THE assassination of the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, last week confirmed the grip that extremists now have in Pakistan. There is to be a trial, of course, but a confession leaves little room for doubt that the murder was a reaction to Mr Taseer’s criticism of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, used to convict non-Muslims on the slightest evidence. And if the motivation of the killer is in doubt, the reaction from many members of the public, gleeful at the murder, makes the situation clear. It is presumed that one provocation was Mr Taseer’s visit to Asia Bibi, the Christian woman awaiting execution for alleged remarks about Islam when confronting other villagers. The women had refused to accept an offer of water from her because of her faith. She denies the charge.
Mr Taseer did not conform to the conventional image of a martyr, formed by years of prayer and purification. Obituaries speak of a robust businessman, who enjoyed the cut and thrust of Pakistani politics, and regularly goaded the extremists, mocking them for their ignorance and narrowmindedness. But his death, in fact, mirrors the commonest kind of martyrdom: an opportunity taken to do the right thing, whatever the consequences. A pagan who masquerades as a Christian priest to help him escape from the Romans, a concentration-camp prisoner who steps forward in place of a fellow inmate — examples of this kind perpetuate the goodness of the act by inspiring and challenging those who hear of them. Few lives pass without opportunities to stand up for what is right, though the risks are seldom of the order that Mr Taseer faced. More frequent, though, are the occasions when it is necessary to support those brave enough to be the first to stand. Mr Taseer is dead not only because of the fanaticism of one extremist but also because too few people dared to stand alongside him.
By contrast, the reaction of many Muslims to the bombing of a Coptic church in Egypt brings a degree of encouragement. By attending Coptic Christmas services in such numbers, in Egypt and elsewhere, they ensured that no individual was exposed, and thus lessened the risk of this act of solidarity. Uncertainty, fear, and a desire to leave difficult actions to others are the great enemies. All that is needed to allow ignorance and hatred to thrive is for the righteous majority to do nothing.