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Farhad Mirza: Sour Justice in Pakistan

An execution for an assassination

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Image taken from Flickr user umer malik

By Farhad Mirza

On February 29th, the Pakistani state hanged the man who assassinated Salman Taseer, a former Pakistani governor and an outspoken critic of the country’s notorious blasphemy laws.

Salman Taseer was assassinated in 2011 by Mumtaz Qadri, a member of his own security contingent. Qadri had flung out his state-granted weapon in broad day light and shot the Governor an unrelenting twenty-eight times for decrying Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The act was condemned by some but celebrated by even more.

In the following years, lawyers queued up to defend Qadri, offering their services for free. The religious right campaigned tirelessly to free him. After all, Taseer had called legislation designed to protect the dignity of a faith and a prophet a “black law.” In the eyes of Qadri’s supporters, this verbal attack amounted to “blasphemy”—an unpardonable crime that carries the death penalty. This is precisely why Qadri’s execution has been mourned by thousands of zealots across the country.

In some narrow sense of the word, justice has been delivered. However, this is not the sort of justice supporters of Salman Taseer deserved. The Pakistani state has shown considerable resolve and foresight in this case but the excitement produced by this news within some liberal circles in Pakistan has to be measured against the relative daring of a state that is known for pedaling myopic policies, and double-dealing with extremists.

The date of his execution—Leap Day, the 29th of February—was a particularly clever decision because it deprives Qadri’s supporters from celebrating annual anniversaries.

Over the last five years, Qadri’s various appeals and petitions were rejected by almost every court in the country. The date of his execution—Leap Day, the 29th of February—was a particularly clever decision because it deprives Qadri’s supporters from celebrating annual anniversaries. Media groups were instructed to ignore the funeral. The government sent out a clear message—this man took the law in his own hands, he is not a man to be mourned or celebrated.

But it is hard to draw comfort from the death of a violent zealot who is being hailed as a martyr by thousands of other people. And though the Pakistani government might claim his execution as a proof of its resolve against terrorism—by failing to think beyond the death penalty, it is yet to honor Taseer’s sacrifice.

Moreover, to establish the writ of law against a known murderer means nothing if the same law claims the lives of potential innocents like Shafqat Hussain, who was hanged last year despite claim that he was a child at the time of his conviction, was tortured into a confession and not given proper representation during his trial.

The hundreds of thousands of highly charged mourners who descended upon the streets of Pakistani cities to attend Qadri’s funeral brought with them their own security, indicating their readiness to confront the state. Their participation proves that blasphemy is a very sensitive issue in Pakistan and anyone interested in reforming it would have to walk a tight-rope over physical extinction and political suicide. It’s not the most appetizing of ambitions, granted, but the government needs to change mainstream public discourse, not just by authority but by sentiment as well.

De-radicalizing Pakistani society is not going to be an easy task, because Pakistan is dogged by many different forms of extremism. For example, Qadri and his supporters belong to the Barelvi sect. They consider themselves to be peaceful people, though they are acutely sensitive to any derogatory remarks against the Prophet. Ironically, they are routinely attacked by the Taliban for inculcating syncretic traditions in their religious practices. In this case, Barelvis are at once, victims and perpetrators of religious extremism, which complicates a simplistic understanding of Muslim sensibilities.

The paradox of capital punishment is that it takes a life to underscore why life is universally sacred.

The reason why Qadri and his supporters are easily swayed by firebrand clerics is also a complex issue, but it can be understood as the latter’s ability to personalize the frustrations of ordinary people, give them a sense of belonging and offer them a transcendental experience of divine power. In the midst of corruption, anti-poor policies, secret military courts, existential challenges such as abject poverty and lack of economic opportunity, the average Pakistani has the right to be disappointed. But this disappointment can have some dangerous consequences when it mixes with religious fervor. The government needs to be cognizant of this fact. Blasphemy reform might not be on the cards today, but revisiting the death penalty, improving education and welfare, and reforming the police force will address some of the daily challenges faced by most Pakistanis, and relieve their concerns about self-serving democracy for a few. It is not going to be an easy task, but is a possibility worth living into.

The paradox of capital punishment is that it takes a life to underscore why life is universally sacred. It spells out the Orwellian contradiction about lives that are more equal than others. That is what Taseer wanted to fix. He was killed because he saw hypocrisy in a law that enables the clergy to mobilize fantasists like Qadri against underprivileged minorities. He opposed the death sentence carried by this law because he believed it be an inhumane and excessive use of state power; an institutional hypocrisy, and an irreversible miscarriage of justice.

And with that in mind, supporters of Taseer must defer their celebrations to the day when the state will institute some basic form of empathy towards the ordinary citizen it is supposed to represent. Even if it is the one inside Qadri, the murderer.

Farhad Mirza is a writer, journalist, and researcher. He is a regular contributor to various publications. He also tweets @FarhadMirza01.

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