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Taseer's death gives power to forces of tolerance

January 10, 2011 16:01 IST

Hamid Mir, once a friend, once an enemy of the assassinated Punjab Governor, pays tribute and also speaks of the challenges that now face Pakistan.

It's very difficult for me to write about Salman Taseer, the assassinated Punjab governor. Once he was a good friend and later he became a ferocious enemy. He spoke against me on many television shows as governor and I wrote against him many times in last couple of years because he joined hands with the dictator Pervez Musharraf after the imposition of emergency on November 3, 2007.

I was standing with the deposed chief justice of Pakistan and Taseer tried to stop the restoration of deposed judges first by helping Musharraf and then by helping President Asif Ali Zardari. Musharraf appointed him governor of Punjab in May 2008 with a hope that Taseer will convince Zardari to accept the former dictator as President for five years. Musharraf was wrong. Zardari ultimately forced Musharraf to resign and occupied the presidency with the help of Taseer.

Within few days of becoming President, Zardari arranged my meeting with Taseer and forced us to forget our past differences because Zardari was aware that we enjoyed a friendship of 20 years (from 1987 to 2007). Unfortunately President Zardari failed to remove mistrust between his governor and a journalist. We embarrassed the President of Pakistan.

In the next two years we spoke against each other many times especially when Zardari imposed Governor's Rule in Punjab to suppress the movement for the restoration of deposed judges. Zardari and Taseer failed to stop that movement and finally they were forced to restore the judges. My differences with President Zardari and Taseer were over after that. Thanks to the floods last year, Taseer showed big heart and made truce with me.

It was August 2010 when Taseer surprised me. He saw me in the flood area of Multan and sent a message of reconciliation through his media advisor Farrukh Shah. I accepted because I was impressed that the governor was trying his best to help the flood victims.

We had tea together after many years. He praised my visits to the flood areas in boats and I praised his commitment to the flood victims. Taseer wanted to discuss many things but I was going to Muzaffargarh with Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. I wanted to say sorry to him but he said that "no need of saying sorry, you won my heart by your flood coverage, we will meet again in Lahore and will spend a nice evening and I will say a very colourful sorry to you". He laughed and I said goodbye to him with a promise to meet him again in Lahore.

Just one day before his assassination I was in Lahore and tried to contact him. I was informed that he is in Islamabad. Next day I arrived back in Islamabad and late afternoon my colleague Rana Jawad told me that Taseer was shot in front of my favorite restaurant in the capital. I was stunned but then I smiled. I told my colleague that "Taseer is a hard nut to crack, he will survive". My colleague said that only a miracle can save him because Taseer got more than one bullet in his neck. Now I was nervous. After few minutes I came to know that a police guard fired more than 27 bullets on Taseer. He was angry with Taseer because he took a position against country's blasphemy laws. There was no justification of killing someone just for criticising a law.

I was more disturbed when I started receiving sms messages in support of his killer the same evening. Many religious leaders refused to condemn the assassination of Taseer. I took it as a challenge and decided to get condemnation from the head of the biggest religious party of the country -- Jamiat Ulema Islam chief Maulana Fazalur Rehman. I contacted him on phone on my television show and just asked "will you condemn the murder of Salman Taseer?" I was surprised when Maulana sahib tried to avoid my question. He was not in a mood to condemn the murder but I was repeating my question again and again. Finally Maulana sahib condemned the murder of Taseer.

It was not my victory. It was the victory of all those who believed in the teachings of founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He believed in the rule of law. No individual has the right to become a judge and punish someone without hearing his point of view. When I finished my show many extremists started threatening me. But I was not alone. A big majority of my colleagues encouraged me, including critics of Taseer.

More than 500 religious clerics issued a statement in support of the assassin and declared that no Muslim should participate in his funeral prayers because the late governor was trying to release a Christian woman convicted under the blasphemy case. This statement came from anti-Taliban Barelvi scholars who lost their leaders like Mufti Safraz Naeemi at the hands of the Taliban in 2009.

All the top religious scholars of the Lahore city refused to lead the funeral prayers of Taseer including the prayer leader of the mosque in the Governor House of Lahore. The Barelvi ulema took a very extreme position. On the other side some English newspapers declared that blasphemy law was the main cause for the killing of Taseer. It was also an extreme position.

It is very difficult situation for the host of a popular TV talk show. I took another risk. On the day of the funeral, I interviewed another important Islamic scholar Mufti Muneebur Rehman who expressed his condolences with the family of Taseer. Mufti Muneeb belongs to the Barelvi School of thought. He was one of the first Islamic scholars who came out openly against suicide bombings of Taliban in my TV show five years ago.

Mufti Muneeb also opposed Taseer's views on blasphemy laws but he never approved the murder of Taseer. I was relieved after the statement of Mufti Muneeb. At least someone from religious clergy came out openly against the killing.

I think Salman Taseer was a misunderstood person. His son Aatish Taseer portrayed his father as an enemy of Jews and Hindus in his writings just because Taseer left his Indian Sikh mother Talveen Singh in 1980. Salman Taseer left Talveen to save his first marriage with Yasmeen Sehgal but Yasmeen demanded divorce when she came to know that Taseer had a son from a Sikh woman. After divorcing Yasmeen he married Amna.

In fact Taseer represented western way of life in his private life but Aatish wrongly accused his father for having religious hatred against the Jews and Hindus. The assassin of Taseer also had a wrong impression about Taseer and he killed him as an enemy of Islam.

Aatish Taseer and the assassin Malik Mumtaz Qadri represent two different extremes. One is a liberal extremist who leveled unfounded charges against his father. The other is a religious extremist. I am sure that both these two extremes are very dangerous for our values. I am also sure that these extremists cannot take over Pakistan. We will fight both religious extremists and the liberal extremists.

I must say that ruling Pakistan People's Party is also responsible for Taseer's death. When Taseer criticised the blasphemy laws his own party including President Zardari never took a stand for him. Law Minister Babar Awan said that nobody will be allowed to make any change in the blasphemy laws.

The views of Taseer were misunderstood because the US is also demanding that Pakistan repeal blasphemy laws. The common Pakistanis don't like US interference and that was why Taseer was declared an American agent by many right wing parties.

Personally I also believe that there is no need to change the blasphemy laws right now because these laws were passed by our Parliament in 1992 and we cannot afford new controversies these days. Prime Minister Gilani has written in his autobiography published in 2006 that the late Benazir Bhutto was also an opponent of changing blasphemy laws.

But we must not allow anyone to kill somebody just for criticising these laws. Freedom of expression is assured in Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan. I think that human rights bodies must fight the case of poor Christian woman convicted in blasphemy in the high court and Supreme Court. They should not force the President of Pakistan to announce a pardon because it will further create divisions in our society.

We must resolve our problems through the rule of law. Religious parties once again showed their street power on January 9 in Karachi in support of the blasphemy laws. Interestingly Sunnis and Shias scholars never condoned the murder of Taseer but they were together in defending the blasphemy laws.

Unfortunately there is no unity among the liberal parties. Some leaders of the ruling PPP tried to use this controversy for the removal of Taseer from the Governor's House because they wanted to take over his chair. They even forced Taseer to apologise but he refused.

Now the same PPP leaders are trying to put the blame his assassination on Nawaz Sharif. This is dirty politics. We need unity to fight extremism. We need the courage and bravery of Taseer to defeat every kind of extremism.

Taseer left without saying a colorful sorry to me but his death gave new life to the forces of tolerance in Pakistan and these forces will keep fighting against extremism. I am sure we will defeat them not with the help of US but with the help of our own values based on tolerance. We need a made in Pakistan solution for fighting terrorism and extremism. A made in US solution will completely destroy us.

Hamid Mir is executive editor of Geo TV in Islamabad and facing death threats after he condemned the assassination of Salman Taseer.

Hamid Mir