“Salman Taseer, I salute you, Sir.”

Piyari Sakeena Paienjton (Pakistan, UWC AD 2010 – 2012)

A little over a month ago, the funeral of the late governor of Pakistan’s most populous and politically important province was held amidst tight security and the fear of an attack. Why could this man’s family, friends and well-wishers not be assured security even whilst performing his last rites? The answer is tragically simple – he dared to stand by his principles and speak out against a social crime.

A year-old case of a Christian woman sentenced to death row on charges of blasphemy had been gaining prominence in Pakistani media over the past few months. Aasiya Bibi, one of a tiny minority of Christian families residing in a village, was accused of blasphemy and arrested. Of the details that have emerged, it seems that it was caused by a petty quarrel amongst the village women, arising from their refusal to drink water from the same container as Aasiya, due to her religious and caste inferiority.

That this poor woman committed no crime, and that the charges leveled against her are completely fabricated seems clear. That she could be sentenced, without proof, under such ambiguous Blasphemy Laws is outrageous. That there exists, to this day, such religious intolerance in society is deplorable, and that there exists such little protection for minorities in our legal code is something that needs to be changed.

Sadly, Salman Taseer, the late governor of Punjab, was one of the only ones who publicly recognized this. He sought presidential pardon for the condemned woman and announced on a popular television talk show that working to repeal or amend these discriminatory laws (that were, incidentally, introduced by the widely unpopular Islamist extremist dictator Zia-ul Haq) would be top on his agenda. Days later, Taseer was shot dead by one of his own security guards whilst stepping out of his car in the parking lot of a shopping mall. His killer reportedly dropped the gun after it was fired and put his arms up in the air in surrender. There emerged later television footage of him in the back of a police van, arrested, yet gleefully declaring that he was a brave hero – that Salman Taseer deserved to die because he was not a devout enough Muslim and because he protected the blasphemer.

This was a sad day in Pakistan’s history. That my country’s society has become so very intolerant is frightening. What is really sad is that this was not the way I was raised. From personal experience, I can safely say that there are families in Pakistan who believe firmly in moderation; that firmly inculcate in their children values such as tolerance. Those that believe religion is a personal matter, and state has little part to play. Those that are open to differences of all sorts, believing in equality of all human beings, the very basic principle of all religions, those that wish to take advantage of all the opportunities this world has to offer. Those wonderful, sympathetic, hospitable, open minded, principled families, who want to lead a moderate lifestyle and let others live the way they want.

With this emergence of Islamist extremism and brainwashing of the masses through false religious indoctrination though, I fear for the existence of these families. There seems to be imminent a time when they will not be allowed to live the lifestyle they believe in. They will be policed by extremist elements in society, forced to adhere to what the latter feel is a religious enough mode of existence. If this phenomenon is allowed to occur, they will no longer feel secure in airing their opinion, fearing for their lives if they speak out against the abuse of minorities.

This was not the Pakistan its founder, Quaid-e-Azam M. Ali Jinnah, envisioned when he fought for a separate Muslim homeland in the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan was built on the very principles of religious tolerance, equality of all humans and state protection of all minorities, for they are a valuable asset to any progressive multicultural society.

We Pakistanis, and the world, must not allow such a vile corruption of the Quaid’s vision. It is not too late- Pakistan is not a failed state. But we must act now if we are to save it. We must secure the right of freedom to decide one’s lifestyle- if only for the families mentioned above, real Pakistanis striving to secure a better future for themselves and their country. Extremist elements can no longer be allowed to manipulate the masses for their own ulterior motives, to the detriment of the country and all it was built for.

I will not pretend that Salman Taseer was an angel, or that I agree with most of his political policies. Yet whatever his vices, this was a man who dared to stand by what he believed to be morally right, who spoke out on behalf of an innocent woman who had no other hope, who strived to correct what he felt was wrong in his country. And he died for his principles.

For this, he will always be a martyr. Salman Taseer, I salute you, Sir.

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