The killer has been garlanded. Facebook fan pages, twitter clouds of praises. For his victim, Salmaan Taseer there are small candle-light vigils and columns bemoaning him for “going too far”. How far did he go? He visited a woman who is “accused” of blasphemy and he called the law which enables such prosecutions a “kala qanoon” (black law), meaning it was an oppressive law (implemented via coercion).
For days on end, before Taseer’s assassination, TV talk shows and dailies had heightened the stakes – it wasn’t one case of blasphemy, it wasn’t just a law on the books, it was Namoos-i Risalat (the Sanctity of the Prophethood). In everyday parlance, this – and its corollary Tauheen-i Risalat (Blaspheming the Prophet) – have emerged as transgressions so extreme that even the accusation is enough to justify dis-mantling the edifice of a juridical or civil society. In practice, Tauheen-i Risalat has been a touch-stone of Islamist parties since the 1950s and, over the years, has entered the everyday lives of hundreds of millions of Muslims as an unpardonable, unmentionable offense. The Friday sermon will invoke it and it will insist that there is only the penalty of death and it will intone that there is only the possibility of self-annihilation to “protect” the Prophet.
Blasphemy is, and has been since Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, a reliable apprentice to the Islamist parties. It is non-sectarian (when it comes to the Prophet), it is ahistorical, it is anti-authoritarian and anti-statist.
By non-sectarian, I mean that a Blasphemy demonstration or a Blasphemy accusation allows the Islamist party to mobilize universally. Whether by buying busloads for the demonstration or imposing arbitrary shut-downs on merchants, the Islamist party can cast the widest possible net.
By ahistorical, I mean that Blasphemy operates strictly within the purview of the modern nation-state. There is very little, and I mean that, invocation of historical precedent or understanding of either the law or the accusation. Most Islamists will be shocked perhaps to learn that at one point or another such stalwarts of the Islamist canon such as Abu Hanifa, Ibn Hanbal, Ibn Hazm, Ibn Taymiyyah or al-Ghazzali were all accused of apostasy and blasphemy in their lifetimes. The ignorance of such history is an advantage, since it allows the Islamist discourse to keep the issue posited as a strict binary and outside the scope of any “discussion”. There is also the lack of religious historical precedent – wherein the penalty of death is considered sacrosanct but it does not exist at all in the Qur’an and is only randomly asserted in the Hadi’th corpus.
By anti-authoritarian and anti-statist, I mean that these public demonstrations, shut-downs, and vigilante acts of violence are meant specifically for the local state – insofar as it is capable of communication – or the local market. That these Islamist parties have an agenda against the state – though they be nurtured by the same state is incidental – ought not be a surprise. Even when coddled, as the Jama’at-i Islami was during the Zia regime, the Islamist parties maintain a strict anti-authoritarian and anti-state rhetoric – because authority ought only to come from the power invested in them (as religious and political elite) by devout believers and the state ought only be “Islamic” (the definition being up for debate). Blasphemy is a perfect storm because it seemingly handicaps the capacity of the civil regime to intervene (are you against the Prophet!?) while loosening restraints on civil violence through absolution (to kill in the name of the Prophet is divine).
Ironies abound. The Prophetic tradition steeped in “I am not divine” speaks against any credulous case of Blasphemy. Yet, here we have the promoters of divinity squaring themselves in defense of someone who specifically denied himself such a status.
Many, including myself, are disheartened by the assassination of Salmaan Taseer. He had emerged, specifically through Twitter, as somewhat of a laissez-faire secularist. I want to stress this “Twitter” angle. Given the lack of a civil society where dialogue and discourse can transcend class boundaries, Taseer found a way to circumvent “drawing room politics” where men and women gathered on uncomfortable and ostentatious furniture to discuss “the people”. I am quite willing to bet that his strident defense of secularist, pluralist policies emerged because of the feedback loop that Twitter provided. As a subscriber to his feed for a while, I witnessed numerous exchanges with reporters, authors, business-owners, students where he asserted, and was pushed back on, not only government policy but a liberal world-view which needed defense or it needed affirmation. He was abandoned by his own party and largely by the provincial government after his defense of Asiya Bibi. The Zardari regime found it best to not challenge the Islamist parties and their reticence only exacerbated the loneliness of the Taseer and Sherry Rahman position – that the Blasphemy Laws were targeting religious minorities.
Is the death of Salmaan Taseer, the death of liberal thought in Pakistan? There is no denying that the rosy days of the Lawyers Movement are long gone – buried by repeated suicide bombings, minority killings, assassinations, and a revitalized Right in Pakistan. The Af-Pak theater with its un-ending political and military debacle has created a quick-sand in Pakistan where both the materials of war and the rhetoric of war dominate civic life. Everyone is in danger, at all times.
They have guns and they have the roses. We have nothing except the hope that civil state will find a reason to defend its own citizenry, if only out of self-preservation instincts.