More than 50,000 demonstrators rallied in Pakistan's teeming port city of Karachi yesterday against changing Pakistan's blasphemy law. The law has support across a spectrum of Pakistanis, including those who have lived and worked abroad. Madiha Tahir reports on how the case, and the controversy, has exposed new fault lines among Pakistanis.
Over 50,000 demonstrators rallied in Pakistan's teeming port city of Karachi yesterday. They were protesting against any amendment to Pakistan's blasphemy law.
That law allows the death penalty to be imposed on anyone found guilty of defaming the prophet Mohammed.
Yesterday's protest followed in the wake of the murder last week of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan's most populous province, Punjab. The political turmoil first began when a poor Christian labourer, Aasia Bibi was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death.
At the rally, ubiquitous placards proclaimed support for Mumtaz Qadri, the elite security force guard who admitted to killing Taseer. Qadri claimed he killed the governor for his opposition to Pakistan's blasphemy laws.
Many at the rally proclaimed Qadri a hero. Omar Faitan is a lawyer. He said he supports the blasphemy law the way it is.
Faitan said that Taseer tried to circumvent the proper legal procedures and the will of the people.
ï¿½Once the death sentence was imposed, he needed to appeal to the high court,ï¿½ Faitan said. ï¿½But he met with her [Aasia Bibi] in jail and said that he'd have her pardoned. This was wrong.ï¿½
When the confessed killer entered court, lawyers showered him with rose petals and offered to fight his case for free.
Supporters of the blasphemy law, known as ï¿½Section 295C,ï¿½ said the law is simply implementing God's will. Awais Noorani is vice-chairman of a local Islamist political party. He said the law is made by a man, but according to the Qur'an and Sunnah.
And that speaking against the blasphemy law therefore, is also blasphemous.
ï¿½This law cannot be discussed,ï¿½ Noorani said. ï¿½Why does the government want to discuss it? When the Qur'an says there's no way you can make any change.ï¿½
And that's how Islamist proponents of Section 295C have raised it to the status of God's law ï¿½ and put it beyond the pale of discussion. The problem isn't simply fuzzy thinking.
Many supporters are not ignorant, provincial or under-educated. Noorani lived and went to school in the United States for fourteen years before returning to Pakistan. And he's an American citizen.
Zaheer Kidvai runs a multimedia and educational technology company in Pakistan. He said post 9/11 politics have a lot to do with what's happening now in Pakistan.
Kidvai said the kids he talks to harbor resentment about their treatment as Pakistanis and as Muslims abroad.
ï¿½When you talk to them the ones who've come back from overseas, they insist on saying this is the way we are treated there, this is the way the police treated us and I don't think those are the right answers 7.19 but that's the answer they've got in their mind,ï¿½ Kidvai said.
In short, it's identity politics. Disgruntled Pakistanis condemn anyone who they view as attacking Islam ï¿½ even if it's another, secular Pakistani like Governor Salmaan Taseer.
In this context, secular forces have a tough, uphill battle. Ali Ahmad started a group to support a parliamentary bill that would amend the blasphemy law and remove capital punishment. For his views, Ahmad now receives death threats via text messages, phone calls and Facebook.
He said the threats stymie public debate.
ï¿½I just posted that blasphemy law has to go and after my comment there was a comment by a guy who was saying ok, if this blasphemy law has to go, you have to go as well, just like Salmaan Taseer,ï¿½ Ahmad said.
This is how the Islamist supporters of the law are able to silence the opposition ï¿½ making it difficult to know what the average Pakistani thinks.
People feel caught between the extreme, militant views of the law's supporters and the secular attitude of its detractors. And many more just feel left out of the political game.
A waiter at a Karachi restaurant called politics a game that's above the heads of average residents.
ï¿½I don't have enough education. I'm busy with my own rat race. No one asks anything of people like us, what I think, don't think. This is our condition,ï¿½ he said.