The Mumtaz Qadri case proves why Pakistan needs to change the debate on blasphemy

Islamabad’s High Court recently dropped terrorism charges against Mumtaz Qadri – the cold blooded murderer of Governor Salman Taseer. Although they maintained his death sentence he is no longer considered a terrorist. His council contends that he is now guilty of a ‘compoundable offence’ that could be settled out-of-court.

This sets a dangerous precedent and sends out a chilling message that the person who pumped 27 bullets into the body of Governor Salman Taseer, whom he was supposed to protect, is legally not a terrorist.

When this barbaric incident took place in early 2011, hundreds gathered round to support Mumtaz Qadri, considering him a brave holy worrier who killed a blasphemer. It was shocking to see why a criminal was glorified and idealised by so many. When he was taken to court, dozens of lawyers came forward to support him and to provide free legal service to him. Qadri was originally given the death sentence by an anti-terrorism court, which was condemned by his supporters, and the judge who convicted him eventually had to flee the country following death threats.

Today, Qadri’s support base has increased because of the consistent hate campaigns of certain extremist organisations and religious leaders against Governor Taseer. They managed to build a narrative that the governor was a blasphemer by distorting the factual position of his statements. It is widely considered across the country that he made blasphemous statements and that’s why killing him became a ‘holy duty’. It’s quite common to find graffiti, posters and slogans honouring him. A very famous slogan being:

Jurat o bahadri – Mumtaz Hussain Qadri (Mumtaz Qadri is the name of courage and bravery)

Such a climate is not favourable in a country dealing with the grave challenges of radicalisation, extremism and terrorism. It is essential to analyse whether or not Governor Taseer actually blasphemed, so the support base for his killer can be reduced, and people know the realistic state of affairs before extending their support to his killer.

Governor Taseer was primarily accused of supporting Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman and a mother of five, who was sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy charges in 2010. She got into a dispute with her Muslim colleagues who objected her to ‘drinking their water’ ‘in their glasses’ because her Christian faith meant she was ‘unclean’. Her accusers made contradictory statements in court and there was never sufficient evidence to prove accusations of blasphemy but enormous pressure from extremist groups arguably contributed towards her receiving the death sentence.

It seems to be another example of blasphemy law exploitation to settle a personal score. Governor Taseer took a firm stand and raised objections on the procedural flaws of this law and the manner it had been used to target minorities. In an interview, he made his position quite clear by making the following statements:

 “The thing I find disturbing is that if you examine the cases of the hundreds tried under this law, you have to ask how many of them are well-to-do? Why is it that only the poor and defenceless are targeted? How come over 50 per cent of them are Christians when they form less than 2 per cent of the country’s population. This points clearly to the fact that the law is misused to target minorities.”

 “What I find particularly distasteful is that when you speak of amendment, people assume you condone the crime. If I am against the death sentence, it does not mean I condone murder.”

Looking at majority of the blasphemy cases in Pakistan, one completely endorses the above statements. The blasphemy laws in Pakistan have long been exploited against the weak and vulnerable. An estimated 1,274 people charged under the blasphemy laws between 1986 and 2010 – with 51 were brutally targeted and murdered before their respective trials.

Do the above figures not suggest we have legal loopholes that need to be addressed in order to protect minorities? Shall we keep on listening to the distorted versions of deluded statements from ignorant fanatics who popularise the idea that an attempt to improvise blasphemy laws is equivalent to committing blasphemy? Are we not civilised enough to initiate a debate that looks at the elements of this law being exploited by powerful elites to maintain their fear and control over poor and marginalised communities?

This is our collective responsibility to challenge the baseless propaganda against Governor Taseer and a vicious campaign to demonise a man who only spoke about amending a law. This is our duty to stop glorification of his murderer.

One may agree or disagree with Governor Taseer’s politics but he gave his life away while protecting a poor Christian-Pakistani woman. In my opinion, if someone deserves glory, it is Governor Taseer, not his violent murderer. The supporters and sympathisers of Mumtaz Qadri must not forget that legacy of Islam is to protect the minority communities instead of spreading hatred and violence against them as Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said in this beautiful hadith:

“Whoever hurts a Non-Muslim citizen of a Muslim state hurts me, and he who hurts me annoys God.” (Bukhari)

Rehman Anwer (@rehmananwer) is an interfaith and peace activist currently working for Faith Matters and Tell MAMA.