Six years ago, Pakistan's outspoken governor, Salman Taseer was murdered merely because he criticized the current blasphemy laws which were imposed on this country by a military dictator. A few months later, the minister for religious minorities, Shabaz Bhatti was killed because he raised the same issue. Sherry Rehman, the Minister of Information at that time, tried to table a bill aiming at amending the present laws but was literally forced to withdraw it. Advocate Rashid Rehman was murdered for merely taking the case of Junaid Hafeez, the ill-fated teacher accused of blasphemy.
Now Shaan Taseer, son of the slain governor is being accused of blasphemy and facing death threats for merely wishing Aasia Bibi and criticizing the blasphemy laws.
What's common in all the above incidents is that none of the above-mentioned individuals said anything offensive against Prophet (Peace be Upon Him) and yet faced grim consequences for merely talking about a law or even taking the case of an accused person.
Pakistan has become so bizarre that somehow or the other now even talking about a man-made law is being treated as blasphemy. Say a word against this law and you actually fear that you would be accused of committing blasphemy by some extremist sections of the society.
In my opinion, this is an extremely dangerous development as the definition of what exactly constitutes blasphemy is being stretched to include anyone who is even remotely critical of these laws. This in essence means that no one would even initiate efforts to reform these controversial laws in future. The fact is that Pakistan is in negative international spotlight due to these laws and Amnesty International has constantly pointed out that these laws are often misused for settling personal scores.
And all of this is being done deliberately by certain religious extremists in order to perpetuate their power. We must understand that religion in less modernized countries is often used as a tool for social control and in Pakistan the entire campaign to vociferously attack critics of the blasphemy laws is an effort to acquire more power.
Unfortunately, the state as well as civil society instead of confronting these zealots have chosen to retreat due to the alleged "sensitivity" of the matter. It should be clear that talking about blasphemy law is not blasphemy and yet because of our collective fear we have allowed some zealots to actually take complete control of the discourse through creation of false equivalences. The more we cower from fear, the more they become emboldened and transgress all limits.
Despite being an electoral minority, they have acquired so much power that now even political leaders like Imran Khan are being forced to make public apologies over something which by no stretch of imagination was blasphemy. The open letter written to him threatened him with dire consequences including that he would be declared apostate if he did not render an apology. So now the right to consider someone as apostate, which in theory should reside with God Almighty, has also been acquired by some religious zealots.
In my opinion, the action against religious extremism has to be expanded to include these religious zealots as well. Over the last few years, we have largely focused on suicide belt wearing terrorists and on sectarian extremists. We have ignored this form of extremism- largely espoused by Barelvi sect-which is extremely pervasive and is perhaps even deadlier because it can potentially affect any person. If a crackdown is not conducted this menace will continue to grow. One of the myth is that all Barelvis are "moderates" and this myth has become widespread over the years. The reality is that on certain issues, such as blasphemy, they can be extremely hard line.
Many of the above incidents also show that we need to at least discuss what exactly constitutes blasphemy. In the presence of such vagueness, anyone can simply construe any statement as blasphemous and then act to indulge in self-glory or acquisition of power. This is what has been happening and now a handful of extreme elements are deciding what exactly is blasphemy and they are forcing even Pakistan's popular politicians to render apologies. Defining "blasphemy" does not mean that we endorse punishment for it. However, it is essential to at least remove the present ambiguity.
Secondly, a huge issue is the glorification of murder in the name of religion. What Mumtaz Qadri did was largely motivated by the desire of self-glory as he knew that such acts are held in extreme veneration by the society. We need to review the narratives which glorify violence in the name of religion.
Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of Taseer in his head was trying to emulate venerated heroes like Ilm-ud-Din, a young illiterate man who had killed a Hindu for conducting blasphemy. Ilm-ud-Din's act has constantly been glorified in print as well as electronic media. In 1993, even a movie was made exalting him.
Unfortunately, the funeral of Mumtaz Qadri has shown that he has achieved the similar kind of legacy. Some TV anchors and journalists, instead of condemning Mumtaz Qadri have either endorsed his act or showed "understanding" behavior thus further cementing his legacy.Unless we challenge these narratives and legacies, Mumtaz Qadris will continue to emerge.
As a society we need to show some collective conscience and courage here otherwise we risk becoming a completely deranged society. What we must remember here is that killing in the name of religion and yet expecting that the world will consider Islam as a religion of peace is not going to work. Eventually world will judge our religion by the way we actually act in its name.