I confess I had never heard of Salman Taseer before his assasination recently, but I as I read more about him I realize that Christianity lost a brave and generous friend in the late Governor of Punjab.
It’s widely known that Taseer was murdered by his bodyguard for speaking out against Pakistan’s repressive blasphemy laws and for the violence that has silenced many moderate Muslims in that country. What is less widely known, I suspect, is that Taseer risked his life to advocate for a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who is sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam.
Salmaan Taseer meets with Aasia Bibi after she was sentenced to hang for blasphemy in Punjab province, where Taseer was governor until his assassination on Wednesday. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
There is nothing particularly special about Bibi. She is not an activist, a religious leader, or a political figure. According to the BBC News, she are her family are the only Christians in her village, and the blasphemy charges arose after a dispute with neighbours over access to water. This “illiterate farm worker from rural Punjab” now has the unwelcome celebrity of being “the first woman sentenced to hang under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law” and she may not even live until her execution date.
According to the BBC, there is a developing pattern of targetted murder of people accused of blasphemy, with 34 being killed since 1984. Even Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, himself a Christian, has been threatened and since Taseer’s death, he would be wise to take these threats seriously. At least he and Taseer had some hope of bodyguards and security. Poor families, such as Aasia Bibi’s, now live in hiding and fear of their radical Muslim neighbours.
As a Christian charity worker connected with Bibi is quoted as saying in The Guardian, “Taseer died for the Christians and now we are feeling broke and scared. If they can kill the governor of Punjab then who am I?”
Since 2011, the West had spent hundreds of its soldiers’ lives and billions of dollars on Pakistan and Afghanistan in the name of security. At the same time, as the current government instability in Pakistan shows, the West had been demanding fiscal accountability and responsibility of the Pakistani government. One wonders when, or even if, western leaders will also demand accountability for the safety and human rights of religious minorities in these countries. A great western leader of the 20th century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, once championed the “Four Freedoms” of speech, or worship, from want, and from fear. One of the great questions of the 21st century will be whether these freedoms are globally applicable and worth championing by those who currently enjoy them.