Murder of Pakistani Governor Incites Public Controversy over Blasphemy Law


By Imran Sarwar, News Writer, MPP ‘13

On October 1st, Pakistan’s anti-terrorism court sentenced Malik Mumtaz Qadri to death for his self-confessed murderer of former governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer. The case has become a political flashpoint for the country, where fundamental clashes between secular and religious ideologies have seeped gradually into nearly every facet of the public sphere.

The court’s decision has given rise to mixed emotions from Pakistani citizens – drawing praise from liberals happy to see multiculturalism protected in civil society, and condemnation from religious extremists (including some Muslim clerics) who see no crime in Qadri’s actions.  Already, there have been protests against the decision and death threats made against the judge who delivered the verdict.

Taseer was gunned down earlier this year, in early January, after expressing open criticism of the country’s blasphemy law. The law, which was devised to protect the sanctity of the Prophet Muhammad in Pakistan’s public spaces, has been regularly misused by religious zealots for political gain. With little effort, witch hunts can be drummed up among the religious public and directed against hapless victims on spurious charges of violating the blasphemy law.

Human rights groups have noted, to the surprise of few, that more often than not these allegations are completely fabricated and directed against the vulnerable members of Pakistan’s society. Taseer’s last stand was against one such blasphemy charge filed against Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman from a village near Lahore. Her trial brought forth glaring inconsistencies and garnered attention from human rights activists and leading politicians around the globe. It also called into question the legitimacy of blasphemy law, which scholars note is not actually a part of Muslim Sharia Law. (It is instead a modern addition to Pakistan’s constitution.)

Taseer’s support of Aasia Bibi and minority rights in general, as well as his public criticism of the blasphemy law, was reason enough for Mumtaz Qadri, his bodyguard, to murder him in Islamabad outside a restaurant.

There appears to be a significant portion of the populace that supports Qadri’s actions. Many lawyers have volunteered to fight his case in the anti-terrorism court, and Qadri’s many public supporters continue to cast flowers onto him in his public appearances. Qadri proudly pled guilty to murder in court and continues to argue that he was justified in his actions.

The incident has proven a severe blow to Pakistan’s already weak liberal minority, and pits it in direct political opposition to the religious right. There is now, for the first time, a genuine fear amongst the liberal and secular community for their very safety. Many have shied away from voicing their opinion on the case, lest they become targeted as well. However, the public battle over the legitimacy of Taseer’s opposition to blasphemy law, the validity of these laws themselves, the rights of religious minorities, and the claims of Qadri justifying his actions, still ensues even with his fate decided.

The Islamabad High Court accepted the appeal of Mumtaz Qadri on October 13th, and the death sentence handed to him by the anti-terrorism court has been admitted for regular hearing.

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