than a motivating factor. She does of course accept the fact that the sentiments of hardline religious groups are often exploited for political purposes, drawing on examples from the United States all the way to Pakistan.

God is not a politician, says Armstrong, but there is no denying that His word is used for political gain.

Another audience member argued that since religious beliefs seem to lead to violent arguments, perhaps the answer is to remove religion from our lives altogether. To this Armstrong responded that Homo Sapiens were in fact Homo Religiosis, and that denying religion is alien to human nature.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2011.


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Living between fear and courage

Moni Mohsin: Moni Mohsin's latest novel is Tender Hooks (Random House). She lives between Lahore and London. She had known Salman Taseer since she was a teenager. "Gutted by his murder and nauseated by the public reaction to it," she mourns the death of a proud liberal.

India Today
Fifteen years ago when I married a London-based Pakistani, my brother-in-law Najam Sethi said laughingly to my mother, “Moni will be the only one of your children to survive the coming storm.” He was only half-joking. As a progressive journalist who has received more death threats from the religious right than I care to count, he has personal experience of the danger to secular liberals from an increasingly intolerant Pakistani polity. He knows that anyone who takes issue with the mullahs or speaks for the rights of our marginalised minorities or even objects to the cynical use of religion in politics, runs the risk of being killed. As the murder of the Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer, showed last week, no liberal is safe in Pakistan.

In London, on the other hand, I have enjoyed a life of safety, stability and the rule of law. But I have also tasted the bitterness of separation from my homeland and of my increasing irrelevance to it. I have tried to mitigate the pain by keeping alive my contact with my country. I contribute regularly to its publications, sit on charitable trusts and maintain property there. I also take my children back frequently so they can grow up feeling at home in what a huge part of me still considers home.

Moni Mohsin’s latest novel is Tender Hooks (Random House). She lives between Lahore and London. She had known Salman Taseer since she was a teenager. “Gutted by his murder and nauseated by the public reaction to it,” she mourns the death of a proud liberal.

On January 4, my husband, children and I boarded a plane back for London. As always, we had spent our Christmas holidays in Pakistan. Though grateful to have spent time with my parents and siblings, I was unhappy with my visit. In the time I had spent in Pakistan, I had witnessed yet again, from close quarters, the depressing spectacle of a fracturing society and collapsing State. In my three short weeks there, I heard from all quarters of kidnappings, shootings, hold-ups and burglaries. No one reported any of the crimes for they knew there would be no action.

Every time the phone rings at an odd hour, my heart leaps into my mouth. I don’t want to be the only member of my family to survive the storm.

During a bitterly cold winter, there was little gas and less electricity; flood victims were pouring into cities; inflation was rampant; people were sullen; and in the background, a cowering, feeble government was anxiously assuring fulminating mullahs of its undying support for the blasphemy law. On New Year’s Eve, religious parties called a countrywide strike to support the blasphemy law. Either out of fear or sympathy, everyone obeyed. So much, I thought to myself, for Jinnah’s dream of a tolerant homeland for Muslims.

As my plane took off from Lahore’s Allama Iqbal Airport, a couple of hundred miles to the north outside Islamabad’s Kohsar Market, yet another blow was being dealt to Jinnah’s dream. Airborne by the time it happened, I did not find out till we landed in Heathrow. As I switched on my phone, a text from my brother-in-law flashed across the screen: Tragedy: Salman Taseer murdered by his own security guard.

I’d known Salman since I was a teenager. His eldest daughter and I are close friends. Our daughters in turn have been buddies from the cradle. So I’d had the opportunity to observe Salman from close quarters for over 25 years. If I were to use one word to describe him, it would be “uncompromising. He was uncompromising in both his political and personal life. Unlike some sermonising politicians who preach Islamic values in Pakistan and party with A-listers in London, Salman scorned hypocrisy. He was a proud liberal in everything and everywhere. He was also a man of wit, charm and above all, courage.

I am gutted by his murder and nauseated by the public reaction to it. Some of it I had expected. I had expected the religious parties to crow. Having already witnessed his own party’s moral cowardice, I had known that all mainstream parties would run for cover. I also knew that some fanatics would issue public threats-of course completely unchecked by the State-to Salman’s supporters. I knew that TV “analysts”, who’d probably envied Salman’s flamboyance all along, would smugly hold forth on his “insensitivity” towards “our people’s delicate religious sensibilities”. I was nauseated but not surprised by any of that.

But what I had not expected was that over 200 lawyers, who until last week were championing democracy and freedom of speech, would shower his murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, with rose petals. I had not expected Pakistanis like myself, who live in the West and enjoy every one of its hard-won liberties, to set up Facebook pages lauding Salman’s murderer as a hero. I had not expected the blogs of ordinary middle-class kids, who salivate over Angelina Jolie and dream of a green card, to condone the murder of “an immoral Westernised liberal”. I had not expected novelist Hanif Mohammed to do a random poll in Karachi and discover that most people he spoke to on the street outside his office did not condemn Salman’s murder.

I had not expected all this because it has long been my sustaining belief that though we are ruled by a venal army and morally corrupt politicians and though we are terrorised by a small but murderous fringe of hardliners, the ordinary person on the street is a decent moderate who yearns for stability and the rule of law. After all, I reassure myself, religious parties have always been humiliated at the ballot box. That belief is why, despite all the kidnappings and the gunnings and the fatwas and suicide bombs, I keep taking my children back. That is the reason why, after 15 years abroad, I am still mentally, emotionally and financially invested in Pakistan.

Of course, I would be lying if I said that no one spoke up for Salman in Pakistan.

As usual it was left to the same small group of embattled progressives to pick up the baton. A few brave journalists condemned Salman’s murder on tv. English language newspapers wrote editorials against mounting intolerance in Pakistan. Human rights groups vociferously registered their protest. Candle-lit vigils outside the fallen Governor’s residence in Lahore and at Kohsar Market in Islamabad, were attended by housewives and schoolchildren and office workers. But compared to the thousands who expressed support for Qadri, a few hundred attended the vigils. Where were all the concerned citizens I meet in Lahore and Karachi every time I visit, who sit in their homes bemoaning the lack of security, the mounting disorder, the brutalisation of society?

The answer is simple: they were still in their homes. As soon as the murder was announced on TV, most people fled to the safety of their homes to barricade themselves in. Streets emptied and shops closed within minutes of the announcement. Most people have experienced enough violence to be truly fearful of it. I sympathise with them. I also fear for my family, as I do for every liberal left standing in Pakistan. Every time the phone rings at an odd hour, my heart leaps into my mouth. I don’t want to be the only member of my family to survive the storm. And I feel guilty that I am not there to struggle alongside them.

If I could have my selfish way, I would immediately spirit each member of my family and every single friend out of there. But I also know that if I did so, all would be lost. And I know that we must continue trying to reach out to the people-still the majority, in my view, despite the depredations in their ranks-who want peace and freedom but are too frightened to ask. We must encourage them to stand up and demand it. So I live every day hovering between hope and dread, fear and courage. May my hope and my friends’ and family’s courage be vindicated in my lifetime.


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