Salmaan Taseer in Kafka’s Pakistan

Published: January 4, 2012

How utterly absurd that there are calls for a ‘Mumtaz Qadri Day’ but none for a ‘Salman Taseer Day’. PHOTO: FILE

“One morning, upon awakening from agitated dreams, Gregor Samsa found himself, in his bed, transformed into a monstrous vermin.”

Thus begins Franz Kafka’s novella masterpiece Metamorphosis. The novel inhabits the familiar bizarre frame of Kafka’s work, of a world where the transformation of Gregor Samsa into a giant insect-like creature elicits hardly any surprise from Samsa’s family and associates, or indeed from Samsa himself. Samsa spends no time pondering his metamorphosis, why it may have occurred or how the process may be reversed. He busies himself instead with mundane concerns, and immediately upon his transformation spends an inordinate amount of time simply looking for a comfortable position to sleep in. For Kafka’s literary canvass was one where utter absurdity was a fact of life. Perhaps Kafka was a proto-Pakistani.

Consider this: today marks the first anniversary of the murder of Salmaan Taseer, Punjab’s former governor. Taseer was murdered for advocating reform of Pakistan’s repressive blasphemy laws and for championing the case of Aasia Bibi, a powerless peasant woman whom he believed had been wrongfully accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. Today, no plaque marks the spot where Taseer was martyred, no street bears his name, no public education campaign highlights the historic cause he gave his life for.

Taseer’s killer, his own former bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri, suffers no such anonymity. Declared a “Hero of the Muslim World” by some of the most prominent Islamic organisations in Pakistan, Qadri’s smiling, slightly deranged face beams down from innumerable billboards and posters in the Punjab, particularly in the shining city of Lahore.

“We salute the greatness of Mumtaz Qadri, the Ghazi (heroic warrior) of the Muslim Ummah” reads one such poster.

Qadri’s supporters in the Sunni Ittehad Council, a Barelvi group, intend to celebrate January 4 as ‘Mumtaz Qadri Day’.

Under the Court of Inquiry convened to examine anti-Ahmadi riots in Lahore in 1953, Pakistan’s mullah community famously disagreed even on the definition of a Muslim. But in Taseer’s case it finally found something it could agree on. Clerics almost unanimously refused to lead Taseer’s funeral prayers, and fatwa factories went into high gear prohibiting others from leading or even attending the funeral. Ultimately, the secretary general of the PPP’s ulema wing, Muhammad Afzal Chisti, led the prayers. For his trouble, Maulana Chisti received numerous death threats and has had to flee the country.

Qadri faced no such dearth of well-wishers. The self-appointed defenders of the faith were quick to leap to Qadri’s moral defense. And to the everlasting shame of the Punjab and Pakistani bars, hundreds of lawyers – those black-coats sworn to uphold the Rule of Law – garlanded Qadri, a confessed murderer, when he first appeared in court. The court received dozens of applications from lawyers clamoring to defend Qadri.

Many hoped that Taseer’s killing would become a rallying cry. Instead it has been a death-knell for efforts to reform blasphemy laws and for a kinder, more tolerant Pakistan. Another prominent supporter of reform, the former Minister for Minorities Affairs Clement Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated on March 2, 2011. The ruling PPP had already distanced itself from Taseer’s and Bhatti’s advocacy, claiming that they did not represent the government’s position. The government also further sidelined Shehrbano “Sherry” Rahman and her private members bill on reforming blasphemy laws. The government made its backtracking clear when its own Interior Minister Rehman Malik, with foot firmly planted in mouth, came out threatening to personally kill anyone who blasphemes. Through all this, an uncomfortable blanket of silence covers most Pakistani media when it comes to discussing Taseer.

But Qadri has no shortage of powerful supporters. His visage graces countless oversized banners at numerous rallies organized by Pakistan’s Islamist organizations in support of Qadri and blasphemy laws. Nor can one plausibly maintain any longer the fiction that these events are held by fringe groups full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The political flock at these rallies are not only the religious parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, but mainstream right-wing parties as well, including the former ruling PML-N and PML-Q, PML-Z, and even the PTI. The Tehreek-e-Insaf clearly thinks little of providing justice to Taseer or to the numerous victims of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws (its position on blasphemy laws is covered more fully elsewhere).

Qadri was sentenced to death by an anti-terrorism court on October 1, 2011. The sentence sparked nationwide protests. Even as his lawyers have launched an appeal to reduce the sentence, there have been emotional outbursts from bawling protesters and appeals to President Zardari to commute the death sentence. Meanwhile, Aasia Bibi has languished in prison for over two years as her case slowly winds through the appellate process. Regardless of what the court decides a question mark hangs over whether she will ever get out.

Aasia Bibi has to cook her own food in jail for fear of being poisoned, and one of her prison guards was recently suspended for trying to strangle her to death. Even if her death sentence is overturned or she does get released, the mullahs have offered, with complete impunity, a financial reward for her murder. On Valentines Day last year, supporters gathered outside Qadri’s high-security prison to deliver him flowers. Only assassins lurk outside the walls of Aasia Bibi’s prison cell. There are no weeping supporters in the streets for this poor peasant woman or for the hundreds of others wrongfully on death row in Pakistan’s jails on the basis of empty and vindictive accusations.

How utterly absurd that in Pakistan we can shed tears for a murderer, but have none to spare for a powerless peasant. How utterly absurd that there are calls for a ‘Mumtaz Qadri Day’ but none for a ‘Salman Taseer Day’, or better yet, for a ‘Compassionate Pakistan Day’. How utterly absurd that standing up for the powerless and advocating reforms to a law almost designed to facilitate abuse makes one a political pariah, often of the murdered kind. But proscribed terrorist organizations like Jamaatud-Dawa can openly praise freedom of speech in Pakistan and receive establishment support even as they publicly disavow any belief in nationalism and by extension, the legitimacy of the Pakistani state. How utterly absurd that a sovereignty obsessed people can condone the writ of the state being openly flaunted by any Tom, Dick and mullah.

But behind the curtain of absurdity, Kafka offers Pakistan another lesson. All the characters in Metamorphosis, including Gregor Samsa himself, largely ignore Samsa’s transformation into an insect and the attendant loss of his humanity. Samsa’s dilemma is captured when he considers removing all his human possessions from his room to allow himself more space to scurry about. Kafka asks, “Did he really want the warm room, so cozily appointed with heirlooms, transformed into a lair, where he might, of course, be able to creep, unimpeded, in any direction, though forgetting his human past swiftly and totally?” Ultimately Samsa gives up all his possessions, save for a solitary picture on the wall.

Perhaps all of Pakistanis are Gregor Samsa, utterly unattuned to the collective loss of its humanity. We are too easily convinced to give up our humanistic impulses and to ignore the lessons inherent in thousands of years of our history – our precious heirlooms – for the cold comforts of ideological and political conformity. It becomes easier to forget about Aasia Bibi and Taseer and Bhatti and countless other innocents than to struggle to make sense of our ugly societal transformations and how to reverse them. But if we continue to forget, will all that is left of our humanity be a remnant hanging on our walled-off conscience?

On the anniversary of Salmaan Taseer’s killing, will we have the courage to enter into an open national dialogue not just on blasphemy laws but on the sickness in our socio-political fabric where the metamorphosis of murderers into martyrs is condoned by the gatekeepers of the law and our major political parties? Will we step into Taseer’s and Bhatti’s tall shadows by raising the banner of minority rights? Will any political party demonstrate the will to move past empty rhetoric and bring real justice to Pakistan’s minorities and other powerless victims by proposing concrete reforms to the sections of the Pakistan Penal Code and the Constitution that deal with blasphemy and enshrine bigotry? Or like Gregor Samsa, will we continue to simply look for a comfortable position to sleep in?



Shibil Siddiqi

A Journalist and Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Global Power and Politics at Trent University. He tweets as @ShibilSiddiqi

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • saima bilwany

    The way the religious people celebrated and rejoiced at the brutal murder of salman taseer showed the real bigoted,hatefilled faces of these people.our religious people find happiness in the death of those who don’t agree with their views,they celebrate at violent acts.this shows the moral bankruptcy of the religious right wing in our society,all about following repititive religious rituals,rejoicing at the sight of blood and tears.Recommend

  • imran khan

    Hats off to the Taseer family,they’ve suffered so much at the hands of the religious terrorists.No one should have to go through the hell the Taseers have been made to go through by our ‘mazhabi tabka’. Recommend

  • asad

    and even this space will be flooded with anti-pakistan anti-humanity anti-islam rhetoric in a short while with qadri supporters. you are my hero salman taseer and in your death we find a conscience liberated.Recommend

  • Where Would I Go?

    I do not agree with all the outrageous happeninigs. Problem is I cann’t voice my disagreement. I fear for my life and livelihood. I do not feel that I have any legal protection that I can rely on. I can go about but I do not feel free. I can speak but I do not have a voice. To live the life that I want to ad to speak my mind, where would I go? It is certainly not in my country, because my country has been hijacked.Recommend

  • Dr.Muhammad zubair a.khan

    he is really a stupid murderer and will face hell.he murdered a man whose father give grave place for ghazi ilm din.this was bascically I think to make unrest in the country
    And was also to support punjab govt in presence of late salman taseer shaheed maulvi brothers were in trouble
    .i change my opinion on listening dr.tahirul qadri views about stupid mumtazRecommend

  • kamal changazi

    this perfectly describes the our social values tht we hold dear today, with tarnished social fabric how stupid we are to hope to b the world leaders….. 64 years from independence and quaid’s pakistan is far far far from reality …………..

    simply excellent piece of work.
    thumbs up shibil siddiqui …Recommend

  • kamal changazi

    simply excellent …Recommend

  • Parvez

    Excellent piece of writing. A lot is being written on this subject but upto now I have not seen any mention of the brave words of Bilawal Bhutto, in the media right after Salman Taseers killing nor any statement by him thereafter. An opportunity missed.Recommend

  • Asia

    Sheer brilliance. Though I’m afraid most of us are already In a deep sleep.Recommend

  • billo

    An excellent article wasted. Who reads Kafka in Pakistan anymore? Recommend

  •!/Pugnate Noman Ansari

    OK why do all the Paki dudes say “Hats off”? This isn’t the 1930s and people don’t wear hats any more. There are ways to pay compliments. Learn them. Recommend

  • saud

    @Where Would I Go?:
    Hijacked by our own countrymen. not by anything alien. hijacked by the mindset of no one but our own people. Sadly, this is who we are. This is what we have always been. All this is also a facet of our much praised ‘culture’ and ‘values’. About time we acknowledge it.Recommend

  • Sena

    Well written and well said. Recommend

  • Lord J

    in Pakistan, get shot by a bearded Mullah and become a hero instantly, even though u were a corrupt capitalist who spent his whole life exploiting peasants like Aasia BibiRecommend

  • Umair

    Well written and well presented being on one extreme. Good slandering of the other extreme.

    Hazrat Umer al Farooq killed a Muslim (hypocrite) on one such event where he refused to accept the verdict of Rasuul Allah Salallah o ALyhe Wasalam. Even refusal was taken as blasphemy by Farooq Al Azam.

    No one there to speak for Asia? I tell you Asia, if she comes out, NGO will serve her in dollars. Mumtaz was no landlord, he was also a poor but if he comes, no he would not at first place.Recommend

  • Ibrahim

    This country is full of greats like salman tasser but unfortunately they are much less than full of idiots like mumtaz qadri
    very sad Recommend

  • Saif

    @Lord J what is far worse is that in Pakistan you can be the bearded mullah who shoots someone and be the bigger hero.Recommend

  • Lord J

    @ Saif, you are right. Taseer and Qadri are heroes to different groups in PK but no one gives a damn about the Police Surgeon who testified against his fellow Police and FC personnel in Kharotabad case, who received life threats, beatings and eventually got killed last week.Recommend

  • Hedayat


    Sorry you were not born 1400 years ago and are living in the 21st century. Please let Pakistanis live in peace with each other. Recommend

  • AFK

    Well taseer may be a hero to some and qadri may be a hero to others, but what my point is that people who dont get tired of praising salman taseer ,do know whether that Asia bibi was really innocent or not???do they have any slightest idea what had really happened in that village when the whole blasphemy scene happened??i believe in this case its better not to comment anything fearlessly or favor anyone because what may seem right to us does not always mean it is RIGHT. We do not have any idea about what had happened, but as muslims we should neither applaud for salman taseer nor label qadri as a murderer.Recommend

  • Asad

    another liberal fascist article and other liberal fascist supporters commenting…ET is fast becoming the voice of the liberal fascists in Pakistan.Recommend

  • chaudhry

    @Asad : Wow. So condemning cold blooded murder, mutiny and vigilantism makes you a liberal fascist? Believing that a society should be able to have an open dialouge makes you a liberal fascist? Thinking that parliament represents the people and should be able to debate any issue freely makes you liberal fascist? Then count me in. Sounds like the definition of sanity in Pakistan. And sounds much better than being a deranged fascist like Qadri and his supporters seem to be. Recommend

  • NI

    There is absurdity and then there is Pakistan…. Given the current state of the country, I think we need new words coined to express the debase and desecrated state of “humans”.
    There is no humanity.
    When murderers are celebrated and justice ignored by those deemed it’s upholders, u lose words and hope. Then only Kafka will do!Recommend

  • Abdullah

    Thats why religion is a dangerous thing.Recommend

  • Katarina

    If a person kills someone he is a murderer, as simple as that. Even if Bibi was guilty for blasphemy (and is blasphemy really a crime?) it does not give anyone the right to murder people. Recommend