I read Professor M. Shahid Alam’s recent article “Pakistan: A political murder or war” (Counterpunch Weekend Edition January 14, 2011) His allegations of the United States role in Pakistan and the corrupt Pakistani establishment that have screwed up the country can’t be refuted. I have a problem, however, with his view on the blasphemy law.
On January 4, the Governor of Pakistan’s largest province Punjab, Mr. Salman Taseer, was murdered by one of his security guards for speaking out against the draconian blasphemy law, under which anyone saying anything derogatory against Islam, Prophet Muhammad or the Qur’an can be punished and even sentenced to death. A poor Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, was accused in June 2009 of passing some disparaging remarks about Muhammad. She and her family members were beaten up by a mob. She has spent more than year in jail. The Governor, along with his wife and daughter, went to meet her in the jail last November and assured her that he would talk with the President about pardoning her.
Alam thinks Taseer was assassinated for his “obstreperous stand,” that is, stubbornly defiant stand. One wonders what other stand can be taken against the stubborn militants. At one place he states that Taseer’s murder was “unfortunate,” but then he also says it was “unnecessary” and that [although] the governor had acted unwisely in denouncing the blasphemy law, but that did not make him guilty of blasphemy.” The question arises then; would his murder have been deemed “necessary” by Alam if Taseer had “blasphemed”?
His argument was that “public protests” had conveyed a clear “signal” to the administration of not being in favor of repealing the blasphemy law, and so it was unwise for Taseer to have campaigned for its repeal. Does it mean that tomorrow if thousands of Sunnis show up on the streets demanding the expulsion of Shias from the Islamic fold, it would be alright to do so because the people were demanding it?
At one point he recommends that President Asif Zardari should have reprimanded Taseer and fired him.
Taseer was the only politician who, in such a dangerous country, stood up for the minorities. Sherry Rehman, the former information minister in the Zardari cabinet, was the other prominent person who wanted the blasphemy law to be amended. She is in hiding right now because of the threats. On Sherry’s efforts to amend this law, Alam says:
“Was this an initiative inspired by foreign embassies, some Pakistanis speculated, not unjustifiably in a country where Western embassies routinely poke their nose in the country’s domestic affairs.”
It’s a universal fact that the US meddles a lot in Pakistan’s affairs and even if the “Western embassies” are behind the amendment issue, where is the harm? The Damocles sword will be lifted from the heads of the minority communities, at least.
Both Taseer and Rehman have been liberals and they didn’t need any prodding from the Western embassies. It must be noted that Alam has nothing to say about Babar Awan who declared: “In my presence as the Law Minister, no one should think of finishing this [blasphemy] law.” Or about the Interior Minister Malik Rehman who said he himself will shoot anyone who blasphemes.
In the entire article, he doesn’t clearly spell out where he himself stands with regard to the blasphemy laws. To understand what I’m saying look at the following paragraph:
“Is it a fault in the law or its execution? Or is the cause a generally lawless society, where abuses of law starting at the highest levels of society are rampant; and Pakistan’s Christians are not their only unfortunate victims.”
As if he doesn’t know that this is a bloody savage law. How else can it be interpreted in today’s times?
Alam’s logic is that because all the death sentences awarded for the blasphemy have been reversed by Pakistan’s higher courts, Taseer acted “erratically” by taking up Aasia Bibi’s case. So in other words, let the people charged with blasphemy go through the lower court proceedings and rot in jails, because ultimately they’ll be released. It’s very cruel logic, indeed. What he fails to mention is the trauma the families and the minority communities go through during this episode. They perpetually live in fear. Let us also not forget that 32 people cleared of the blasphemy charges and two of the Muslim judges who allowed this to happen have been murdered. From 1986 to 2009, some 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus, and 10 others have been charged under the blasphemy laws.
He criticizes the Pope for his “ill-advised move” to ask the Pakistan government to repeal the blasphemy law. There is nothing abnormal in the Pope’s move because his own co-religionists are the victims. Don’t Pakistani governments register their protest to the Indian governments when the Babri Mosque is demolished by the Hindu fundamentalists (1992) or when Muslims are butchered in Modi’s Gujarat (2002)?
He is upset with the New York Times for providing space to the victim’s daughter. Yes, the Times is famous for printing stories it deems fit to print, but if Shehrbano Taseer wrote about her father’s murder, then what’s wrong with that? It’s an influential paper and has a wider reach and that’s a goal most writers have. (Alam’s article under discussion has appeared on four websites. Why? Obviously, for the same reason, to reach more people.)
He doesn’t want the New York Times, Hillary Clinton, US Ambassador to Pakistan, or the Pope to mourn Taseer’s death or to complain about Aasia Bibi’s plight; he doesn’t even want to see the victim’s daughter’s article to appear in the Times. In other words, he wants total blackout on the gory activities of the Islamic militants in Pakistan, which is more like Fascistan right now. Only a sympathizer of the Islamic militants would want a blackout on the coverage of injustices in Pakistan. On the other hand, he utilizes the freedom of expression in the US to the maximum by criticizing the United States and Israel!
He is talking about the Islamic militants’ fight with the foreign forces. Of course, it is fine to fight the foreign forces and throw them out of the country. The problem is that the Muslim militants are blowing up mosques, shrines, churches, Ahmadi mosques, and other places where there are no foreign forces but only fellow Pakistanis. He simply avoids mentioning those bombings and the casualties!
And what does he think about Aasia Bibi’s predicament? He gives an example of Muslim rule in Spain where the judges would forgive the blaspheming Christians by declaring them as insane or drunks. But if the offence was committed repeatedly then they were sentenced to death, and then suggests to “forgive” her because that’s what the “Prophet would have done himself.”
But, wait a minute. When for his 2004 Counterpunch article, Alam got in trouble, he didn’t wait to think about the Muslim judges of Spain or what Muhammad or Jesus would have done in this situation. He immediately sought the help of ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) because he was receiving “nasty and threatening emails.” Why then in Aasia’s case he wants to go back to Spain or 1400 years?
He is enjoying all the freedoms of expression available in the United States. His article under discussion first appeared on Thursday on three websites: Dissident Voice, Foreign Policy Journal, and Media Monitors. The last two paragraphs of the article were totally different on the last two websites than in the Dissident Voice (which has the same version as the Counterpunch one).
Here are the last two paragraphs from Counterpunch and Dissident Voice:
“Still, the murder of the Punjab governor was unnecessary: it was also contrary to the best traditions of Muslim history. The governor had acted unwisely in denouncing the blasphemy law, but that did not make him guilty of blasphemy. If his intent was to start a campaign to have the law repealed, the public protests had sent out a clear signal to the government that such a move would be unacceptable, even dangerous. It was certain to plunge the country into further chaos. Also, the President could have acted more wisely and settled the matter by reprimanding Salman Taseer or, better, retiring him from the office of governor.
“In better times, Muslim judges in Spain often forgave Christians who blasphemed the Prophet by declaring that they were insane or drunk when they blasphemed. They were awarded the death punishment only when they blasphemed repeatedly, demonstrating both sanity and intent to use blasphemy to challenge Muslim rule. Pakistan’s Supreme Court should urge the lower courts to look more carefully into cases of blasphemy to rule out malicious intent by those who bring such charges. It would not dishonor the Prophet to forgive a poor Christian woman of blasphemy – if that is what she had done in a fit of anger. It is what the Prophet would have done himself.”
And here are the last two paragraphs from the Foreign Policy Journal and Media Monitors:
“Still, the murder of the Punjab governor was unnecessary. God protects the honor of His blessed Prophet. If Pakistanis build their virtues, knowledge, and institutions, if they – at first, individually and in small groups – honor the Qur’an and the blessed Prophet in their own lives, they will in time peel off their corrupt and suborned elites like scabs from an old wound. Wounds are inflicted when the body is weak; wounds fester as long as the body remains weak. Struggle to make the Ummatic body strong.
“Muslims might do well to recall God’s promise. ‘There is an appointed term,’ the Qur’an avows, ‘for every people: they cannot hasten it, nor, when their time comes, can they delay it for a single moment (Al-A’raf, 34).’ Remember this promise: be patient. Do not act out of panic: do not violate Qur’anic norms in seeking to hasten the movement of history. The men and women who tyrannize over you are neither giants, nor are they immortal. What prevails is God’s will. A Muslim’s duty is to align his will and purpose to God’s: he does not, perversely, seek to bend his Creator to his paltry ends.”
As one can see, in the other version he is using blessed Prophet, whereas in the Counterpunch version it is the Prophet. (He knows what kind of public visits those sites.) If he wanted to use just Muhammad no one would have stopped him. In Pakistan he can’t do that; he has to add (peace be upon him) or pbuh after name Prophet Muhammad.
In the above last two paragraphs, Professor Alam sounds like an Imam, in a mosque besieged by the US troops, giving a Friday afternoon sermon, the Last Sermon, to his followers and cautioning them not to take any rash step which could jeopardize everybody’s life.
One wonders if God promised an appointed term then why bother about the US Empire because it would nevertheless disintegrate when its time comes. (History is littered with dead empires and, anyway, the US is on its way out as the sole power.) Or write books about how the homeless Zionists took over Palestine. Or are the efforts to fight back the Empire and the Zionists also part of the God’s plan?
The freedom of speech and the press is a tricky thing because what MS. Q says won’t be palatable to Mr. K and what he says would infuriate another person, and so on. In this situation it is generally accepted that all individuals should have the right to express their views, that is, there should be total freedom to write and speak their minds. The countries that are democracies tout this feature loudly.
This does not mean that the rulers in democracies practice freedom of speech in its purest form. Of course, the corporate controlled dominant media self-censor most of the time, and sometimes, on government intervention. (The governments are also corporate controlled—specifically in the United States, and so there is a matter of mutual interest between the government and the media.)
But then, there are the alternative media that provides outlets to various voices, including absolute right wing rubbish, religious blasphemies, anti Semitism, and racist rants. And occasionally, some of these reach the mainstream media as news. And sometimes the dominant media may do things just to provoke a certain community: such as the publishing of the Muhammad cartoons by the Swedish newspaper. So there are drawbacks there too.
But what one has to remember is that the laws that permit people in the Western democracies to make fun of Jesus or Krishna or Buddha or Muhammad also permit the followers of these religions to practice their faith freely. Yes there are people who write derogatory things about religion but then the followers are free to counter attack. This does not mean that you’ll find every other person you come across on the street in a Western country to be a blasphemer. The churches are flourishing in the US and they don’t even have to pay taxes; they are tax-exempt.
He says the people in Pakistan feared that ultimately the blasphemy laws will be repealed opening the “floodgates for Salman Rushdie-style smearing of the Prophet.” Maybe initially this could happen; some Muslim and non-Muslim victims or people who felt oppressed by the religion may do so. It’s already happening on the internet. But ultimately this novelty wears off and then it’s only a tiny segment of society which indulges in it. In the Western world, over a million books are published every year but out of those a tiny percentage is blasphemy-related.
Undoubtedly, the US has proven to be the greatest brutal force in attacking countries as well as individuals around the world; and the Pakistani establishment is extremely corrupt and is the puppet of the US. But should that blind us to see what the Islamic fascist elements are doing to Pakistan? If that is the case, then there is something seriously wrong.
Alam’s shedding of tears for the Palestinians’ condition or exposing the US exploitation of the Third World (in many of his articles) loses its meaning when in this 1637-word article he doesn’t mention the plight of minorities in Pakistan at all. Muslim boys and men kidnap Hindu girls and women, marry them and convert them to Islam. Ahmadi Muslims are killed freely. The Christians live under miserable conditions. Minorities are living in fear in Pakistan. Their condition, in many instances, is worse than the Palestinians. The Israeli soldiers or the Jewish settlers do not blow up Palestinian mosques or the churches. The Sunni fundamentalists do not spare Muslims either; they want the Shias to be declared non-Muslims!
When criticism is biased, it disregards the objective point of view and can turn to hatred; then the critic’s thinking gets clouded and only visible to him/her are the victims due to the hated group or country. The critic becomes totally blind to the victims of his/her own group or country.
Would Dr. Alam like to see Pakistan as a secular democracy or an Islamic theocracy?
Would he like Pakistanis to enjoy total freedom of speech and the press, including blasphemy?
Would he allow the religious minorities to have equal rights in Pakistan and any member (male or female) of the minorities could become the president, prime minister, defense minister, or any other prominent official position?
B. R. Gowani can be reached at email@example.com