The killing of two senior state officials for speaking up against the controversial blasphemy law in Pakistan raises serious concerns. For it is evident that both Punjab Province Governor Salman Taseer and Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti were assassinated by Islamist extremists although the Pakistani government has been a key ally of the United States in its war against terror for around a decade.
Both former President General Pervez Musharraf and the current head of State, Asif Ali Zardari, promised to repeal the blasphemy law embedded in Sections 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code. Their pledge acknowledged that the law was being misused to target religious minorities – Christians, Shi’as, Ahmadiyyas and Hindus – and was allowing Islamists to justify killings, thereby propagating their twisted belief that killing a “blasphemous” person earns a heavenly reward.
This law is dangerous particularly because there is no provision to punish a false accuser or a false witness of blasphemy. This means a Muslim can easily seek revenge by making an allegation against his or her adversary who is a non-Muslim. While Musharraf and Zardari fought terrorists with some genuine commitment, they failed to revoke the blasphemy law.
They failed because they tried to “sail in two boats,” as an Asian idiom goes. In other words, the Pakistani government is fighting Islamist terrorists on the one hand and acceding to their pressure on the other.
For example, the Pakistani government promptly condemned Taseer’s killing and arrested his bodyguard killer who is being prosecuted as per the law of the land. But weeks later, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani pressured his party colleague and legislator Sherry Rehman to withdraw a private bill she had tabled in the parliament to amend the blasphemy law. A typical Pakistani head of the government, Gilani thought his decision to keep the law intact was in the interest of peace in the country, as if it could be established only by pleasing the Islamists. What was the result? Apparently emboldened by the government’s move, they killed one of the strongest voices of sanity in Pakistan, Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in Zardari’s cabinet.
In a similar fashion, President Zardari had signed a directive imposing Sharia, or Islamic law, in the Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan in April 2009. It was part of a deal to end Taliban violence which had plagued the region for around a year.
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