Situation worsens in Pakistan; security increased for Asia Bibi

The assasination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer has made political instability even more likely in Pakistan. Never far from collapse, the current government is facing multiple challenges from ongoing flood cleanup and relief to survivors to threats of violence from emboldened Islamic extremists.

New developments include:

500 Islamic “scholars” lauded the murder of Salman Taseer and praise his killer.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The increasing radicalization of Pakistani society was laid bare Wednesday when the nation’s mainstream religious organizations applauded the murder of provincial governor Salman Taseer earlier this week, while his killer was showered with rose petals as he appeared in court.

Taseer, 66, the governor of Punjab, the country’s most heavily populated province, was assassinated Tuesday by one of his police bodyguards after Taseer had campaigned to ease Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Religious groups threatened to kill others who questioned the blasphemy statute, which is designed to protect Islam and the Prophet Muhammad from “insult.”

Security around Asia Bibi has been increased due to fears that a suicide bomber will take out the prison.

The death of Taseer has not mobilized moderates and civil society. If anything, according to Pakistani observer Fareed Zakaria , the situation is worsening in the direction of the extremists and Taliban.

Zakaria: This is a huge event in Pakistan. First of all it’s important to understand what Punjab is in Pakistan. Punjab is the most populous part of Pakistan, it is the most prosperous part of Pakistan, it’s also the heart and soul of Pakistan’s governing class. The officer corps of Pakistan’s military is largely Punjabi, there are some accounts that suggest as much as 80% of the officers corps comes from Punjab.

This man, Salman Taseer, was probably the most prominent liberal or progressive politician in Pakistan today. He was a very close ally of Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani politician who was assassinated three years ago. He was a very powerful man in his own right and was famous as a crusading liberal — in particular against the forces of extremism and militant Islam.

Zakaria sums up why this issue is critical to our mission in the region. 

CNN: Why is this of concern to the United States?

Zakaria: For the United States, this issue is actually at the center of whether or not it will be able to succeed in Afghanistan. Let’s remember, the strategy in Afghanistan cannot succeed as long as there are sanctuaries for the Taliban and al Qaeda in neighboring Pakistan.

Right now what happens is the Taliban crosses the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan, regroups, gains support, logistics, resources in Pakistan, and then comes back to fight the U.S. forces or Afghan government forces. This has been the key to their ability to survive and thrive, so unless you can deal with the sanctuaries in Pakistan, you’re not going to make any headway in Afghanistan.

The entire leadership of al Qaeda and the leadership of the worst elements of the Taliban are all in Pakistan now. In order to deal with that, to destroy those terrorist groups, the Pakistani army has to be willing to go into the areas where these various groups have their strongholds, mostly in a part of Pakistan called North Waziristan.

So far, the Pakistani army has refused to do so. The most important reason is that they fear a backlash within Pakistan. They’re too nervous about the political consequences of having this frontal struggle against Islamic extremism. So if you can’t confront Islamic extremism with things like the blasphemy law, what hope is there that they actually go ahead and mount large-scale military operations in North Waziristan?

I suspect this line of thinking informs the Obama administration and may explain why the White House has made only general statements about blasphemy laws and to my knowledge not publicly condemned the plight of Asia Bibi. In some of the Pakistani rallies in favor of the blasphemy laws, “death to America” is also a rally cry.

We also have a multi-billion dollar investment in Pakistan but the elements which oppose us don’t care if we remove it – at least this is my take on it at this point. I suspect there are Islamic governments that would be happy to supply extremists with funds if they were in charge of the country. We have few carrots and seem reluctant to use our sticks.

And finally, here is an article with citations from my new British friend, Raza Anjum. Raza has been in Pakistan for weeks attempting to see Asia Bibi and win her release. I also provided his assessment of the situation with quotes from Taseer Salman just days before he was murdered.

Slain Pakistani Governor had received death threats

As is being widely reported, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was assasinated earlier today by his own security guard. The guard apparently heeded the fatwa issued by Islamic extremists who were angry about Taseer’s advocacy for Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who was recently sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Islam. Taseer had petitioned the government for her pardon.

Over the past several weeks, I have had contact with Raza Anjum, a city Councillor from the UK, who is in Pakistan trying to win freedom for Asia Bibi. Just hours after the shooting, Anjum (on left below) issued a statement describing a meeting he had with Governor Taseer less than a week ago.  In that meeting, Taseer (on the right in the picture below) said that a fatwa had been issued on him due to his support for Asia Bibi and his opposition to the nation’s blasphemy laws.         

Anjum said that Taseer spoke strongly against religious extremism, saying that  “one needs to be determined and brave in standing up for human rights,” adding that “the extremists aim to install fear in the minds of the people.” According to Anjum, Taseer said he was “prepared to stand up to them to help bring about a progressive and peaceful Pakistan.”

That peaceful Pakistan now seems elusive. 

On New Year’s Eve, thousands went on strike warning of violence if the government amended the blasphemy laws or freed Asia Bibi. On Sunday, the second largest political party in Pakistan pulled out of the coalition goverment citing corruption and economic differences.   

About the tragedy, Anjum said, “The assassination of Salman Taseer is a huge blow to all those who are working for an enlightened and progressive Pakistan. His death has left the country in shock at a time when it faces an imminent political crisis.”

On Taseer’s Twitter page, an associate posted “R.I.P. Lion of the Punjab Salmaan Taseer (31 May 1944-04 Jan 2011)” According to Mr. Anjum, the Pakistan People’s Party said it would observe two weeks of mourning over Taseer’s death. Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani “strongly condemned” the incident, according to CNN.

Here is a Wall Street Journal news report that fills in additional information:

Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province killed by his own security guard

This is a shocking and ominous development in Pakistan. Increasing calls from outside Pakistan for reform of blasphemy laws and the release of Asia Bibi has been met with a rise in violence from far right Islamic forces.

Islamabad, Pakistan (CNN) — The governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his own security guard Tuesday, according to Interior Minister Rehman Malik, apparently because he spoke out against the country’s controversial blasphemy law.

The security guard was arrested, Malik said. The shooting occurred at Islamabad’s Kohsar Market, which is frequented by foreigners.

Taseer went into the market to make some purchases, and he was shot by his guard as he left, said Naeem Iqbal, spokesman for Islamabad police. He was taken to a hospital, where he died, apparently from blood loss.

Malik told Pakistan’s GEO TV that Taseer was assassinated because he spoke out against Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

A spotlight was put on the law in November when a Christian woman, Asia Bibi of Punjab province, was sentenced to death for blasphemy. A court found the 45-year-old woman guilty of defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed during a 2009 argument with fellow Muslim field workers.

When I spoke recently with Raza Anjum, UK city official now in Pakistan trying to win the release of Asia Bibi, he told me that Taseer was a fair man who saw the injustice being done in the name of Islam. He spoke out in her favor and worked to get a fair hearing for her case. For that reason, he was under constant threat.

Pakistan is no stranger to such violence but the issues surrounding the blasphemy laws appear to be giving extremists a rallying cry for opposition to moderate elements. The government recently demonstrated weakness by backing away from a bill that would reform the blasphemy laws. It shows no signs of an effective response to the far right.

I will be adding updates and information as I get it. Here is an interview with Taseer about why he took up Asia Bibi’s cause. Note his confidence in the ruling party. This was before the party began to capitulate to extremists.

Pakistani coalition government fragmenting

It is hard to see how this could be anything positive for the minority Christians and Asia Bibi.

Party Leaves Pakistan’s Ruling Coalition…

With the far right Islamic parties crippling the country with strikes and threats, weakness in the central government does not give the President or Prime Minister much room to pardon Asia. The opposition parties are looking for reasons to undermine the ruling party and appearing too pro-US is probably not a big winner at home.

Pakistan crippled by strike over blasphemy laws

To me this says volumes about the difficulty of advocating for human rights in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan is crippled today by a strike prompted by religious extremists who are threatening the government over potential changes to the nation’s blasphemy laws.

Friday’s strike saw businesses shuttered and transport workers walking out in towns and cities across the country.

There was no public transport in the southern city of Karachi, where demonstrators blocked traffic as part of the industrial action.

The BBC’s Ilyas Khan says bus owners in the Sindh province capital may have feared their vehicles could be torched if put on the road.

Quetta, the capital of the southern province of Balochistan, also ground to a halt.

There was a partial shutdown in the national capital of Islamabad, the north-western city of Peshawar and Lahore, capital of Punjab.

One Sunni cleric in Islamabad warned in his Friday sermon that any change to the blasphemy law would happen “over our dead bodies”.

The strike was held to protest against a private member’s bill submitted to parliament.

It seeks to amend the law by abolishing the death sentence and by strengthening clauses which prevent any chance of a miscarriage of justice.

Pakistani official claims govt will not change blasphemy law

I am looking for the actual statement but here is a news report of reassurances to the right wing religious elements that the Pakistani government does not intend to support the private member bill of Sherry Rehman. Her bill would amend the blasphemy law to remove the death penalty and require criminal intent for conviction.

Religious Affairs Minister Khurshid Ahmed Shah interrupted proceedings in the National Assembly or lower house of Parliament yesterday to make a policy statement that the government has no intention to repeal the blasphemy law enacted during the regime of late military ruler Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.

Shah also disowned a private bill moved by ruling Pakistan People’s Party lawmaker Sherry Rehman proposing changes in the law to abolish a mandatory death sentence and to guard against its misuse.

The government’s assurance came ahead of a countrywide strike called for December 31 by the Tehrik Tahafooz Namoos-e-Risalat, a grouping of hardline religious groups, including the Jamaat-ud-Dawah.

The groups have also asked the government to explain its stance on the blasphemy law.

“The government considers that its prime responsibility is to protect this law and it will never support any private members’ bill even from the treasury benches in this regard,” said Religious Affairs Minister Shah.

While he may not be speaking for all members of government, this seems like a negative development for Asia Bibi and others who have been jailed for violating this archaic law. As this report notes, even Muslims are at risk:

The blasphemy law has been at the centre of a contentious debate after a lower court in Punjab province sentenced Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian woman, to death last month for insulting the Prophet Mohammed.

Asia Bibi has denied the charges and said she was framed following a row with some Muslim women of her village. Rights groups and liberals have complained that the blasphemy law in often misused to settle personal and political scores.

In a recent case, a doctor from a minority Islamic sect was arrested for alleged blasphemy after he threw the visiting card of a sales representative with the first name Muhammad in a dustbin.

In his policy statement, Shah assured Parliament that the government will not allow any wrong to be done to minority communities, who have often complained of false accusations made against them under the blasphemy law.

Pakistani Islamic parties call for a strike on New Years Eve in support of blasphemy laws

Spokesman Abdul Ghafoor Ahmed calls himself a professor, but he is not teaching truth if this news report is citing him accurately. He says the US and UK also criminalize blasphemy. Sadly, many of his listeners probably believe him and assume efforts to change blasphemy laws in his country are reflections of a religious war.

Addressing a crowded press conference at Idara Noor-e-Haq, Professor Ghafoor Ahmed said that Holy Prophet Hazrat Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) is the blessing of Allah to whole humanity. He said Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) is the most respected person ever born on earth. He regretted anti-Islam elements and their local agents were out to repeal the blasphemy law in Pakistan to achieve their malicious goals against Muslims. Dispelling the misconceptions about the blasphemy bill, he said it was drafted by the clerics hailing from all schools of thought and passed by National Assembly, unanimously. He said that the noble personality of Mohammed (PBUH) is the center of love and respect for the Muslims, adding anti-Islam elements were jealous of this huge respect and love. Citing the laws in the US, UK and other western countries, Professor Ghafoor said that that sentences have also been incorporated in laws of these countries on blasphemy of Hazrat Essa (AS), adding no religion in the world allows blasphemy of the True Messengers of Almighty Allah.

These parties are set to strike on Dec. 31.

KARACHI: Religio-political parties including Jamaat-e-Islmai (JI), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), Jamait Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP), Jamiat Ahle-Hadith, Tanzeem-e-Islami, Tahreek-e-Islami and others would observe a complete shutter down strike across the country on 31st December 2010 against the conspiracies of present rulers to repeal blasphemy law, said Deputy Chief JI Pakistan Professor Abdul Ghafoor Ahmed on Tuesday.

I am becoming convinced that Asia Bibi and her family will require asylum in the US or UK if she is released.

UK Councillor urges Pakistan’s government to protect Christian minorities and to take action against hate speech

Raza Anjum, Muslim city Councillor from Saffron-Walden in the United Kingdom, is scheduled to meet soon with Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani, in order to campaign for the release of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who has been sentenced to death by a lower court for violating Pakistan’s laws against blaspheming Muhammad .

Bibi is confined at the Sheikhupuira Jail in Punjab, Pakistan. Her appeal against the lower court’s sentence is pending in the Lahore High Court. Speaking to me from Islamabad, Councillor Anjum said, “I had planned to meet with Asia on Christmas day but my trip couldn’t materialize due to the bombing in the Northwestern part of country.” Anjum was referring to the terrorist bombing at a United Nations food distribution center in the city of Khar, carried out by Taliban militants, killing at least 45 people and injuring over 100.

Despite being unable to meet with Bibi, Anjum said he met with her family, her lawyer and Christian leaders in Punjab.

Anjum arrived in Pakistan two weeks ago in an attempt to win the release of Bibi. He has also called for the protection of all minority groups living in Pakistan via meetings with with majority party politicians, opposition leaders and senior government officials.

Anjum’s efforts come amid several rallies involving Islamic religious leaders and political parties which have threatened violence against minorities if the blasphemy laws are amended. One member of the majority Pakistani People’s Party, Sherry Rehman, recently tabled legislation which would remove the death penalty for blaspheming Islam. However, right wing groups vow violence if any changes are made.

Escalating the tensions, one local Muslim cleric, Maulana Yousaf Qureshi, called for the murder of Asia Bibi and promised a reward of 500,000 rupees ($5,800) to those responsible for her death.

However, according to Anjum such threats are against Pakistani law. “In my recent meeting with Salman Tassir, the Governor of Punjab, I stressed the need for Pakistani authorities to detain those who make hate speech and death threats, such as made by Qureshi,” Anjum said.

Anjum stated that Qureshi has not been arrested and said, “the government should take a firm line with such incidents,” adding, “Article 506 of the Pakistan Penal Code prohibits threats to the life of another.

In recent days Anjum has held meetings with Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister for minorities, Salman Tassir, Governor of Punjab, Zulfiqar Khosa, Senior Advisor to Chief Minister Punjab. He has also held discussions with the Javed Akhtar, Federal Secretary for Minorities, Dr Abdul Hasan Najmi, Law Secretary Punjab and Shoukat Ali, Home Department Special Secretary. He is also due to meet with the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, a centrist political party in Pakistan.

Anjum told me that he has been co-ordinating his activities with the UK High Commision, saying “I will soon submit a report based on the case of Asia Bibi to the UK embassy and EU delegation in Islamabad.”

Christmas in Pakistan

Pakistan’s President Zardari expressed Christmas greetings to the Christian community there saying

I wish to felicitate the Christians across the globe particularly our Christian brothers and sisters in Pakistan on the auspicious occasion of Christmas.”

The president said, “Christmas is a time for festivity, celebration and rejoicing as well as a reminder to all of us of the message of Jesus Christ (May Allah be pleased with him) of love, forgiveness and brotherhood among the people.”

“We Muslims deeply revere Jesus Christ as one of the great messengers of Allah whose universal message of love for mankind holds great promise of peace and harmony in a world beset with strife, violence and militancy,” he added.

The president said, “The Christians living in Pakistan are a law abiding and loyal community and we are proud of their tremendous contributions to the advancement and development of the country.”

“On this auspicious occasion I also wish to reiterate the commitment of the democratic Pakistan People’s Party to continue to fight along with our Christian brothers and sisters for the rights of all minorities and deprived people in the country for establishing a liberal and pluralistic society in Pakistan,” he added.

There has been violence in Pakistan today but this appears to be related to the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

According to this WaPo report, some Christians are wary but many are proceeding with Christmas plans and celebrations. Security concerns appear to be greater in some regions of the country.

Today in Pakistan: Muslims threaten violence if blasphemy laws changed

I spoke to British city councillor Raza Anjum about 10 hours ago who told me that right wing Muslim groups were preparing to rally against any changes in Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. He told me that the ruling party leaders had proposed changes in the laws which criminalize speaking against Muhammad. However, the opposition party is standing against any changes. Despite their opposition, Anjum was planning to meet with the opposition later in the day.

According to this article, the extremist groups did indeed rally, about 4000 people in three locations and threatened sustained protests and worse if the laws were amended. 

Pakistan has yet to execute anyone for blasphemy, but Bibi’s case has exposed the deep faultlines in the conservative country.

In the port city of Karachi, more than 2,000 people rallied against Rehman’s proposed draft bill and demanded the government give Bibi a severe punishment for insulting Prophet Mohammad.

Bibi was arrested in June 2009 after Muslim women labourers refused to drink from a bowl of water she was asked to fetch while out working in the fields.

Days later, the women complained that she made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed. Bibi was set upon by a mob, arrested by police and sentenced on November 8.

Leaders of JUI and radical Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party warned that the government would “face a strong reaction if Bibi was pardoned.”

”The government should forget about amending the blasphemy law as any attempt in this regard will prove fatal,” a local religious leader Yahya Ludhianvi said.

For more on the Muslim protests, go here and here.