In November a Christian woman was sentenced to death in Pakistan after being convicted of insulting the Prophet Mohammed. It was unusual because Asia Bibi was thought to be the first woman on death row for the offence. On the other hand, it is all too common for members of Pakistan’s religious minorities to be convicted on trumped up charges of blasphemy.
The law is nasty and dates to the reign of General Zia, who led Pakistan through a process of Islamisation. It is one of the laws that no-one has dared undo for fear of unleashing a religious backlash.
President Zardari, for one, has assured Bibi’s supporters that he will pardon her if the Lahore High Court fails to overturn her conviction. But he told them he won’t revamp the laws, fearing a rightwing backlash if he tries to reform blasphemy legislation.
This is the problem that grips Pakistan. No-one dares challenge the clerics. The government in Islamabad claims to be progressive and forward looking. It says the right things. But when it comes to speaking up against the country’s conservative religious orthodoxy it falls short, unwilling to offer a secular, or moderate Islamic view.
Salman Taseer was one of the exceptions. He took Asia Bibi’s case to the president and pressed hard for an overhaul of the blasphemy laws, efforts that brought him death threats. His assassination today will further deter members of the liberal elite from tackling the real challenges that face Pakistan.
Without his steel it will become harder to taken on the militant threat that feeds on a mainstream narrative that the West is evil and that any reform is a retreat. We will be left with a government that kowtows to the US is private while publicly decrying the use of drones in its skies; that daren’t reform its blasphemy laws; and that throws in the towel to the people that Salman Taseer called “lunatics”.
“I’m surprised by the huge support I’ve got. I have a lot of support for changing the blasphemy laws – except for this small fringe of lunatics that have singled me out,” he said, when I interviewed him recently. “People were afraid to discuss it before, but now everyone is talking about this inequality.”“These people won’t stop me.”
Rob Crilly is Pakistan correspondent of The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph.