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Pakistani Legislator Stands Up to Extremists Over Blasphemy Law

April 14, 2011 at 3:19 PM EDT
In Pakistan, calls to reform a blasphemy law have resulted in the assassination of two key moderate politicians. Margaret Warner talks to Pakistani Parliament member Sherry Rehman, who has challenged the law and become the focus of several protests and drawn ire from conservative imams.

JIM LEHRER: Now, standing up to extremists in Pakistan.

Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: To some in Pakistan, Mumtaz Qadri is as popular as a rock star, his armored vehicle showered with rose petals as he arrived at court.

Yet Qadri is an admitted killer, a bodyguard who, in November, shot and killed the governor he was supposed to protect, Salman Taseer. Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, was a moderate politician who called for amending the law making blasphemy a capital offense.

Then in March, another centrist figure, Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, met a similar fate, gunned down as he left his mother’s home in Islamabad. Both men had been inspired to try to change the law by the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death after neighbors accused her of insulting the Prophet Mohammed during a dispute. Bibi is still alive in prison.

Also under threat for proposing to reform the law, parliamentarian Sherry Rehman. She’s been burned in effigy at Islamic rallies and denounced by conservative imams. The U.S.-educated Rehman, a former journalist and magazine editor, briefly served as information minister under former President Pervez Musharraf.

She was close to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who encouraged her to get into politics. She was injured when Bhutto’s motorcade was bombed by would-be assassins in October 2007. Rehman responded to the most recent threats by isolating herself for a time at her family’s well-guarded home in Karachi.

But she remains in Parliament and this week emerged from her isolation to take part in a U.S.-Islamic world forum in Washington. I spoke with her there.

Sherry Rehman, thank you for joining us.

What’s life been like for you these last three or four months, as these two other figures, voices of moderation, were assassinated?

SHERRY REHMAN, Pakistani Parliament Member: Oh, it’s been difficult, to say the least. It’s been dramatically different from the way we lived before in Pakistan. We campaigned openly, went amongst all crowds, like all politicians tend to.

But after these two assassinations, we have all had to kind of reel back and withdraw behind closed doors for a while, one, to take stock, and, two, to really figure out how we are going to approach this kind of changed security environment, at least for myself.

MARGARET WARNER: The interior minister told Parliament that he and you really were the next targets. Did you feel in the crosshairs?

SHERRY REHMAN: Yes, certainly, I felt that I was in the crosshairs of a much larger political game. This was not really about religion or extremism. This was about politics, which I felt that the religious right played very adroitly, and to tip the balance of political forces against a fairly noncontroversial, what could have been a fairly noncontroversial law.

MARGARET WARNER: You want to reform the anti-blasphemy laws. Why?

SHERRY REHMAN: See, the blasphemy laws have been used, or rather misused, to target innocent civilians, minorities, vulnerable Muslim communities, women for all sorts of alleged crimes and misdemeanors that have very little to do with religion, let alone, you know, suggesting anything against the prophet. Peace be upon him.

So, really, we had to consider amending the law, simply to remove something like a death penalty, which I argued not just for the secular constitution, but was not available even in the Koran for this particular offense.

MARGARET WARNER: President Zardari of your own party first supported amending these laws. In fact, he called for it. Then he pulled back. Why?

SHERRY REHMAN: What really triggered the retreat from a commitment to amend was the deliberate conflation of this law and the amendments to all kinds of political issues, such as anti-Americanism, such as all issues that radicalize the right today in Pakistan.

And this unfortunate and I feel very deliberate conflation led to a situation where the streets were roiling with two names, Shahbaz Bhatti and Sherry Rehman, you know, like lightning rods.

MARGARET WARNER: Bhatti having been assassinated.

SHERRY REHMAN: Yes, Bhatti now of course no longer with us.

MARGARET WARNER: Has the government, though, been appeasing the religious, the radical right?

SHERRY REHMAN: Appeasement has been traditionally in Pakistan the response by especially moderate governments to this kind of roiling on the streets, and a massing of numbers against progressive forces, against the progressive narrative.

But I think that there will have to be a regrouping and reconsideration and coming back to this whole issue, because it hasn’t gone away.

MARGARET WARNER: So, is there space for moderate voices in Pakistan today?

SHERRY REHMAN: Of course there is.

It may not seem like that, you know, from a vantage such as yours. We have a fair amount of moderates now speaking up. They saw this as a kind of tipping point, if you like, these two high-profile assassinations. And we see now a new generation of people, a much younger phalanx, if you like, organizing, almost on a daily basis, to work to declare to everybody that there is a moderate Pakistan and that most of us are — we may be the silent majority — I’m certainly not silent, but there’s a majority that’s silent — that votes out religious parties, that votes in progressive ones and stands up for what it believes in.

MARGARET WARNER: In what way are the forces of moderation fighting back?

SHERRY REHMAN: I live in a city called Karachi. It is the largest Pashtun city of the world now, not Kabul or Peshawar.

So we are affected, if you like, by proximity to Afghanistan, the war over there, the extremism and militancy that has come into Pakistan that we have seen over the last 15 years. And that very city is yielding up this whole new movement of young people.

They’re called Citizens for Democracy. There are many other groups, but there are over 80 groups that are involved. What they’re trying to do is approach the conservative middle class that has now emerged in Pakistan, and they’re finding that, once the voice of some — some rational voices are raised and a logical argument is made, people sign on.

MARGARET WARNER: Now you’re out and about. You’re here in the U.S. Do you feel safe?

SHERRY REHMAN: Well, I — safety is a state of mind, really. You have to be brave, but not foolish.

So, I have, obviously, radically altered the way I move about in Pakistan. The state is providing security. I do go out now and try to participate in events, be seen and heard. I don’t want to be silenced. I think that is exactly what they would have wanted.

MARGARET WARNER: So you’re going back?

SHERRY REHMAN: Of course I am. It’s my country. And my identity, everything flows from that.

MARGARET WARNER: Sherry Rehman, thank you so much.