Our guest blogger is Colin Cookman, research associate for national security at the Center for American progress.The assassinations of Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer in January and Pakistani minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti in March have, in months since, been overshadowed in the American and Pakistani press by tensions in U.S.-Pakistani security cooperation and the efforts by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government to hang on to its tenuous coalition majority in parliament.
Both men were killed for their support for altering Pakistan’s “blasphemy law,” which imposes sentences up to and including death for those convicted on charges ranging from making derogatory remarks toward the Prophet Mohammad, to “uttering words with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings.” (The full set of laws and associated charges are laid out in Pakistan’s penal code, Section XV, Offenses Relating to Religion.)
This timeline published today in Pakistan’s Express Tribune should remind us that the blasphemy laws’ impact is ongoing in Pakistani society, where it continues to enable harassment and violence against both minorities and practicing Muslims. The piece also charts and maps the incidents, most of which are concentrated in Punjab:
Efforts by members of the PPP to alter the law have been shelved in the face of opposition by hardline parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, which mobilize their small wedge of followers around appeals to religious purity. Government pledges to review the law in consultation with religious authorities have yet to produce substantive results. The criminal trial of Taseer’s murderer, his own security guard, remains locked up in Pakistani courts. And Asia Bibi, whose pardon Taseer had championed before his death, has yet to receive a hearing in the Supreme Court on her appeal against her death sentence for violating blasphemy laws.
The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is riven with complications and competing priorities, and American policymakers possess limited means through which to positively impact Pakistan’s internal political and legal processes. We nonetheless have a responsibility to bear witness to the abuses that continue under these laws and support efforts by reformers within Pakistani society to challenge them.