Remember the 1992 courtroom film drama, "A Few Good Men"? The blasphemy laws of Pakistan (which condemn to death anyone who blasphemes the Prophet Muhammad) are to millions of its minority citizens what “code red” was to the marines in that iconic movie: a euphemism for the use of force to garner unconditional obedience from the masses. And the Jan. 3 assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab – Pakistan’s largest province – is a message to every moderate Muslim in the country to dare not challenge the vitriolic blasphemy laws, or they could be next.
Repealing blasphemy laws is an idea whose time has come. They laws are at the symbolic heart of the battle over hardline intolerance and hypocrisy. This larger religious and cultural struggle is now destabilizing Pakistan. Not only are these laws a disgrace to Pakistan, but they also provide more harm than protection to the honor of Prophet Muhammad. Just look at what the Quran says about him, “And We have sent thee not but as a mercy for all peoples (21:108)”.
Targeted for acting on principle
The plot of "A Few Good Men" revolves around the murder of a marine, William Santiago, who had trouble following unjust practices on the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and therefore decided to be a whistleblower. Following the orders of Colonel Jessup (played by Jack Nicholson), two of Mr. Santiago’s fellow marines inflict severe extrajudicial punishment dubbed as “code red,” causing his death.
The opposition to Mr. Taseer was triggered by his fight for the release of Aasia Bibi, a poor Christian mother of five, imprisoned for allegedly blaspheming Prophet Muhammad. Her offense stemmed from fetching water for fellow farm workers in her village in 2009. The Muslim villagers refused to drink water carried by an “unclean” Christian. They later told authorities that Ms. Bibi had made insulting statements about the Quran and Prophet Muhammad. This resulted in a death sentence for Bibi on Nov. 8, 2010.
Not only did governor Taseer then make razor sharp public statements condemning the draconian blasphemy laws, but he also embarked on a mission to secure a presidential pardon for Bibi.
His noble mission faced severe resistance from all sides. Students from religious schools (madrassahs) burned effigies of him during street protests, the pseudo-Islamic intellectuals mocked his liberal lifestyle on talk shows, and the clergy publicly declared him worthy of death. On Dec. 31, a coalition of religious parties protested in all major Pakistani cities, demanding that blasphemy laws remain intact. For all practical purposes, a “code red” had been issued against the governor of Punjab.
Murder and blasphemy
While the federal government promptly issued statements that no amendments would be made to the blasphemy laws, Taseer responded differently by posting on Twitter: “I was under huge pressure 2 [bow] down b4 rightist pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing.”
He stands no more.
On Jan. 3, his own security guard, Mumtaz Qadri, shot him multiple times with a Kalashnikov. Why? According to Interior Minister Rahman Malik, Mr. Qadri told police that he killed Taseer because the governor had called the blasphemy law a black law.
While this is the most high-profile murder surrounding gross and frequent abuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, it clearly is not the first. Due to communal hatred spread by these laws, more than 101 members of the Ahmadiyya (a minority Muslim sect) and more than 20 Christians have been killed by religious zealots since 1986. In June 2008, the entire population of Rabwah (the town that serves as the headquarters of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Pakistan) – 60,000 people – was charged with committing blasphemy.
Responsibility to follow Muhammad's true legacy
How did the prophet Muhammad show his mercy to the poor, the slaves, and the oppressed? One simple behavior: listening. Pakistani media must provide a voice to the oppressed minorities. And the citizens simply need to listen – just like the prophet did. Only then can we begin to change an atmosphere of hatred into an atmosphere of mutual understanding. Doing so is crucial not only to repair Pakistan’s image but also to demonstrate the true legacy of prophet Muhammad.
Who knows how and when this ordeal will end in Pakistan? The movie, A Few Good Men, however, ends with Colonel Jessup admitting to ordering a “code red,” prompting his arrest. When the two marines accused of Santiago’s murder are dishonorably discharged for “conduct unbecoming a United States Marine”, one of them yells: “Colonel Jessup said he ordered the code red. What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong.”
The other responds, “Yeah we did. We were supposed to fight for people who couldn’t fight for themselves”.
Despite every indication that the conduct of Pakistani religious, judicial, and political authorities is unbecoming of a true Muslim, they continue to maintain a defensive posture: What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong.
And the voice that tried to valiantly respond to that question has been silenced.
Aasia Bibi must be worried in her prison cell, praying for a few good men.