The reaction to the assassination of Salmaan Taseer by one of his bodyguards highlights once again the rift between western and Muslim attitudes over religion and politics.
In the west, amongst liberals, his death has been viewed as a tragedy and Taseer considered a martyr in the cause of minority rights. By contrast, many Muslims in Pakistan celebrated the assassinator; lawyers refused to acts as prosecutors and offered free defence services; imams refused to lead funeral prayers for Taseer; and even his own party distanced themselves from him – not a single high profile comment from the PPP was made in mourning for his death. Instead Rehman Malik described his own desire to shoot anyone who backed the weakening of the countries blasphemy laws.
In the reaction to Taseer’s death, a number of questions have arisen. Of the most important were about how such an act could happen in the first place, what does this say about the state of Pakistan and the blasphemy law itself.
Firstly, the response from the people of Pakistan demonstrates the strength of Islamic feeling that permeates Pakistani society, across the educated and poor, and across, not just the religious establishment, but the political establishment as well. This might be somewhat shocking to onlookers in the west. But it demonstrates a truth the west is often not willing to acknowledge: that Islam is deep rooted and external, ‘foreign’ values are unlikely to take root any time soon.
Secondly, Pakistan’s judicial process is weak and riddled with corruption. The failure of the courts to act fairly, without reliable processes that provide credible prosecutions, vigilantism has often become rife, as has the ability to buy justice. Pakistan clearly lacks the rule of law and desperately needs to take measures to bring back confidence to the judicial process, security services and the politician system to stamp-out such vigilantism.
Thirdly, the breakdown of core state functions fuels the lack of confidence in the system, and so leads people to take the law into their own hands. But political assassinations based on this premise are hardly unique to Pakistan. US congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords remains in a critical condition after being shot in the USA (shortly after the Taseer assassination in fact). There is much speculation that the motives of the gunman were political grievances and concerns over the direction the states were heading in. But Pakistan is not degenerating because of this one incident and one law, it is systematically failing to secure its citizens interests at every level and is failing to act in a manner consistent with the beliefs and concerns of the populace.
Regarding the blasphemy law itself, insulting the Prophet Mohammed is a non-negotiable red line from an Islamic viewpoint. So too is insulting any other Prophet, or insulting people, their beliefs, family, ancestry regardless of their religion.
That Islamic societies have their red lines is no different to any other society. Such red lines exist to protect key rights and beliefs; they protect people; even abusing the national flag can be a violation punishable by law, or one that draws a strong reaction from members of that society. Indeed, some Americans even wanted Julian Assange to face the death penalty for compromising America’s image and security.
The west that might think such widely held views about blasphemy against the Prophet act as a barrier to development and progress in Muslim societies. The west often assumes its values are the only pre-requisite for progress. But the assassination demonstrates how little that view has traction in the Muslim world. Muslims consider the protection of their own deep-rooted values and the sanctity of their religious symbols and figures equally crucial.
In the west, religion has lost its importance over a period of centuries such that the role of religion, God, Prophets or Scripture is no longer important; no longer a sanctity considered worthy of protection. But that is a condition unique to Europe based upon its own history and relationship with religion. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most of the world outside Europe is significantly more religious and to this day values and considers important the sanctity of religion and its key figures, even in America. A survey of ten thousand people undertaken for the BBC in 2004 seemed to confirm this. So what is ‘abnormal’ and unusual is not that people feel anger at their religion being mocked and insulted, but that religion should be considered unimportant and worthy of mockery.
It is important to note in Islamic jurisprudence that any such law can only be administered and acted upon by the legitimate judicial authority as implemented by the authority of the state. In Islam it is not considered the right for an individual to take the law into his or her own hands.
Moreover, the burden of proof for any such insult is considerably high and requires a minimum number of witnesses. What cannot happen is that a state that lacks credibility carries out such a law and to do so without reliable validated evidence, or to apply such laws selectively. Indeed, one of the key principles about Shariah that Muslims aspire to, is the fair application of the law and rigorous judicial process.
But once again, it is not this law that is holding back Pakistan. But a political system that lacks any credibility nor is framed on the belief system of its people. The PPP is a secular democracy party (at least in name) and does not claim Islamic credentials, but has been forced into making statements at odds with those stated beliefs. That suggests it carries a set of principles out of sync with everyone else, and is sufficiently pragmatic to hide them. In that state, and with such a fundamental fault line between ruling party and people, it is the political set-up in Pakistan that is causing the fundamental tension that leaves Pakistan on the brink.