x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Shehrbano Taseer, her father murdered by an Islamic extremist, campaigns for tolerance

After Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, was gunned down by an extremist five months ago because he wanted to change blasphemy laws that impose the death sentence for insulting Islam, his daughter has become an outspoken advocate of tolerance

Shehrbano Taseer speaks at the Social Media Summit in Karachi last week. Like her late father, Salmaan Taseer, she uses Twitter to get messages out to the masses. Her handle on the micro-messaging site is shehrbanotaseer.
Shehrbano Taseer speaks at the Social Media Summit in Karachi last week. Like her late father, Salmaan Taseer, she uses Twitter to get messages out to the masses. Her handle on the micro-messaging site is shehrbanotaseer.

A day after her father was gunned down by an Islamist extremist, a grieving Shehrbano Taseer wrote on Twitter: "A light has gone out in our home today." It wasn't long before the 22-year-old realised something else: her father's death had lit a fire in her.

In the months since, the daughter of the late Punjab province governor Salmaan Taseer has emerged as one of Pakistan's most outspoken voices for tolerance. Through her writing and speaking, she warns any audience who will listen of the threat of Islamist extremism, and impatiently waits for her father's killer to be brought to justice.

And yes, sometimes she gets scared. She has received threats from militants, who have warned her to remember her father's fate.

"These extremists, they want to tell you how to think, how to feel, how to act," Ms Taseer says. "It has made me more resolute that these people should never win."

Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by one of his bodyguards on January 4 at a market in Islamabad. The confessed killer, Mumtaz Qadri, boasted that he had carried out the murder because the outspoken politician, a liberal in Pakistani terms, wanted to change blasphemy laws that impose the death sentence for insulting Islam.

To the horror of Taseer's supporters, many Pakistanis praised the assassin. Islamist lawyers showered Qadri with rose petals, and major Muslim groups, even ones considered moderate, said Taseer deserved to die because, in their view, speaking out against the blasphemy laws was tantamount to blasphemy.

Two months after Taseer's killing, gunmen killed Shahbaz Bhatti, the sole Christian minister in the government and another opponent of the blasphemy laws, which have often been used against Pakistan's Christian minority. Bhatti's killers left a note promising to target others who pushed to change the laws.

Shehrbano Taseer still has trouble remembering those first moments and days after her father's death - her brother telling her their father was gone, the rush of grief, the hundreds of people flooding the family home in Lahore. Mostly it's a blur.

"I'd never lost anyone in my life, not a friend or anyone," she says. "For everyone else it was the governor and their leader and this man, and it was this big, sexy story and it was so sensationalist. But for me, it was my father."

Ms Taseer majored in government and film at Smith College in the United States, and is by profession a journalist. She spends much of her time now writing columns and travelling in and beyond Pakistan to speak about Islamist extremism.

Salmaan Taseer, a father of seven, was blunt, a trait that attracted both enmity and grudging respect. On Twitter, he openly taunted and trashed extremists, once tweeting that he would never back down on the blasphemy issue, "even if I'm the last man standing."

His daughter, who tweets under the handle shehrbanotaseer, is more gentle but just as firm. Her more than 9,000 followers on Twitter often receive notes that criticise Pakistan's discriminatory laws, especially blasphemy claims that have reached the courts since her father's death.

When she singles out a politically marginalised community, either on Twitter or by other means, Ms Taseer recalls how well her father treated that group, how he was often the only public official to visit their homes after an attack or publicly speak on their behalf.

Once, Salmaan Taseer took his daughter along on a visit to meet Mukhtar Mai, a woman whose case attracted international attention because of allegations that she was gang-raped on the orders of a village council. The governor asked Ms Mai to put her hand on his daughter's head, so that Shehrbano Taseer could gain the same courage to stand up for her rights.

Like her father and Mr Bhatti, the Christian leader, Ms Taseer wants the blasphemy laws amended to prevent their misuse. The laws are vaguely written, and often used to persecute minorities or settle rivalries, rights activists say. The state has not executed anyone under the law, but the accused may spend years in custody. Some defendants have been killed by extremists after being freed by the courts.

Ms Taseer has found that many Muslims are extremely sensitive about blasphemy. She recalls giving a speech in England when a woman in the audience suggested that her father deserved what he got because he was so blunt about the topic.

"I said, 'I don't care what he said, and I don't care how he said it. He didn't deserve to be shot and killed for it,"' Ms Taseer says.

She is dismayed at the toll extremism is taking on Pakistan by spawning violence and intolerance. She is also disappointed at how few Pakistani leaders are willing to take a public stand against extremism or how many find some reason to excuse it.

She bemoans how for decades moderate or liberal leaders in Pakistan have appeased the religious right for short-lived political gains, whether it was by banning alcohol and nightclubs or by passing laws that discriminate against certain religious sects.

Unlike many Pakistani politicians, she is willing to criticise the role Saudi Arabia has played in funding hardline Islamist schools in Pakistan. And she is quick to note that the United States likewise says little about it.

Pakistan has a tradition of dynastic politics. The most famous political family has been that of the Bhuttos, which produced the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, also assassinated by Islamist extremists. Salmaan Taseer was a member of the Bhutto-led Pakistan People's Party.

Shehrbano Taseer says she views Pakistan as an enticing challenge like a Rubik's Cube because of its many, convoluted problems. But she says she has no plans to run for office. "It's such a dirty profession," she says, laughing.

Ms Taseer wants her father's assassin to spend his life in prison, in solitary confinement. A death sentence is "too easy", but a conviction would send a warning to other would-be assassins, she says.

"In Pakistan, we have very few brave and honest leaders," she says. "We need our heroes alive."