Aasia Bibi case comes full circle (part 2)

I showed up at the Institute of Peace and Secular Studies (IPSS) a few days after the rally. The person who had called the meeting was running late so I just loitered around. It was a two-room apartment that had been modified into a makeshift office space with some spare area for sitting, with floor cushions etc. There was a book rack full of books in one corner. The lady who managed the place was present there and said Hello. A few minutes after I had arrived, two boys a few years younger than me showed up as well. We started chit-chatting and it turned out that one of them was a student at LUMS and the other went to another private school. We were talking about democracy when they revealed that they were not in favor of democracy at all and then spent the next hour arguing why they thought so. They were under the influence of Hizb-ut-Tehrir, an Islamist organization that wanted to establish a caliphate. I tried to argue with them using rationality and logic but they were not willing to listen to a counter-argument and eventually stormed off. I discovered that IPSS was offering a short course in Political Economy and History and all I had to pay for was a copy of their syllabus.

Salmaan Taseer (ST) was a larger than life person. He grew up in a literary family, with his father passing away at an early age but the familial ties and his family’s social standing in the Lahori society gave him a footing in the tightly-knit hierarchy of Lahore’s elite circles. He was an active member of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) during its heyday, starting in 1968 and through Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rule (1972-77). After Mr. Bhutto was hanged (1979) and PPP was under threat by Dictator Zia’s government, ST wrote a biography of Mr. Bhutto. I attended a talk by one of the fact checkers on ST’s book (at the cafe, Books n Beans, a small liberal enclave for such events) and she remembered how hard she had to work to meet ST’s standards. ST was instrumental in arranging for Benazir Bhutto’s arrival in Lahore in 1986 and the grand reception that ensued. He was elected in the PPP wave that swept most of Pakistan during the 1988 elections. He didn’t win another election in during the rest of his political life. However, he was considered PPP’s man in Lahore, someone who could take on the Sharif’s of PML(N). ST started an English daily in the early 2000s, called Daily Times (DT) which started with much fanfare and even had an Urdu counterpart.

ST was among the politicos who liked the ‘enlightened’ part of Dictator Musharraf and had favorable views towards some of his policies. ST was not the only ‘liberal’ who had a soft spot for Musharraf’s cultural agenda (including the glamorization of ‘Basant’ which ST took part in, every year). ST represented the values of ‘Old money Lahore’ and that made his views antithetical to what the nouveau riche Sharif family stood for. Daily Times was a new entrant into the English medium market previously controlled by Dawn and The News. It was a brave new paper that took editorial risks. It was one of the first newspapers in Pakistan to enter the digital era and upload everything online. The quality of its op-ed pages was top notch and many of DT’s alumni are now working at good posts in the much-diminished media industry in Pakistan.

There was some trouble in paradise though. DT had a payment crisis that started while ST was alive and involved in running the paper. The problem worsened with time and hundreds of DT staffers have still not been paid their dues after years of service. Does it reflect poorly on ST and its legacy? Yes, it does. However, does that negate everything that he stood for at the end of his life? No. The argument that ST was a bad boss has been used by some right-wing elements in the media to demonize ST and his legacy. Was he an out-of-touch elitist? One could make a case for and against it. In the aforementioned ‘circles’ of Lahore, you are either born into them or you are not. He was born into that life, and at some point in life, he had to struggle for many years to reach the places in life that he did. This is not a valid position to argue against him in the blasphemy debate either. There are richer,m more out-of-touch people in Pakistan and if he deserved to die for having unpopular beliefs than all of them would face the guillotine too. He went out of his skin to visit a poor woman from an unprivileged background and stood firmly behind her, ultimately losing his life.

I wrote back in 2015 that

“He didn’t have to do it. It would have been much easier to stay away from an issue as thorny issue as that. It didn’t directly affect him, his family or even his class interests. Even if he chose to support the aggrieved party, he could have stayed in the background. Unlike most of his compatriots, he took the path less traveled by. It is possible to believe in something and fail to live up to it. Few people, in this day and age, are willing to lay their lives down for their convictions. Salmaan Taseer was one of them.” (you can read the whole piece here)

IPSS started a series of lectures in February 2011 titled ‘Tracing the roots of religious extremism in Pakistan’ and invited prominent historians, activists, journalists and religious scholars to talk about their ideas on this topic. Most of those lectures were videotaped and eventually put on youtube (Eight of them can be seen here). The weekly class on Politics, Economy, and Culture (four modules can be seen here  ) was taught by an economics and philosophy lecturer and our reading material included everything from an introduction to capitalism and Marxism to why usury and Sood/interest are different things. I had an interest in these topics but these classes and the lecture series opened my eyes to a whole new world. I started reading more in English and started writing a blog, first in Urdu and then in English. A lot of things that I eventually wrote about in future years (Islamism, history of Jamaat-e-Islami, civil-military imbalance and the right to free speech) were topics that I explored in those days in some detail. I met a number of learned people who became friends and mentors courtesy of that lecture series and I credit IPSS and that circle for my later evolution. I also became more active on social media which helped me grow as a person and develop a voice.

It is hard to blame any one factor for ST’s assassination. Blasphemy and bloodshed associated with it are not new phenomena in the Indian subcontinent. When Alam din killed a Hindu published in 1927 due to the publication of a blasphemous book, Muslims of India rose up in support of him. When he was hanged to death, M.D. Taseer was involved in his funeral arrangements. Iqbal famously remarked that a Jolaha (cloth spinner)’s son overtook more exalted people in defending the prophet’s honor. Traditional media played a role in demonizing ST and Islamist parties were baying for his blood not just because he was supporting the blasphemer and criticizing the underlying legal structure but also because he was a ‘liberal’, someone who in their view has no right to comment on Islamic jurisprudence.

The blasphemy juggernaut had started under Zia’s regime (1977-88) and culminated in legislation that stated that the only approved punishment for the crime of blasphemy would be a death sentence (in 1991). It was in 1997 that former Lahore High Court judge Arif Iqbal Hussain Bhatti was killed in his chamber on October 17, 1997. Earlier, he had acquitted Salamat Masih, 14, and Rehmat Masih, 46, on February 23, 1995, of having committed blasphemy. When ST visited Aasia Bibi in Jail, it was an act of intense bravery, of challenging the hegemony of the mullah over the blasphemy law discourse. Musharraf, despite all his apparent ‘liberalism’, could not undo the damage done by blasphemy law.

I have written elsewhere on BP about how I see ‘liberalism’ in the Pakistani perspective. 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 (I call them ‘lifestyle liberals’, or group A) includes a lot of moneyed people in Pakistan who are apparently ‘liberal’ but they hold regressive beliefs. The latter category(I call them ‘secular liberals’ or group B) 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). There is a lot of overlap between the groups as well, as Zak pointed out. ST belonged to both the lifestyle liberal group and to a certain extent, the secular liberal group. Based on my few observations, Lahore’s elite (or as my friend Umair Javed calls it, ‘gentry’) belongs firmly in the lifestyle liberal camp with very few exceptions. In my experience, I have met more non-elite people from the secular liberal group than the moneyed elite. One could argue that members of group A often do things to project their image as members of groups B (cases in point: Lahore Literary Festival, Faiz Mela etc). In most cases, what a layman in Pakistan thinks of as ideas and actions of group B is actually a reflection of what he/she knows about group A.

ST’s visit to Aasia Bibi and his death provided fresh impetus to the politicization of the Barelvis who weaponised blasphemy the way Deobandis had weaponized the concept of ‘Jihad’ in the 1980s and 90s (with state support). Barelvis, despite being a numerical majority in the country were traditionally apolitical. Barelvis (low-church Islam) believe in reaching God through intermediaries (such as dead or living saints, their shrines and Holy men called Pirs). Deobandis (high-church Islam) on the other hand are theoretically more puritanical and condemn practices such as visiting shrines and the whole Piri system. Taliban in Afghanistan are some of the most extreme Deobandis, for example. (I wrote about this issue in some detail in November 2014. You can find the article here). In the years after 9/11, Barelvi/Sufi Islam was projected officially as a means to counter the Deobandi tide. Musharraf was an early convert and in time, even the yanks took the bait. As a result, Sunni Ittehad Council (an umbrella group of different Barelvi organizations) received $36,607 from Washington in 2009 under the State Department’s Public Diplomacy Programmes for Afghanistan and Pakistan. This pales in comparison to the sums dished out by Musharraf government on “cultural activities” and “National Sufi Council” headed by Ch. Shujaat Husain (a politician in Punjab who was not a Pir himself).  Following ST’s death at the hands of a disgraced Barelvi police guard, the aforementioned Sunni Ittehad Council staged protests all over Pakistan in favor of Mumtaz Qadri. They and other Barelvi groups also took over the streets in September 2012 when a blasphemous video was released on YouTube and the streaming website was banned in Pakistan for a few years.


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AbdulMajeed Abid

I am a medical doctor by profession, specializing in Pathology. I have been writing about Pakistan's political history and Islamism since 2011. I was the Assistant Editor for Pakistani blogzine, Pak Tea House for a couple of years. I have written for various Pakistani publications (both Urdu and English) since. My writings can be accessed at 1. https://nation.com.pk/Columnist/abdul-majeed-abid 2. https://dailytimes.com.pk/writer/abdul-majeed-abid/ 3. http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/author/abdul-majeed-abid/ 4.https://www.dawn.com/authors/500/abdul-majeed-abid

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5 years ago

Is there a reason why Bareilvis have certain inclination towards the “blasphemy” issue, that they got politicized on these lines only? Something specific to text perhaps? Also how do the now politically stronger Bareilvis look at Deobandis and vice versa. And where do shias come into political picture. Do they have their own group to protect their interests?

5 years ago
Reply to  Saurav

Deobandis (about 25-30% of Sunnis in Pakistan) hate Barelvis (around 50-55% of Sunnis in Pakistan) and vice versa. I don’t really know where the fascination with blasphemy comes in Barelvis but I have a theory. Barelvis focus mostly on personalities (Pirs, Sufis etc) while Deobandis focus more on ideology and text. This makes Barelvis more of a cult than otherwise. As a result, any (imagined or otherwise) insult towards the person who is the head of the cult, is felt more personally than if there was only an ideological linkage. Shias are not usually involved in this discussion because they are blamed for blaspheming against the Sahaba (companions of the prophet) by Sunnis (mostly by Deobandis) so there’s that.

5 years ago

AbdulMajeed needs to be congratulated for living by the dictum by Plato ‘Unexamined life is not worth living”.

Shafiq R
5 years ago

Great as expected. Again it shows that nothing can be s illuminating as a intelligent, rational person writing about a culture from within.

Kabir seem to be a perfect trust fund lifestyle liberal of Lahore. ‘Lifestyle liberals of Lahore’ – now that’s a catchy name for a group.

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