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Death in Punjab

14 September 2012

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WHY would a businessman in Pakistan enter politics? So that he has to bribe only himself. The joke would have sounded glib, coming from Salman Taseer - a self-made millionaire who became governor of Punjab, and was well known for his ruthless business practices. Until, that is, Taseer made a stand that cost him his life and, in the eyes of most liberal-thinking Westerners, gained him a kind of redemption.

Saturday Drama: Blasphemy and the Governor of Punjab (Radio 4) was one of the finest docu-dramas I have heard for some time: level-headed and yet bristling with righteous anger, methodical and yet highly dramatic. Presented by Owen Bennett-Jones, it told the story of Taseer's campaign to reform the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, in response to the sentencing to death of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of insulting the Prophet; a campaign that culminated in Taseer's murder last year.

The story could have been told as a straight documentary - many interviewees were available to give their accounts, including Taseer's widow Aamner. On the other hand, we were never going to hear the real voices of those government members who failed to support Taseer; nor would we get the full impact of Taseer's urbane wit and clubbable personality, which must have played well in some quarters, but poorly in others.

Perhaps the dramatic element of the story released the writers from the bind of being even-handed; for this was a story told by Taseer's supporters, even if they were not wholehearted admirers. It is difficult, however, to conceive of an account of this shameful episode in Pakistani politics that could balance the sense we got of a system riven by hypocrisy and bigotry.

The greatest villain in all of this was not the man who killed Taseer - the security guard Mumtaz Qadri - but the broadcaster Meher Bukhari, whose interview with Taseer on prime-time television did much to encourage mainstream Pakistanis to turn on him. Portrayed as a former liberal figure who was now attempting to curry favour with Islamic hardliners, Bukhari had her most ignoble hour after Taseer's death, when she invited viewers to phone in about whether Qadri should be seen as a hero. Many Pakistanis echoed the sentiment: a Facebook fan-page for Qadri received thousands of supporters, and a statement by the Minister of the Interior suggested that the killing of a blasphemer was the duty of a good Muslim.

This is an ugly story, and one that is far from over. Aasia Bibi remains in prison, as does Qadri. Both await execution.

All of this is depressing grist to the mill of Richard Dawkins and his campaign against religious belief. Fortunately, The Life Scientific (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) focused more on his career as scientist than polemicist; for he is as eloquent and inspiring as ever when talking about the very small. It is when he talks about the very big that things go wrong: he sounds more like a self-deluded campaigner for a fringe party, delighted by the letters from supporters telling him that he has changed their lives.

A fellow scientist, Robert Trivers, summed him up with witty condescension: "A minor prophet sent from God to torture the credulous and weak-minded - for which he has a natural gift."

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