ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - The murder of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, by one of his security guards sent shock waves through Pakistan and beyond. Murders are common here, but when a high government official is gunned down for ideological reasons, it dominates the news.
Mr. Taseer was an unabashed liberal who stood for religious moderation and tolerance. His unvarnished opinions about religious bigotry put him in the cross hairs of militants. When an opportunity presented itself, one of them pulled the trigger.
At the heart of the tragedy, but by no means limited to it, was a controversial blasphemy law that has been on the books in Pakistan since 1980. The law says that any person who insults the Prophet Mohammed or other prophets is subject to a death sentence. The prophets mentioned in the Bible also are covered under this law.
A poor Christian woman, Asia Bibi, is at the center of the storm. She allegedly made comments that were considered blasphemous by Muslim women in her village. She was accused, found guilty, and sentenced to death. The slain governor visited her in jail and later called the blasphemy law a "black law."
Ms. Bibi was not the first person to be sentenced under the blasphemy law, although she was the first Christian women sentenced. Non-Muslims as well as Muslims have been charged under the law.
Many of them were found innocent and released. But sometimes, religious vigilantes took the law into their own hands and killed those exonerated by the courts.
Most people in Pakistan, even some religious conservatives, think the law is too drastic and should be amended. A process was in place to amend it when Mr. Taseer was murdered. Since then, the political climate has changed drastically. There is no chance now that an amendment will be brought before Parliament.
The conduct of the ruling Pakistan People's Party has been interesting. While the leadership stands for liberal ideas, leaders backtracked on this issue and declared that they had no plans to amend the blasphemy law.
That put party stalwart and member of Parliament Sheri Rahman in a precarious position. She was supposed to introduce the bill to amend the law. Since party officials distanced themselves from the amendment, she has been singled out by religious leaders.
The blasphemy law is not the only questionable law on the books in Pakistan. The Hadood laws, also enacted during the military dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul-Haq, put the onus of proof on women in cases of rape. If a woman accuses a man of rape, she has to produce four witnesses to the act. If she can't, she is accused of having engaged in sex outside marriage and given jail time.
The intent of the law, which is based on the Qur'an, was to protect women accused of engaging in extramarital sex. But in a macabre judicial twist, the law that was supposed to protect and honor women has become a blunt weapon to punish them.
The Prophet Mohammed is perhaps one of the few religious leaders whose life history is well-documented. During his life, much verbal and physical abuse was heaped on him by his own tribe and the people of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. But he always forgave them and preached that forgiveness is better than revenge.
I wonder if the mobs in Pakistan who are celebrating the murder of Mr. Taseer know anything about the man whose honor they think they are protecting. The Prophet would be pained.
Pakistan is going through one of the most difficult times in its 64-year history. At the time of independence in 1947, most religious parties opposed the creation of Pakistan. But once the country came into being, they wanted to dictate how it ought to be run.
Today, religious parties do not control the vote. But they have street power and know how to mobilize the masses in the name of religion. They have closed ranks on this issue.
Mr. Taseer's murder is proof that self-righteous bigots can distort religion and use it for political gain. The fault lies not only with religious parties, but also with secular political parties that have not taken a unified stand against such aberrations.
Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org