Two responses to assassinations: cheers versus tears

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 12, 2011

At the beginning of this year, I’d planned on writing this week’s column on a Pakistani woman awaiting death under her country’s strict blasphemy laws. The past week’s assassination of a governor in Pakistan and the attempted assassination of a U.S. congresswoman have given new urgency to that story.

Awaiting execution is a Pakistani woman alleged to have badmouthed Islam, a grave crime in her overwhelmingly conservative Islamic country.

In 2009, Aasia Bibi, a Christian farm worker, brought water to the Muslim women with whom she was working. They refused it, saying she had contaminated it by touching it as a Christian.

A heated dispute broke out, and villagers accused her of blaspheming Mohammed and the Qur’an. The very police who should have protected her from the attacks of the other villagers instead arrested her. She was subsequently tried without evidence, found guilty and sentenced to death.

Human rights groups have strongly objected to Pakistan’s blasphemy law, arguing that it’s too often used prejudicially against that country’s religious minorities, especially the Christian, Hindu and Ahmadiyya Muslim minorities. (See my column on freedom of speech for Nov. 17, 2010.)

Pakistan’s president was urged to investigate Bibi’s case. His conclusion was to have her conviction thrown out, but the courts prevented him from doing so.

This was in spite of support on her behalf by a prominent liberal Pakistani politician opposed to the blasphemy laws – support which cost him his life.

Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab province, was assassinated last week by his own body guard, while other security force personnel stood by and did nothing to stop him.

The guard, far from being criticized for his action, was hailed a hero among many of Pakistan’s religious leaders and lawyers for his loyalty to the blasphemy law. In their minds, he represented the best of what it means to be a Pakistani Muslim, while his victim got what he deserved for opposing the law.

Many longtime critics of the blasphemy law stayed strangely silent, fearful perhaps of attacks against themselves.

Some, however, shed tears for the welfare of Bibi, her family, and others like her.

Meanwhile, an Arizona gunman attempted to assassinate U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords Saturday at a public gathering at which he wounded 13 others and killed six, including a federal judge.

Giffords, severely wounded with a bullet through her brain, had been targeted for some time by ultra-conservatives for her more liberal political views.

Nevertheless, when news of the shooting broke, American political leaders of all stripes grieved for her and the other victims and expressed horror over the actions of the assassin.

In a televised address Monday, President Barack Obama praised the “extraordinary courage” of those who overcame the gunman. Their actions speak of “the best of America,” he said.

I find the differing responses to the two acts of violence significant. In spite of their political differences, Americans are devastated by the shooting and proud of the bystanders who risked their lives to stop the shooter.

In Pakistan, the shooter is praised and his victim vilified – all over a complex interweaving of power politics and religious extremism.

By the way, about such religious extremism, I’m reminded of an episode of the TV series West Wing that ran soon after 9/11. In the context of a White House lockdown over a suspected terrorist intrusion, writer Aaron Sorkin points out that blaming all Islam for the actions of the Twin Towers terrorists would be like blaming all Christianity for the actions of the Ku Klux Klan.

Nevertheless, that extremism does exist out there, and lest she be forgotten in the midst of the political assassinations, I want to come personally to the defense of Aasia Bibi.

There are those religious leaders in Pakistan who have vowed to see Bibi dead, whether by the actions of the state or by some other means. At least one leader has even spoken of how her death will fill him with joy.

As a Christian, I understand that human beings are created in the image of God and are called to express that likeness through a lifestyle of justice and mercy. To act contrary to that lifestyle, for all intents and purposes, is itself an act of blasphemy.

After all, doesn’t Jesus teach that whoever abuses the least of His brothers and sisters is doing it unto Him?

In the unjust, merciless treatment of Aasia Bibi, then, I ask, who is committing the real blasphemy? And by our choice of cheers versus tears, what side are we supporting in this great evil?

© 2011 Warren Harbeck

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