For years, we’ve heard how the peaceful religion of Islam has been hijacked by extremists.
What if it’s the other way around? Worse, what if the peaceful hijackers are losing their bid to take over the religion?
That certainly seems to be the case in Pakistan.
Salman Taseer, a popular Pakistani governor, was assassinated this week because he was critical of Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
Specifically, Taseer was supportive of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who has been sentenced to death for “insulting Muhammad.”
Bibi had offered some fellow farm laborers some water. They refused to drink it because Christian hands purportedly make water unclean. An argument followed. She defended her faith, which they took as synonymous with attacking theirs. Later, she says, a mob of her accusers raped her.
Naturally, a Pakistani judge sentenced her to hang for blasphemy.
And Governor Taseer, who bravely visited her and sympathized with her plight, had 40 bullets pumped into him by one of his own bodyguards.
“Salmaan Taseer is a blasphemer and this is the punishment for a blasphemer,” Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri said to the television cameras as he was being arrested.
Now, so far, it’s hard to say who is the hijacker and who is the hijackee. After all, Taseer the moderate was a prominent politician, Qadri a mere bodyguard.
A reasonable person might look at this tragic situation and say it is indeed proof of extremists trying to hijack the religion and the country.
Except, it was Taseer who wanted to change the status quo and Qadri who wanted to protect it. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been on the books for decades, and while judicial death sentences for blasphemy are rare, the police and security forces have been enforcing it unilaterally for years.
And what of the reaction to the assassination?
Many columnists and commentators denounced the murder, but the public’s reaction was often celebratory. A Facebook fan page for Qadri had to be taken down as it was drawing thousands of followers.
And what of the country’s official guardians of the faith?
A group of more than 500 leading Muslim scholars, representing what the Associated Press describes as a “moderate school of Islam” and the British Guardian calls the “mainstream religious organizations” in Pakistan not only celebrated the murder, but warned that no Muslim should mourn Taseer’s murder or pray for him.
They even went so far as to warn government officials and journalists that the “supporter is as equally guilty as one who committed blasphemy,” and so therefore they should all take “a lesson from the exemplary death” of Salman Taseer.
If that’s what counts for religious moderation in Pakistan, I think it’s a little late to be talking about extremists hijacking the religion. The religion has long since been hijacked, and it’s now moving on to even bigger things.
Pakistan isn’t the only troubled spot. In Egypt, Coptic Christians were recently slaughtered in an Islamist terrorist attack. The Egyptian government, which has a long record of brutalizing and killing its own Christian minority, was sufficiently embarrassed by the competition from non-governmental Islamists that it is now offering protection. How long that will last is anyone’s guess.
But Pakistan is special because it has nuclear weapons and is inextricably bound up in the war in neighboring Afghanistan and the larger war on terror. U.S. relations with the Pakistani military remain strong, but — as we’ve seen with Turkey — good relations with a military don’t make up for losing support from an allied government as it goes Islamist. And it seems unlikely that a government can long stay secular when the people want it to become ever more Islamist.
Sadanand Dhume, a Wall Street Journal columnist (and my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute), writes that even “relatively secular-minded Pakistanis are an endangered species.”
While most of the enlightened chatterers remain mute or incoherent as they struggle for a way to blame Israel for all of this, the question becomes all the more pressing: How do we deal with a movement or a nation that refuses to abide by the expiring cliché, “Islam means peace”?