The 4th of January marks the death anniversary of Salman Taseer, shot and killed by one of his guards as he exited a café in the heart of Islamabad. He was the Governor of Punjab, a stalwart of Pakistan People’s Party and a graduate of Cambridge University.
He was killed because he had chosen to speak out against the Blasphemy Law. His detractors claim he was killed for the right reason, his supporters believe he was the victim of a mindset that is extremist and intolerant. What is right will never be settled or agreed with unanimously. Even the courts are ambivalent; they have punished the man, Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, but no one dares to push for anything beyond that. Taseer’s shooter may be in jail but is a celebrity among those who believe he acted correctly and courageously.
The question is not whether he is guilty in the eyes of the law. The law is clear. The question is whether he is guilty in the eyes of God? The jury is out and it is in the millions. It never meets except in groups of like-minded. And then the decision is either very guilty or very innocent.
What has in my view never been debated is whether the commencement that led to the gory episode could have been better handled. That is the point of this piece.
Let us look at where it all started. Salman Taseer sat next to a woman, Aasia Bibi, condemned for blasphemy and spoke in her defense. However, it is what he said rather than the spirit in which he spoke that needs to be examined. Why was it that he was picked for ‘execution’ if you may, by the killer or by those who instigated the feeling inside the gunman, and not others who have been equally critical of the law?
Abstaining myself from the actual controversy or commenting on the vile consequences thereafter for Salman Taseer, not least because it is not the subject of this piece, I must state that it is such coarse choice of words from the educated that require attention.
Examining his words that day we come up with some that possibly went beyond the call of advocacy. In particular was when he referred to the Blasphemy Law as “the black law” as Newsline published on December 23, 2010 quoted him: “Even people who are deeply religious have spoken out against this black law.”
Having been educated at Cambridge he should have known what the connotation of the word “black” is when referring to day or law. Being a businessman, politician and holder of the office of Governor directed that he should have had his pulse on the level of illiteracy and the comprehension level of the uneducated. I pray for the soul of Salman Taseer and believe he did much good in his life, was a loving husband and father and a peaceful citizen of the country. But though he said much right in that interview he also erred appallingly.
“People in power have to be careful about what comes out of their mouth. They have to find exactly the right word that can’t be attacked”, says the playwright Anna Deavere Smith.
So while the late Salman Taseer may not have meant it that way it did come out to an extent that he was against there being a blasphemy law, which is intrinsic in Islam. While it is unfair to pluck out one word from among many he said that made sense, should not the educated be aware of the nuances of a word? The whole essence of education is to be able to pick and say the right word for the right occasion and to have a narrative that steers clear of any confusion or misinterpretation.
Sadly, we do not care for that attention to detail. And when it comes to bite us we choose to blame the listener or reader. That is not to be an apologist for the actions of the individual who reacts. But to have an understanding of his or her mistake nonetheless if there is one. I am talking of normal disagreements not an extreme one like that enacted by Mumtaz Qadri.
I say again that the objective of this piece is not to pass judgment on the happening of the day but to say that those among us who are educated and have read history and are familiar with the ramifications of misinterpretations must be at the vanguard of communication. We are quick to condemn acts by the illiterate, no matter how justifiable, yet we look not upon ourselves at what we say and more poignantly, how we say it.
That is not to say that educated people should be faultless; just that they have a greater responsibility to be correct especially when it comes to public speaking and principally when it comes to issues involving sensitivities of all kind especially religious.
I believe I am educated and entirely at fault on several occasions, especially in my writings where I have touched on a nerve at times with an abominable choice of words. So have thousands of others on an occasion or two who may in fact be scholars. Yet it is a case of diminishing errors the more we become cognizant of the fact that education thrusts upon us a responsibility towards guarding against the miscomprehension or angst of the illiterate. It is no less than that of a parent to the decent upbringing of their child. It is not just a responsibility. It is a moral duty.
And to build on Anna Smith, we the educated are more responsible for consequences than those who are not. In fact we are more accountable to society especially to the underprivileged that live in it.
But to return to the individual, we must be careful of the terms we use to speak our intentions and opinions no matter how well intended they are for others. It is a responsibility that is as intrinsic a part of education as string is to the woven fabric, without which our covering will fall apart; without which we will remain grossly naked while wearing the fur hat. As indeed we are.