January 15, 2011

Salman Taseer

Blasphemy? Are you kidding me? What on earth is blasphemy? That a person has opinions is turned into a crime? To me, the fact that a country in this 21st Century has on its books a law to punish what it calls blasphemers, that it seeks to invoke that law to put a woman to death, is itself something approaching blasphemy. Though since I cannot bring myself to ascribe meaning and substance to this thing called "blasphemy", I'll call this what it really is, an abomination. A blot. A monstrosity.

More than that. A warning.

For this abomination is rooted in just one thing: the creation of Pakistan on religious lines. As much as there are the claims that Jinnah had a vision of a secular Pakistan (and I think he did), the very idea of a country founded on a faith -- whatever the faith, in this case Islam -- carries at its core the seeds of today's blasphemy laws. That founding itself makes it inevitable that there will come a day when a man -- whoever the man, in this case Salman Taseer -- who questions the perversity of blasphemy will be targeted and killed. It also carries the seeds of the ultimate destruction of the country.

Because that's the nature of religion. When you follow a faith, any faith, it enjoins you to hold its precepts higher, somehow more esteemed, than every other religion's precepts. Too easily, that extends to holding every other faith's precepts in contempt, and, by extension, its adherents in contempt too. And a further extension leads to hatred for those of your own faith -- like Taseer -- who question such depraved conceit. Vacuous superciliousness like this is a feature of every religion I've run into, and is manifested in varied words I've also run into, such as "kaffir", "tolerance", "blasphemy", "sentiments", "dirty [outsiders]" and more.

All of which is why the real blasphemy in connection with Salman Taseer is of life and humanity itself. Because anyone who thinks taking a human life has religious sanction -- and the killer of Taseer and his cheerleaders clearly think Islam gave them that sanction -- disgraces humanity.

If blasphemy has any meaning, it's right there, in that disgrace. All I can say is, may a thousand Salman Taseers bloom from his grave.


Danesh said...

It is not religion itself that grants rights to kill people for violating its principles. It is the interpretation. It is unfortunate that neither the extremists nor the liberals take time out to read the scriptures themselves; relying on the opinions of a few Ulema ("scholars").

Dilip D'Souza said...

Danesh, thanks for that thought. I've increasingly come to believe that despite the scriptures, it is in the nature of being faithful to religion itself that we find the seeds of hostility and hatred. In other words, when a religion finds people to follow it, some of them will inevitably start feeling a hatred for others who don't follow the same faith.

Anonymous said...

Have you read "Freakonomics"? Is there a hidden side to religious bigotry? Have you read Upton Sinclair, "The Jungle"? Yes I have read Roadrunner.

aditya kumar said...

Not many have condemned or acknowledged this fact that anything that derives it's existence from the seeds of religion can only head towards doom. Maybe in recent history of our civilization we lack examples. This should even apply to Politics of religion.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

The scary thing in Pakistan is not so much the assassination as the public and official reaction to it. I cannot imagine that happening in India, even if the most regressive elements of the BJP gain power. But I'm not sure about blaming Islam for it: I don't think Indian muslims support the assassination, and I saw at least one quote from a Pakistani Taliban leader calling the blasphemy law a man-made law. I think what we are seeing is the poisoning of Pakistani society over decades, by a cynical ruling class and military.

Dilip D'Souza said...

RS: Poisoning, no doubt. But I'm trying to make the point that the founding of a nation on the basis of religion -- any nation, I believe -- carries in that very founding the seeds of the kind of things we are seeing in Pakistan. That's why I think it's a warning.

While we haven't seen in India the widespread cheering of a killer as we have seen the cheering of Taseer's killer, there have certainly been occasions where some Indians have glorified or celebrated or defended killers, or people accused of horrific acts. There's warning there too.

Anonymous said...

1. IMO the closest parallels we have had here are Taslima N & MF Husain. Part of the criticism of Taslima included charges of blasphemy. MF was effectively exiled.

From my limited reading of Pak websites, the best they are hoping for is to get to "Jinnah's Pakistan". I'd think they are decades away from even that. Most recently Anita Joshua has written (Hindu report) that liberals may beat a "tactical retreat" since this issue is uniting the hardliners and helping them more than the liberals.

Its a serious enough issue that Taslima for example had defended herself as never having committed blasphemy. Beena's criticisms too seem to be based on an acceptance of blasphemy as a punishable offence.

Sherry Rahman is, (or was) proposing a bill to reduce the punishments for blasphemy.They can only go slow and steady.


Anonymous said...

just a few snippets I saw while googling this topic:

1. UK had a blasphemy law till 2008!
2. We cover this under hate speech.
3. Meghalaya considered a specific blasphemy law some time in 2010:


Anonymous said...

Guys keep islam out of it..it was the ignorance of islam tht made qadri commit a murder..n not the reason..well written piece though..wud like to add one more thing..muslims accept n respect other religions as well..moses n jesus are believed to b prophets with higher ranks..so its not fair to base the argument on the notion tht one gets too carried away by religion n oversees others thoughts n religion.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Jai - Taslima too is effectively exiled (from her country Bangladesh). We can disagree with India's hate speech laws and deplore Taslima's and Husain's fates, but we are far away from deeming blasphemy worthy of a death penalty, and very far away from assassinating politicians who speak in favour of Husain or Taslima. Meanwhile, people like Kancha Ilaiah can write strident criticisms of Hinduism without fearing for their lives (or even fearing the hate speech law).

Ali - Dilip's point is that the mistake was not Islam itself, but the idea of founding a nation on the basis of a religion. The other example I can think of is, of course, Israel. Israel's well-wishers have for a while been pointing out that its democracy and Jewishness cannot both remain compatible with its occupation of the West Bank. And, I suspect, Israel has fostered a sort of fundamentalist Judaism that never existed previously.

My opinion is religion, like sex, is fine if done in private between consenting adults, but should not be imposed on children and certainly not on entire communities... So it is not just the idea of Pakistan that is a mistake, but the idea of a mullah, or a bishop, or a Shankaracharya, or anyone else who thinks his peculiar garb and his (usually selectively chosen and misinterpreted) knowledge of an ancient text gives him the right to tell perfect strangers how to live their lives.

Sunil Deepak said...

What do you do when people are fighting for religions? Like in Sudan or in Nigeria. Sudan already had their referendum and Christian south is hoping to become independent from Muslim north. Birth of countries based on faith is doomed and living together is so bloody, so what to do?

Suresh said...

But I'm trying to make the point that the founding of a nation on the basis of religion -- any nation, I believe -- carries in that very founding the seeds of the kind of things we are seeing in Pakistan.

Surely the former USSR is not that far into the past to remind us that a nation founded on an explicit rejection of religion can be every bit as repressive as "religious" states.

And surely, in our own past, there have been states which have been explicitly religious and yet, explicitly tolerant also. The most famous is obviously Ashoka but I don't think he was an exception. Religious diversity has always been part of our makeup, something that was accepted by most rulers even if only for pragmatic reasons.

I think what is going on in Pakistan is too complex to be reduced to the type of "original sin" explanation you give. But it is fascinating; as they say, we do live in interesting times.

Chandru K said...

"I think what is going on in Pakistan is too complex to be reduced to the type of "original sin" explanation you give. But it is fascinating; as they say, we do live in interesting times."

Possibly, the specific incident is. But the fact is, Pakistan was born with poison in its blood. Religious hatred, religious separatism, anti-India, anti-Hindu and anti-secular/plural feelings and ideology defined Pakistan then, and define it now. The note on Jinnah was very conceived. What you( meaning D'Souza) should say is that the very nature of Jinnah's politics( again,support and appeal to Islamic communalism and separatism) could only have resulted in the kind of country that Pakistan is. It's interesting that in India, the BJP openly speaks about democracy, secularism and pluralism, while being accused of communalism. Under the BJP/NDA government, Indians could still openly be agnostic or atheist, criticise many aspects of the Hindu religion, even Hinduism itself, celebrate and express non-Hindu festivals, holidays, concepts, music etc.

Chandru K said...

BJP would also convert Hindus to other religions, freely. Also marriage freely between Hindus and other religion subscribers. You know who the real Chandru K is - its me.

Nikhil said...

Perhaps the best write-up of this incident.

Please read the last para and you can see the difference between the Indian liberals and their Pakistani counterparts. This is the difference between the likes of Beena Sarwar and Dilip.

Dilip D'Souza said...

It figures, doesn't it, that a few paras that, even in the death of Taseer, seek to bash the great ghostly "liberal" would be what appeals to some commenters.

Suresh, my point is hardly that non-religious countries (e.g. USSR) are automatically less oppressive. In my view, the Soviet Union was founded on as shaky ground as a country like Pakistan was. Its collapse at the end of the '80s proved that point.

Suresh said...

In my view, the Soviet Union was founded on as shaky ground as a country like Pakistan was.

I would think very few nations are founded on "solid ground." The foundations of our own country are just as shaky, if not more. One of our great justices, K. K. Mathew, I remember, wrote something to the effect that while our Constitution begins grandiosely "We, the people of India...", it was written by a very small elite, who just presumed to speak on behalf of all Indians.

I think Benedict Anderson has explored the theme of how the foundations of many nations are very shaky in his classic Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism.

The fact that its origins are shaky does not necessarily mean that a nation cannot endure. It reminds me of a similar phenomena about the foundations of many subjects. In his classic The Foundations of Statistics, Leonard J. Savage begins with the following words:

It is often argued academically that no science can be more secure than its foundations, and that, if there is controversy about the foundations, there must be even greater controversy about the higher parts of the science. As a matter of fact, the foundations are the most controversial of many, if not all, sciences. Physics and pure mathematics are excellent examples of this phenomena.

I am not saying that the origins of a nation are not relevant to understanding what is going on there...just that one cannot trace everything to its origins. In the specific case of Salman Taseer's murder, I am not sure that the origins of Pakistan have much to do with it. I think the reasons for this murder are to be found in more recent Pakistani and World history. I suspect you and I will disagree on this count.

Jai_C said...


Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the foundations of nations. After reading the OP, I was thinking along those lines more or less.

on what grounds are nations formed really?

how do we comment on pakistan's grounds? Did the "grounds for India" really get a "buy-in" with informed consent from all or even most ppl who became Indians? Did a small group of people create India as they imagined it should be? Could they have done something else then and we would today be "southIndi" or "Keralite" or whatever with maybe just as much conviction as we are Indians?

(Digression: I often get into this mode when I compare Kashmir with the Sena's 'vision' for MH. I sometimes see them as just different degrees of the same emotion of othering, separateness or identity. I usually hesitate to express this since its considered liberal to support one and oppose the other).

At one extreme, I feel Indian-ness is a label and identity tasked with applying itself to everybody who fell within the boundaries on Aug15 1947... and conversely exclude those who fell outside (at least for purposes of definition). Prior to Aug15 1947 it strove to apply itself to everybody within a different larger set of boundaries.

By precedent of 1947 for us and 1971 for Pakistan, things could change again and there would still be a "working definition" for nation, by which I mean a definition that has to do a fair amount of work :-)


Dilip D'Souza said...

No Suresh, I actually agree about the foundations. I am not persuaded we were on much less shaky ground in 1947. But I do think that founding a country on the basis of religion carries within that founding the seeds of its ultimate failure. This is not to say that the seeds always bear fruit, or that other foundations don't have similar seeds. This is just to say that I think religion is a fundamentally flawed way to define and establish a country. That's all.

Chandru K said...

"that a few paras that, even in the death of Taseer, seek to bash the great ghostly "liberal" would be what appeals to some commenters."

If you read the pronouncements and speeches of Jinnah and the Moslem League in the years preceding India's independence and partition, they were all about fear, resentment, anxiety, hatred, suspicion, paranoia, xenophobia and threats of massive violence. Nothing uplifting, elevating or humanistic informed Pakistan's creation. No one can look at Pakistan's formation and the politics that created it, then say that was something that really enriched and elevated humanity, and inspired other rich, soulful, movements for freedom or separation.

Dilip D'Souza said...

I know nothing about Salman Taseer. But when I read him described as "a living hypocrite, a muslim politician and atheist at home", when this is offered as a justification for his death, two things strike me:

1) this writer has no knowledge of religion, his own least of all


2) this is an example of precisely the point my post was seeking to make, about religion, politics and nationhood.