Aasia Bibi case comes full circle(part 1)

I have a special interest in Aasia Bibi’s case because it was the assassination of Salmaan Taseer that shook most of my worldview and lead me to a completely different path in life. It coincided with my political awakening. I was a 4th-year medical student at the time (January 2011) when the incident took place and I started my new journey. I grew up in a conservative, Salafi family in small town Punjab. I had always been a bookworm, interested in reading the news and reading all kinds of books (more in Urdu than English, mostly because books in Urdu were much more accessible to me). When my classmates in high school were busy memorizing textbooks for history, I was reading books in the school library that had not been read for ages (including both English and Urdu books). I was more interested in biographies and didn’t read (or had access to) books on politics and social sciences written in English. I was curious but didn’t have enough material to understand my own curiosity.

I was aware of the Aasia Bibi case and considered it a bigoted attempt by the village folk as a way to settle scores (not an uncommon occurrence in Punjab, my homeland). I was heartened to see Governor Taseer’s photos in the news when he visited Aasia. I had actually written a letter to Governor Taseer about some issue with our university exam (Governor of Punjab is the de facto Chancellor of all public universities in the province) a week before he was assassinated. From a political standpoint, I did not like him because he had been used by Zardari (President of Pakistan at the time and belonging to Pakistan Peoples Party-PPP) as a pawn to keep the PML(N) government in the bay. It was during this period that photos from some private events attended by the Taseer family were ‘leaked’ on social media. They showed the Taseer family in swimming pools and the ladies in swimsuits (which was considered too much skin). Those photos were circulated on Facebook and then on news channels by both PML(N) folks and later by the religious right which had started calling for Salmaan Taseer’s head after he visited Aasia in jail.

At the beginning of January 2011, I had taken part in an inter-collegiate competition taking place in Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and was still living in the slightly less-bigoted mindset that was present in LUMS. The assassination on January 4th, 2011 took place a day after I came back from LUMS. A few short years before that, Lawyers movement (2007-08) had swept urban parts of Pakistan in a frenzy and it felt like a new era for raising your voice, to demand greater freedoms. Some of my friends from high school had played an active role in the movement and LUMS had been a citadel of resistance during those days. The band, Laal (meaning Red) had sung some of Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poems and made a wonderful video talking about protest. After 8 years of Musharraf’s ‘hung democracy’, the politico were back in action. (Side Note: for admission to 11th grade in a military-run boarding school, I had to write an essay on demoracy in pakistan (in 2004) and I used the words ‘hung democracy’ in my essay. I got admitted. Omar Ali of BP went to the same school.) There used to be a ‘study circle’ oraganised by some LUMS students (current and former), who had taken active part in the Lawyers movement, at a place on Jail Road, Lahore near my hostel which I had attended twice. During one of the sessions, Ashar Rehman (Taimoor Rehman-of Laal’s uncle and brother of Rashid Rehman, editor of Daily Times) talked about his days fighting alongside the Baloch against the Pakistan army and how he learned tactics of guerrila war from Che Guevara’s books. At the other session, a lady who used to be active in leftist circles in the 1940s (I believe it was Tahira Mazhar Ali, Tariq Ali’s mother) talked about the freedom she enjoyed in those times, roaming Lahore in her tonga.

It was around 4 pm on January 4, 2011 and I was taking a siesta (ah, good old days) when I heard someone in the hostel gallery laugh out loud. Those were exam days and many people were still enjoying the winter holidays so it felt unusual. I looked at my phone and saw a text message from a dear friend from high school (he had been very active on social media during the lawyers movement and took part in a few street protests as well). The text read: there is no hope for enlightened change in this country. I checked twitter and saw posts from someone confirming that Salmaan Taseer had been shot to death in Kohsar Market, Islamabad.

The laughter I had heard was from a classmate of mine who was laughing at the fact that ‘they killed Salmaan Taseer’. I am by no means a violent man but at that moment, something took over me. I started shouting at my classmate and said some bad things about him that I forgot within the next five minutes. A senior of ours came over to my room and consoled me. I was angry and I was crying. It was almost time for the evening prayers (Maghrib) and I was a regular at the nearby mosque (which was situated between our hostel and the hospital/medical school campus). I went and said the prayers and as soon as they ended, I stood up and said, I want to say something to you all. There were about 15-20 people at the mosque and usually people from the Tableeghi Jamaat (a proselytizing group) did announcements for their events after prayers. Initially, people thought I was with the Jamaat until I said my next few words. I had to weigh what I said but it was such a heavy burden on my conscience that I couldn’t just shut up. I said I hope you all know what happened today and I hope that you have the courage to condemn it. In those days, social media was not as popular as it is now and only about 4-5 people had any idea what I was saying. By the time I said it, the Imam asked me to sit down and let him say the final dua. I knew I had made my point so I shut up and finished the rest of prayers.

When I had finished my prayers and was exiting the mosque, two middle-aged men approached me and asked what had happened. They had not heard the news yet so I told them and they told me in no uncertain terms that Salmaan Taseer had it coming. I tried arguing with them for a few minutes, saying that he merely criticized the law which is made by humans and humans can make mistakes. They were not willing to concede that blasphemy law was a human-manufactured law and believed that blasphemy should result in a death penalty. After a few minutes, I got irritated and separated ways. I felt really uneasy in the hostel so I walked over to a friend’s house who lived nearby. I was talking to him when his mother entered the living room. She is a lawyer and I thought she would have a slightly better view on this issue than the lay perosn. Lo and behold, when she heard me talk about the Salmaan Taseer (ST) issue, she started parroting the same narrative that I had heard on the mosque’s steps from the two strangers. I tried arguing with her about the laws of evidence (Aasia bibi was ultimately freed because of weak chain of evidence, among other things) but she was insistent that I was wrong. I swallowed my anger and continued chatting with her son.

I went back to the hostel late at night and tried doing something that I had some rudimentary knowledge of. I made a video monatge using Windows Movie Maker. The background music was from Laal band’s work and the video included some audio that I had recorded on my phone of Salmaan Taseer’s interview to the BBC. I added some photos of Salmaan Taseer’s father M.D.Taseer and his appointment to the United Nations in late 1940s and the right-wing rallies that had banners and placards calling for ST’s death.  The video/montage can be seen here.

I posted the video on Facebook and twitter and sent it to few media people I knew. One of my facebook friends, a Pakistani journalist based in the US, shared that on her Facebook profile and on twitter. ST’s daughter, Shehrbano, saw the video and wrote to her that ‘no daughter deserves to see her father’s bullet-riddled body’ and wanted me to remove those particular photos, which I eventually did. My journalist friend started a secret group on Facebook and added some of the leading progressive voices (mostly journalists and activists) there (BP’s Omar Ali was also in that group). It was/still is a small circle and I’ve either met most people in real life or have known about their work/life through mutual friends and acquaintances. I realised in those days that the liberal/secular minority in Pakistan is very small in numbers (but has an outsized role in the media/academia obviously).

A few months prior to all this happening, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert had organised ‘Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear’ in Washington D.C. On Facebook, in the aftermath of ST’s assassination, I saw an event of the same name to take place in Lahore. I was excited to attend the rally, slated to take place at Liberty Chowk, an important and busy roundabout in Lahore near Liberty market. It was on a sunday afternoon so I expected there to be about 50-70 people. When I arrived at the venue at the given time, I saw no more than 20 people standing at the roundabout holding placards. Having taken part in some protests in my student life, I was a bit disappointed by the turn out. Upon closer inspection, a majority of the people there were from the transgender community and they left soon after due to some ‘message problem’ with the organisers. Christian activists had also been invited to the protest but they had declined to come and after the transgender people left, there were hardly 8-10 ‘protestors’ which is less than the number of people waiting on a sunday afternoon at the liberty roundabout bus stop. The remaining protestors started marching towards what used to be Kalma Chowk and that is where I turned around and left. During the walk, I met an elderly gentleman who was in the advertising bussiness and had come all the way from Islamabad to be part of the march. He was visibly angry at the fake leftist uncles in Lahore who had preferred spending a lazy sunday afternoon in their cocoons instead of showing up for the greater cause (his words). He had been active in political activism since the days of PPP’s rise in the late 1960s. His name was Shoaib Mir and he passed away in May 2018. At the rally, I learned that the organisers were gathering two days later at a nearby place called ‘Institute of Peace and Secular Studies’ (IPSS).

(continued)

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32 Replies to “Aasia Bibi case comes full circle(part 1)”

  1. I nominate this article as one of the all time best posts ever on Brown Pundits.

    Thanks so much for your courage doing what is right AbdulMajeed Abid. You are a diamond of love and light.

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    These next three question might sound stupid.

    I find some Salafis to be good-hearted loving people who want to practice their own personal spiritual practice but not impose anything (Shariah, Islam, what have you) on anyone else. I deeply respect and admire these Salafis.

    There are also some Salafis that are influenced by Sufism. [Ibn Taymiyyah, Al-Ghazali to give two names that many lay less informed nonmuslims might know about.]

    Some Sunnis in all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence are Salafis.

    I am giving this exposition for others readers since you (AbdulMajeed Abid) obviously know this. Can you share your thoughts on?:
    —How is Salafism defined in your own words?
    —What fraction of Salafis might be heavily influenced by Sufi thought?
    —What fraction of Salafis are good people who do not believe in imposing Islam, Islamism or Shariah on any other person [muslim or non muslims]?

    Thanks in advance. And thank you again for everything you do to spread love and light.

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    1. —How is Salafism defined in your own words?
      Salafism, in my view, is an off-shoot of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic thought with some ideas introduced by Ibn-e-Taimiya and eventually crystallized by Ahmad bin Abdul Wahab in Hejaz during the 18th century. Salaf means ancestors or elders literally but Salafism refers to following the practices of the Prophet and the early Sahaba (companions) alongside literalism (following the words of Quran literally as compared to metaphorically). In the subcontinent, Shah Waliullah was an early adapter of this thought and the subcontinental variation of this ‘strain of thought’ likes to call themselves Ahl-e-Hadees (followers of the Hadees) as compared to the Arabs who are referred to as Wahabbis (because Wahabbi was/has been used as a slur to shame Ahl-e-Hadees in the past two centuries). Some early 20th-century Ahl-e-Hadees scholars rose to prominence by debating Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (founder of the Ahmadi sect). Ahl-e-Hadees have been more apolitical than other sects of Islam in the subcontinent. The central tenet of Salafism is the concept of Bid’at (new addition, to Islamic practice). This is my own understanding and could be wrong.
      —What fraction of Salafis might be heavily influenced by Sufi thought?
      I am not aware of any.
      —What fraction of Salafis are good people who do not believe in imposing Islam, Islamism or Shariah on any other person [muslim or non muslims]?
      There are as many interpretations of an ideology as there are followers. The spectrum of Salafis runs from apolitical (in terms of Islamism) ones to full-on ISIS.

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    1. I saw the review but having not read the book by Sam Harris, I can’t comment on the book. I, however, agree with Prof Cole’s assertion that extremism and killing people are not strictly Islam’s domain. As far as discussing Islamic theology with Prof Cole, I’m not formally trained in Islamic theology and have read and passively absorbed many things just by being present in my parents’ house both of whom have a lot more knowledge of the Quran and the Hadees (they still complain that I have not finished reading the Quran’s translation). They are not as well-versed in the history of Islam (outside the traditional textbook sense), the evolution of Islamic jurisprudence or efforts to modernize the religion so we have a sort of compromise.

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      1. Abdul, you have some advantages. You are a practicing muslim. Juan was a practicing Bahai. You understand faith, mysticism, peace, love, poignancy at a deep level. You understand Salafism.

        I would love to see a discussion between the two of you.

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  2. While the actions of individuals is commendable, Pakistan is in a very deep hole of religiously inspired hatred, partly due to the history and ‘identity’ of Pakistan itself and partly due to the conscious policies of the rulers ie the Pakistani army. The killer of Taseer was lionised by the legal fraternity in the High Court, which shows the deep rot and the assassin is remembered as a kind of saint!!! No hope for Pakistan as things stand.
    It is like Germany of 1938 when hatred of Jews was the done thing by one and all, and militarism was in full swing.

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    1. One point of the article series:
      http://www.brownpundits.com/2018/11/02/why-do-nonmuslims-treat-muslims-so-badly-e/
      is my view that is secret muslims are far more liberal than is safe for them to externally acknowledge for fear of Islamist Jihadi retaliation.

      If muslims have the right to free art, free thought for the first time in 14 centuries–then dialogue will automatically happen. If dialogue happens, then the sweetness of love will melt hearts.

      Does anyone (Abdul, Slapstik, Saurav, Zach, Razib, Omar, VijayVan) disagree with this thesis?

      Slapstik:
      “I have little to comment except that all societies have their crosses to bear.”
      True. But we can choose to be free if we want. As Fatimah, Ali, Jesus, John the Baptist, Bab, Bahá’u’lláh, and so many masters in the past have chosen to be free. And as so many to come will choose to be free.

      “I would just say that while I am deeply cynical of “liberals” in S Asia generally (Indians are gutter liberals at best)”

      Can you elaborate on how you define Indian “liberals”? I don’t consider post modernists to be liberal.

      “I am especially cynical of Pakistani ones (might as well be Nazis with a guilt-complex).”

      How do you define Pakistani “liberals”?

      I define Pakistani “liberal” to include people such as AbdulMajeed Abid, Omar, Zach, etc. Many if not most Pakistani Americans are in this category. Am I wrong?

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      1. Depends on how you define what a liberal is. I tried starting a podcast series (as part of my own education more than anything else) back in 2012 and one of the topics that I wanted to discuss was how do you define a liberal in Pakistan. One of the common misconceptions about a liberal in Pakistan is the confusion between someone who has a liberal lifestyle (which means people who rarely practices religion, women who don’t observe purdah, have friends from both genders etc) and those who have liberal or secular beliefs (separation of church and state, supremacy of rule of law, favor democracy, tolerance towards other religions and ideas). The former category includes a lot of moneyed people in Pakistan who are apparently ‘liberal’ but they hold regressive beliefs. The latter category includes very very few people (many of these people are part of media or academia so it seems as if they are greater in number) out of 210 million Pakistanis. Even among the secular group, there are many people who still hold some regressive views (such as views on caste etc).

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        1. Karachi has the 1,000 families (the KGS alums) who are a mix of 1 &2.

          They all secretly rally behind our Mughal-Muslim Republic; I was guilty of that until Aasia Bibi sort of shook me up.

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        2. I actually recognize ‘Institute of Peace and Secular Studies’. I watched a video of historian Mubarak Ali once probably from their channel only. Quite enlightening. I find T2F also good, but probably it caters to a more urban audience.

          “Even among the secular group, there are many people who still hold some regressive views (such as views on caste etc).”

          One of my close Pakistani friend who is quite liberal goes on and on about his Rajput past.

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        3. Zack, it is good to rally behind the Mughal-Muslim Republic and be a patriotic Pakistani. Especially if it is the vision of Iqbal, Jinnah, Jahannara Begum and Dara Shikoh. A Hindustani, Hindu, Bharatiya, Swadeshi, liberal, Arya, European Enlightenment (whatever acronym one prefers), tilted Islam. Or a “love” tilted Islam.

          I deeply respect socially conservative muslims (including Salafis) who are serious on the spiritual path and self transformation; who believe in free art and thought and do not impose their views on others.

          The love of Allah will transform them and all will be clear. [Atheists sisters, you can interpret Allah as mystery, grace, wonder transcending comprehension, sweetness, the truth. ]

          +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

          Abdul, please restart podcasting. I would love to suggest guests for you to interview [or invite them on your behalf if you want.]

          Abdul I think there were far more liberals in Pakistan in the 1940s than today. However where the heart leads, the mind can follow. It can come back very quickly. All that is needed is freedom of art and thought. And dialogue. And sweetness will follow.

          “those who have liberal or secular beliefs (separation of church and state, supremacy of rule of law, favor democracy, tolerance towards other religions and ideas). . . . regressive beliefs”

          All that matters is freedom of art and thought. I don’t think the rest matter. Separation of Church and state is an Abrahamic thing and does not matter as much as most think. If respected Murshid Imams declare English common law and derived legal systems to be “Shariah” . . . voila most constitutions become “Shariah”. Blended state and religion in a way that celebrates pluralism, diversity, all religions.

          I would love for the US, India, UK, EU, Israel and most countries to become formal Islamic Shariah states in this way. They can also simultaneously be secular, atheist, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist Hindu, Zorastrian states. We can be all things. We don’t need to choose.

          With free art and thought; and with dialogue, everything else will happen organically in its own time and place.

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  3. I have little to comment except that all societies have their crosses to bear.

    I would just say that while I am deeply cynical of “liberals” in S Asia generally (Indians are gutter liberals at best), I am especially cynical of Pakistani ones (might as well be Nazis with a guilt-complex). But that’s just me 🙂

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      1. As I said, it is just my general opinion of people who call themselves liberals in your country.

        What would be surprising is if it did not sound extreme to you 🙂

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        1. There are real liberals in pakistan too. Thats for sure, your comments on nazi,WASPs and victorians, followed by others gives a strange jarring view of your vision.

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        2. Nazi comparisons are beyond the pale and not amusing at all. There are no concentration camps in Pakistan.

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          1. I used the phrase “Nazis with a guilt-complex”. So, don’t worry, I wasn’t quite comparing your liberati to Goebbels. Not all card-carrying members of NSDAP were running concentration camps. Most were enablers, apologists and abettors of the politics of Lebensraum.

            My view of Pakistani liberalism is deeply cynical. Way more cynical than the average Indian. I’m happy to admit to that cynicism. I find even an ostensible liberal like Salman Taseer to be a closet Islamist – just with a little more conscience and little less conviction than the man who killed him.

            In any case, what I think does not matter. Pakistanis who call themselves liberals are happy to play the script and I am happy they are playing it in a foreign country. And there are enough hard-nosed Indians[*] to keep the elaborate charade at bay.

            [*]heck! even someone like Shashi Tharoor is one of them.

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    1. Nazi is a bit too much. But i dont consider them liberals , specially politicians, the difference b/w them and right in Pakistan is essentially they dont want to kill. And that;s a pretty low standard.

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  4. Eagerly waiting for the next part. I wonder what he will reveal ” shook most of my worldview and lead me to a completely different path in life.” – Eye opening transformation from lifelong beliefs is always fascinating.

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  5. Now that the global non muslim left is denouncing Islamism (it extends far beyond Linda Sarsour) will the global left and post modernists rally behind Asia Bibi?

    If they collectively do; then good for them!

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  6. @Anan

    I’m going to piggy back off your link you provide to this Juan Cole article to vent a pet peeve of mine.
    https://www.juancole.com/2018/11/everything-harris-about.html

    Excerpt from article “rebuttal” to sam harris

    “Of the 100 million or so people I estimate were wiped out by political violence in the twentieth century, the vast majority of them were killed by secular nationalists, Communists and Fascists. People of Muslim heritage probably killed 2 million or so, mainly in three episodes–the Armenian Genocide, the Iran-Iraq War, and the Afghanistan War. The genocide was committed by secular Young Turks enamored of Voltaire. The Iran-Iraq War was started by the Iraqi Baath Party, a secular Socialist party that foregrounded Arab nationalism and was founded by Christians, and which rejected a proposal to make Islam the religion of state. The Islamic Republic of Iran fought a defensive war against these secular invaders.”

    I’m tired of this type of journalism from both sides, but I hate it more when they get historical details wrong or gloss over them.

    I’m using this Juan Cole article as an example of sloppy journalism or worst, an opportunistic style of leaving out details to win his rebuttal.

    I apologize in advance for the length of correction of details in Juan Cole’s article.

    The armenian genocide had potentially up to 1.5 million people die, just in the 20th century alone (there were earlier pogroms in the 1800’s), but there was a general genocide of christian minorities including assyrian, pontian and anatolian greeks going on at the same time by the ottomans. The assyrian genocide had estimates up to 300,000 people. It might of been secular government in power, but the CUP governing members were not secular they were all observant muslims, one of which would die in Jihad later in central asia, and other civilian ottoman muslim subjects were inspired to participate by using religion to whip up fervor, kurdish irregulars carried atrocities against both armenians and assyrians (The ottomans were unable to get at the assyrians due to them being fierce mountain inhabitants, so they had to turn to their mountain neighbors the kurds to assist in that pogrom).

    My point though is that the number of 2 million is too low and conveniently leaves out the other genocides while probably putting a lower number on the armenian genocide. But even if significantly higher it would still be a low percentage when put against the 100 million total. In addition, the armenian genocide was not just committed by “secular” turks. It was more complex than that, religion was used to commit this horrific event(s). On the flipside though, not all muslims participated in this, stories are there of arab muslims helping the armenians and armenians found refuge in muslim majority areas such as Persian/Iran, Levant/Syria as well as in christian areas such as russian and georgia. Also, the use of religion can be compared to the medieval eras in christian lands when “passion plays” would inspire christians in those areas to commit atrocities against their jewish neighbors (though the christians in the west today don’t deny the atrocities against the jews committed, the muslims especially in Turkey tend to downplay any atrocities against the christians). Interesting enough present day I think the kurds seem to have more sympathy for the armenians despite what happened in the past, maybe even feeling used by the turks to do their dirty work. It’s complex situation and religion/islam is not the only factor and secularism is not the only factor as well.

    Next correction, the Baath party was not just founded by christians. The religion of the 3 people attributed to its inception were an antiochian christian, a sunni muslim and an atheist of alawite background. Christians were of course attracted to this party in hope of protection from religious violence, but by no means were the power behind it (Saddam’s sunni tribe and family were in Iraq, the alawites in Syria), so Juan Cole is being misleading when he presents the origins of this party juxtaposed against the Iran/Iraq war as secular versus islamic (the sunni iraqis had no love for the shiite persians).

    Articles like Juan Cole’s are a bad example of journalism, it seems only cursory research was done or left out, and if you can’t put the work in or maintain the integrity of facts, then this shouldn’t be your profession (Juan Cole very disappointed you, but the quality of journalists in general as well)

    Again, sorry for the length and thank you AnAn for providing me an opportunity to vent a pet peeve. No response needed as well from anyone unless they have an opinion of an observation of their own to make, this is a drive by, probably won’t be back on BP for a while due to work.

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