Pakistan came into being in 1947. While the dream of an Islamic state of Pakistan was being realized, thousands were massacred on both sides, Hindu and Muslim, in the name of religion. Ironically a year after that Jinnah in an Australian radio broadcast said “Make no mistake: Pakistan is not a theocracy or anything like it.” This disconnect in the ideology, wherein a state created in the name of religion was striving to be a democratic republic, has been the cause of over thirty two years of Military rule in Pakistan. Starting from Ayub Khan, to Yahya Khan, to Zia-ul-Haq – military dictators, left to their own devices, played the hardliner Islamist card to distract the masses from the anxiety of living in an autocracy.

Zia-ul-Haq, the most silky smooth of military dictators, introduced a series of blasphemy laws in Pakistan in the 1980s to the horror of the minority. The new law laid out death for insulting the Prophet Mohammed{PBUH}, and barred the minority sect Ahmadiyas from behaving like Muslims, proclaiming themselves to be Muslims, and trying to convert Muslims. Over the years they have been the instruments of harassment and subsequent murders of many innocent civilians from minority communities on the hands of local landlords, intolerant clerics, and establishment. Sadly, these laws introduced by Zia-ul-Haq are still enforced in Pakistani society, but not without opposition from the intellectuals and liberals.

Ever since the blasphemy laws came into being veterans in socio-political life like Asma Jehangir, Hina Jilani and Julius Salik have been waging a war against the blasphemy laws, but could never garner any significant support – even from the liberals. Even in the protests from minority communities, notably Christians who make up most of the minority in Pakistan, calls for removing blasphemy laws remained concealed under the garbs of demands for protection from hardliners. As to why a fearful and marginalized minority would commit the insanity of insulting the Prophet {PBUH} is for anybody to guess!

After 9/11 the world witnessed a gradual shift in the mindset of Pakistani youth towards peace and democracy from radical Islam. A lot of credit goes to Parvez Musharraff’s efforts against radicalization, plus the growing realization that this sort of reflexive anti-Western paranoia was not serving anybody. Since then, a new crop of journalists, human rights activists, philosophers, students, and bloggers have provided much needed support to the struggle against Blasphemy laws.

Even with Aasia Bibi case, where a Christian woman Aasia was condemned to death following the allegations of defiling Prophet Mohammed’s name, and a subsequent appeal from the Pope and various human right groups within and outside Pakistan, the protest against blasphemy laws seldom came out of select print and online forums. The movement actually gained momentum, after Salman Taseer became its face.

Having an uncanny resemblance to Jack Nicholson, Taseer was one of the most charming and influential leaders of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party. He rose to power when he successfully built bridges between Mushrraff and Asif Ali Zardari, and later helped Zardari oust Mushrraff to become the new President of Pakistan. He was a very powerful man, but what made his support against blasphemy laws more interesting were his xenophobic inclinations. In the words of his own Indian born son Aatish Taseer, “He harbored feelings of hatred, for Jews, Americans or Hindus, that were founded in faith and only masked in political arguments.” Although, Salman Taseer maintained his anti-India ways, which in Pakistan is a political necessity, he was championing the rights of minorities. This however, was not going down too well with a lot of religious bigots –well-known and closeted.

Ever since Taseer voiced his opinion on blasphemy laws, that they were being misused to intimidate and terrorize minorities, a lot of personal vilification and threats came his way from the clerics, terrorists, clerics and terrorists like Azhar Masood, and even from self-proclaimed enlightened media personnel like Hamid Mir. A lot was said and printed about his “non-Islamic” ways of consuming alcohol – a trait Jinnah shared – and allowing his daughters to freely mingle with men in parties, mostly to reject his opinion on grounds of his lacking “Islamic morality”. The whole generation of extremists, originally raised to be used against India and with consent of Taseer, saw a new enemy in Taseer. On January 4, 2011 he was shot dead by his own security man Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri.

What came next can be described as the most powerful opposition religious-bigots ever faced from the liberals in Pakistan. Salman Tasser became the face of movement against the blasphemy laws, and the liberal activists gave him the title of “Shaheed” (translates to martyr in Urdu). The calls to “deny Taseer an Islamic funeral” were fiercely matched with chants of “Long live Shaheed Taseer”. Even established hardliner leaders like Maulna Fazalur Rehman had to come out and condemn his killing. This condemning of Taseer’s murder from known extremists becomes of great significance, as it also implies condemnation for killings due to difference in opinion. It is a progress for the country where law spells out death for blasphemy.

Sherry Rehman’s private member’s bill proposing amendments to the blasphemy law has long been presented in the National Aseembly, and it is going to take a while before blasphemy laws will be reduced to the history books where they belong. Nevertheless a tiny national movement for repealing the blasphemy laws has been gaining strength in Pakistan and it was first fueled by the blood of an alleged extremist Salman Taseer who was assassinated for not being extremist enough. The situation is so replete with irony that a dramatist would not dare to invent a scenario like this. A life-long fanatic, perpetually suspicious of the ‘other’, gunned down for not being hard-line enough. Of such unlikely clay is the chariot of change fashioned.