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Shaan Taseer - like father, like son

January 4, 2017

Pakistani extremists have accused activist Shaan Taseer of committing blasphemy for his support for Asia Bibi, an imprisoned Christian woman. His father, Salman Taseer, was killed by his own bodyguard for doing the same.

Screenshot Twitter Shaan Taseer
Image: twitter.com/ShaanTaseer

As Pakistani civil society pays tribute to Salman Taseer, the governor of the Punjab province who was assassinated by his bodyguard on January 4, 2011, his son Shaan Taseer faces threats from the country's extremist groups over a recent social media video in which he criticized the South Asian country's blasphemy laws.

Rights activist Shaan Taseer called on his supporters on Twitter to pray for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who has been languishing in jail since 2009 for insulting the Koran. Shaan Taseer's message drew a strong reaction from Islamists who have demanded action against him.

Pakistan Politiker Salman Taseer 2011 ermordet
Salman Taseer, a critic of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, was killed by his bodyguard in 2011Image: Getty Images/AFP/F. Naeem

His father, the slain governor, had also called for amendments of the country's blasphemy laws and spoke out in support of Bibi, after which Mumtaz Qadri, one of the governor's security guards, shot him 28 times in broad daylight in the capital, Islamabad. Qadri, who was sentenced to death in October 2011, showed no remorse over the killing and said he murdered Salman Taseer for his efforts to amend the Pakistan's blasphemy laws.

Qadri was showered with rose petals by right-wing groups as authorities took him to jail. Subsequently, some mosques were named after him, and huge portraits of him were erected across the country. Qadri was hanged by the country's authorities in February 2016, but for his many followers in Pakistan he is "martyr," or "hero," who sacrificed himself for the sake of Islam.

Charges leveled against Shaan Taseer

The groups that are now building a "shrine" near Islamabad to "honor" Qadri are demanding punishment for Shaan Taseer, which has put the spotlight back on Pakistan's blasphemy laws.

The police in the eastern city of Lahore filed a case against Shaan Taseer. But, the Sunni Tehreek religious organization demanded stricter action be taken against the slain governor's son.

"The state [seems to be] retreating whenever or wherever the mob appears to exact blood for imagined slights. Whereas the state should come into action when violent mobs arise, it retreats and even assists them," Shaan Taseer told "The Express Tribune" newspaper.

Mujahid Abdul Rasul, a Sunni Tehreek cleric, said Shaan Taseer's support for Bibi meant he "was equally involved in the crime" of blasphemy.

"I don't know why the Taseer family does this again and again," Rasool was quoted as saying by the local media. "His own father was killed for this, so why is he also choosing the same path?"

Pakistan Anti Charlie Hebdo Protest 22.01.2015
Blasphemy is a very sensitive topic in PakistanImage: Reuters/A. Hussain

A sensitive topic

Pakistan has witnessed an unprecedented surge in Islamic extremism and religious fanaticism in the past decades. Islamist groups, including the Taliban, have repeatedly targeted religious minorities in the country to impose strict shariah, or Islamic, law.

Blasphemy is a sensitive topic in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where around 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants are Muslim. Rights advocates have long been demanding reform of the controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. Activists have said the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas.

But if you ask people on the streets if they are in favor of repealing of the controversial blasphemy laws, their answer would likely be no.

"It is not about amending or repealing the [blasphemy] law, or making new laws; those who insult our religion should not go unpunished," a student in Lahore told DW.

A test case for Pakistan

The Taseers' controversy started with support for Bibi, who has appealed against her death sentence to Pakistan's Supreme Court.

The top court judges were to hear Bibi's appeal in October but adjourned the hearing for an indefinite period. Hopes among her supporters that the Pakistani judiciary might pardon Bibi and eventually release her were dashed in 2014 when the Lahore High Court ruled to uphold her 2010 death sentence.

Asia Bibi, in Pakistan für Blasphemie zum Tode verurteilt
Asia Bibi has appealed against her 2010 death sentenceImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Governor House Handout

If the Supreme Court eventually overturns the death sentence, right-wing parties and groups are likely to take to the streets.

Bibi's family has been living in constant fear since 2010. The Christian woman's husband, Ashiq Masih, has been fighting for his wife's life and freedom since the conviction. Masih has asked for presidential clemency for Bibi and has written to President Mamnoon Hussain, seeking permission to move her to France, where the Council of Paris unanimously adopted a proposal to award honorary citizenship to Bibi in March.

"We are living a life on the run" Masih told DW. "Our lives are being threatened. We receive death threats constantly and are moving from one place to another - and we try to support each other."

His family's life has been destroyed, he said: "I spent almost 45 years of my life in my native village. I had many friends there. But now I do not want to go back."

Masih said he is also scared. He is afraid of being recognized as Asia Bibi's husband in public. "This is why I almost never speak with Muslims. I am frightened that they know who I am."

Religious discrimination in Pakistan is not a new occurrence, but it has increased manifold in recent years. Pakistan's liberal sections are alarmed by the growing influence of religious extremists in their country. Rights activists complain that the Islamists enjoy state patronage, while  liberal and progressive voices have to face the wrath of the country's security agencies.

Christians living in fear in Pakistan