Thursday, January 6, 2011

In Prison Air

    The fabric of a culture is ragged and rotting when free speech assassins are cheered and their bullets made holy. Such is the case with Pakistan and the murder of Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab and opponent of the country's absurdist law criminalizing blasphemy as punishable by death. For taking this position he was shot 27 times by Mumtaz Qadri, a member of his own security detail, while other guards watched without bothering to intervene.
    It is the national reaction to his murder, however, that has rendered Pakistan's end as a somewhat moderate Islamic country so disturbingly clear. Both of the mainstream religious parties, one “moderate” and one hard-line, stated that Taseer's views justified his killing. But it isn't just Islamic party apparatchiks praising the killing, it's the punditry and the public as well, as Pakistani novelist Mohammed Hanif laments in The Guardian:
Taseer's body was still in the morgue when I started to find out more about the sensitivities of our people. Whereas most people rushed home and sat glued to their TVs, probably agreeing or disagreeing with those TV presenters, many of those interviewed at random seemed to approve. "Well, murder is wrong, but he did say bad things about our Prophet," one man said. Another claimed that if he had got a chance he would do the same thing. When asked how they knew that Taseer had committed blasphemy, they just shrugged as if saying they just knew. As if they had decided that he just seemed like the kind of guy who would do something like this.
Even before Taseer was given a burial, his killer had become a hero of sorts. Constable Mumtaz Qadri belonged to Punjab's Elite Force, a police force usually deployed to provide security to VIPs. And although he had acted alone, at least some of his colleagues knew that he was planning to assassinate the governor. He had made them promise that they wouldn't shoot him in the act. Hence, after pumping 27 bullets into the governor's body, he calmly handed himself over to his colleagues who had apparently kept their promise. They tied his hands and legs with a nylon rope and took him away. By the evening, Qadri's picture had replaced a thousand profile pictures on Facebook. He was a mujahid, a lion, a true hero of Islam. We wish there were more of him.
    The forces within Pakistan who increasingly assent to this kind of thinking demonstrate the power of a religious ideology to manacle minds and justify punishment for thought-crimes. It is worth noting in this case that Taseer is not alleged to have committed anything that could be considered blasphemy, rather he only opposed a law that is intellectually abusive and capriciously enforced.
    If enough Pakistanis manage to glimpse their their country's course toward an intellectual prisondom like that of Saudi Arabia, then perhaps the trend can be reversed. But that is a difficult feat when citizens who would organize against religious forces are increasingly faced with the “no true Muslim would...” inoculation. The illiberalization of a once relatively moderate Pakistan by means of religious justification, however, once again establishes the need to oppose these arguments globally. Particularly, we who support freedom of expression should activate whenever we can against anti-blasphemy resolutions (such as the U.N.'s non-binding R 62/145) which ultimately amount to the incarceration of free-thought and criticism.
    Oscar Wilde's oft quoted line from The Ballad of Reading Gaol applies here:
Vile deeds like poison weeds bloom well in prison air, it is only what is good in man, that wastes and withers there.

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