The persecution by religious extremists of the MP Sherry Rehman shames a nation
January 18 2011 12:01AM
The hounding of Sherry Rehman, a female MP who wants to change Pakistani blasphemy laws — coming so swiftly after the assassination of Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab who was fighting to revise the same law — is forcing Pakistan to confront the gulf between the country it was supposed to be and the one it has become.
Ms Rehman was, until last year, a member of Asif Ali Zardari’s Cabinet. She has been indicted for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad in a TV interview, a crime punishable by death. That nobody has yet been executed under the law is less reassuring when many fundamentalists take it upon themselves to carry out the sentence, as happened in the case of Mr Taseer.
Pakistan is increasingly smothered by a smog of religious intolerance. Secular politicians and moderate clerics dare not make their case for fear of becoming the religious Right’s next victim. A government that promised progressive secularism flinches in the face of extremists, even though Islamist groups poll less than a tenth of votes in elections.
The roots of this chaos and cowering lie in the coup staged in 1977 by Zia ul-Haq, who sowed the seeds of a religious fundamentalism that has since been exploited by the military as a tool of foreign policy, at the price of domestic peace and freedom.
To Muhammad Ali Jinnah, its first President, Pakistan was to be a country where “you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship”. For seeking to honour this vision Ms Rehman now finds herself the victim of death threats. That ministers of a secularist government have cravenly bitten their tongues while bullies bay at Ms Rehman and Mr Taseer is beyond irony. It is a tragedy.