Liberals under siege as fundamentalists rally to back blasphemy law

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The Independent Online

Twenty thousand supporters of fundamentalist parties have rallied in the streets of Karachi in support of Pakistan's blasphemy laws as they escalated threats against liberal politicians who, like Salmaan Taseer, the slain governor of Punjab, want to see them amended.

The biggest muscle-flexing display by the religious right for years in Pakistan's largest city come as the government repeatedly insists it will not be pursuing any change of the controversial blasphemy laws.

"We have said we will not be touching this law," a senior government official said. "We don't have the resolve to do it now in this charged atmosphere, so why are these mullahs still on the streets?" The demonstration comes amid an opening up of dangerous divisions in Pakistan, where an aggressive religious right has moved mainstream, pushing liberals into a fearful minority.

The protesters shouted slogans against Sherry Rehman, a liberal parliamentarian from the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), who had submitted a bill to amend the blasphemy law to ensure that it was no longer invoked to persecute beleaguered minorities.

"The position is that we will not allow the misuse of the blasphemy law against the minorities and vulnerable sections of society," said spokesman Farhatullah Babar. "But we have to look at the timing. In this charged atmosphere, it is not possible to review these laws."

On Friday, the imam of the largest mosque in Karachi declared Ms Rehman an "infidel" who was "worthy of being killed". On the same night, trucks mounted with megaphones toured a nearby neighbourhood, inciting violence against her.

Speaking from her home in Karachi, where she has been under siege since Mr Taseer's slaying on Tuesday, Ms Rehman said she was not about to get "unnerved" by the threats. She told The Independent: "The situation is very hairy. I am being careful. There's no reason to be foolish, but I am not going to be silenced by intimidation."

Ms Rehman said she was not charting an extreme course. "The bill was not asking for a repeal," she added. "It was a middle course, calling for procedural changes in the law for which there was broad support from across the political spectrum." But that support, she said, was not there right now "at an institutional level".

At the demonstrations, the face of Mr Taseer's assassin, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, was prominent on placards held by supporters.

The Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, has urged Ms Rehman to leave the country for her own safety, something she is not willing to do. "I am not going to be hounded out of the country," she said. "They have arranged for a security cordon around my house and told me not to leave it indefinitely."

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