Just curious, but is anybody paying attention to what just happened in Pakistan? It's dribbled out in bits and pieces, but I don't recall anyone putting the whole picture in perspective.
Here's what's happened. More than a year ago, Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of five, was working in the fields in the Punjab province when some of the Muslim women working alongside her asked her to fetch water. When she returned, several women said they would not accept it because she was a Christian and therefore "unclean." Insults were exchanged and in the process Bibi made some insulting remarks about the Koran and Islam.
The incident blew over at first, but word spread through the town and a few days later Bibi was being pursued by a Muslim mob. The police intervened and rescued her but felt obliged to satisfy the mob's bloodlust so they charged Bibi with blasphemy. This is a capital offense under a 1979 law. Bibi was held in solitary confinement for more a year until she was finally put on trial in October. She was convicted in the provincial court and sentenced to die on November 9.
By now the case was drawing international attention. Christian groups began to protest and Pope Benedict XVI appealed for clemency, complaining that Christians in Pakistan are "often victims of violence and discrimination." Other minority groups in Pakistan began calling for the repeal of the blasphemy law, saying it was used to persecute all minorities. The execution was postponed. Then in mid-November, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab and apparently a decent man, called for issuing a pardon and said that blasphemy should not be punishable by death. In late November, an aide to President Asif Ali Zardari put out word that a pardon would be forthcoming. All the while, Bibi remained in jail.
So on last Tuesday, Governor Taseer, the man who had spoken up for softening the law, was assassinated by one of his own guards. The killer, one Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, said that Taseer had committed blasphemy by siding with Bibi. Qadri was known for his extreme views and acted alone, but none of the governor's other guards seemed to make any attempt to stop him. Yesterday when Qadri appeared in court, he was mobbed by a throng of admirers who garlanded him with flowers. Meanwhile, Taseer's family couldn't find a Muslim cleric to preside over his funeral.
SO THERE YOU have it. An incident that might take place on a playground in this country becomes an international incident in Pakistan with one of the highest public officials in the land assassinated while the crowds cheer.
Press coverage has been typically boring and mealy-mouthed. The Voice of America found the whole thing emblematic of class conflict:
Political power in Pakistan has usually rested with an educated, liberal, and often wealthy elite -- at least when the country was not under military rule. With his push to roll back the country's blasphemy laws, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer epitomized what radicals view as an alarming secular drift in Pakistan.
Lisa Curtis, of the Heritage Foundation, of all places, ascribed the incident to a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome:
"It's been events over the past 30 years, like the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Islamization policies of General Zia ul-Haq during the 1980s, which has really strengthened the Islamist forces and the more puritanical sects in Pakistan over the more traditional and moderate Sunni sects."
Ravi Agrawal, reporting for CNN, explains it all as a reaction to colonialism.
[Taseer's] political thoughts were forged at his English-style high school in posh Lahore, and then furthered in his time studying accounting in England. Taseer lived and died a Muslim. But he was also modern, with western views on law and democracy. And it was those views that clashed with a country that has increasingly identified itself as Islamic, shedding the anglicized traditions of its colonized past.
Sounds like he deserved to die to me.
Here's an alternative explanation to the story. These people are crazy. They live in a world that most Europeans left behind when Hieronymus Bosch hung up his paintbrushes -- a world that most contemporary American leave behind somewhere around first grade. I remember well the panic we all felt that year trying to escape some particularly unpopular girl's "cooties." After another year, however, the terror subsided. We began to lead rational lives. Not so in the great Islamic Republic. The phobias, irrational fears, superstitions, and delusions that most cultures would ascribe to madness are part of daily life. The place is a lunatic asylum. Thank god they live on the other side of the world. But of course, as 9/11 showed, that's not really true anymore. And they do have a nuclear weapon, too -- think of that.
We are not to blame for Pakistan. As Iraqis have gone on killing each other for the last five years, it was always possible to say that we set the ball rolling by invading in the first place. But Pakistan is sui generis. These people are not rejecting colonialism, they are rejecting civilization. Sunnis kill Shi'ia, Shi'ia kill Sunnis, and Sunnis and Shi'ia combine to kill Suffi. Then they all get together and murder Christians or someone who can speak English or whoever else happens to be at hand. Me and my cousin against the world.
I think we should finish whatever the hell it is we are doing in Afghanistan but then get the hell out. Forget about this "nation-building." These people are incapable of holding a wedding or a funeral without somebody blowing himself up and taking half the crowd with him. Maybe in some other century we can sit down and talk about a peaceful future. For now, I say let them broil in their own inferno.
CORRECTION. The law under which Asia Bibi was charged with blasphemy dates back not to British rule, as reader Dr. Terence Tastard informed us, but to 1979, "and the decision by President Zia Al-Haq to court Islamist support by instituting Sharia law into Pakistan's legal system."
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