By Martin Surridge – Usually it would be rare for massive crowds to gather and protest against a possible increase in religious liberty. But in Pakistan? Perhaps not that surprising. Welcome back to Article18-RLTV’s first weekly blog specifically dedicated to religious liberty issues in other countries around the world. Each week, we will be focusing on a different nation, and the struggles facing its various religious communities. This week: Pakistan–specifically, the fallout associated with the assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, the blasphemy laws, and the effort to change them which cost Taseer his life.
While the death of a major political leader is sad enough, the consequences for Pakistani public policy is also tragic, as Taseer was one of the country’s few remaining moderate politicians, willing to listen to reasonable attempts to move the nation’s religious liberty laws into the 21st century. A Taseer-less Pakistan does not bode well for his few remaining like-minded colleagues, or for the people of the region, many of whom do not practice the strict form of Islam being instituted because of the powerful influence of the religious extremists operating on both the geographical and political fringes of Pakistan. These laws not only continue to derail Pakistan’s chances of modernization and place within the global community, but they place hundreds of lives at risk by persecuting those citizens who value free speech and their desire to critique and comment on religion as they see fit. In addition to the Muslims who feel uncomfortable and threatened by this law, Pakistan is also home to approximately 5 million non-Muslims who will be affected by their limited speech and action when it comes to spirituality. The whole situation threatens to plunge Pakistan into even more instability, which after last year’s terrible flooding and continued violence along the Afghanistan border desperately needs to be avoided.
Of course, Pakistan is never really been known for its political, military, or even cultural stability, but last Sunday’s events in Karachi, when tens of thousands of people gathered to protest progressive amendments to the harsh blasphemy laws, placed even further strain on a US ally that is fighting for its identity in the face of increasing aggression from religious and political extremists. The peculiarity of this strict legal code has included monitoring Google and Yahoo for possible tolerance in Pakistan of blasphemy but has also included freeing a women deemed to be mentally ill while insulting the Koran. While there have not been any Pakistanis executed for blasphemy because of these laws quite yet, Islamabad is showing no sign of reversing this policy, despite the death of Tasser, with former president Pervez Musharraf saying recently that the law cannot be changed. In addition, current Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said that no changes will be made and that no plans are being made to amend the laws.
However, Musharraf and Gilani are not the only individuals making headlines in regard to the laws. Former Executive Director and then President of Human Rights First and current US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights, Michael Posner, argues that the people of Pakistan deserve a chance to practice their religion of choice without threat of persecution. Posner also said that the State department will discuss these laws and what he calls “discriminatory applications” with Pakistani leaders this week.