Omar Waraich: A rare breed of politician who fought for tolerance

Click to follow
The Independent Online

"Who the hell are these illiterate maulvis to decide whether I'm a Muslim or not?" Salmaan Taseer asked me, a month before he was brutally assassinated outside his Islamabad home by his own bodyguard.

Taseer, the governor of Punjab, never shrank from speaking out. When Asia Bibi, the Christian woman accused of blasphemy, was sentenced to death, he was the first to visit her in prison and call for her release, earning fatwas against his life.

He was also an usual politician. The son of a poet, Taseer was a rare example of a self-made man who first succeeded in becoming one of the country's wealthiest businessmen and, later, one of its most high-profile politicians.

Having endured torture and solitary confinement under the military dictatorship of Gen Zia-ul-Haq in the grim 1980s for supporting Benazir Bhutto, he said he had decided that Pakistan could not afford to suffer under religious hardliners.

"You have to have zero tolerance when it comes to militancy," I recall him insisting time and again. He was constantly frustrated by the state's failure to prosecute those responsible. "When they went after the mafia in Italy," he said, "the prosecutor, the judge, and witnesses all wore a mask. You can't just wish them away."

It was hardly a popular position to uphold. When two Ahmadi mosques were attacked by terrorists last May, killing over 100 worshippers, he was savaged by the religious right and its supporters in the local media for expressing solidarity.

But the rights of minorities, he averred, were a part of Muhammad Ali Jinnah's vision for the state he founded in 1947. When a small Christian colony in the Punjabi town of Gojra was torched by the same extremists in 2009, he was among the first politicians to reach there. Surveying the charred remains of a one-room church, he reflected on the country's failure to protect its most vulnerable citizens. "If the kind of police that are here to protect me now were there to protect them," he told me, gesturing to the heavily armed guards that surrounded him, "then this tragedy wouldn't have happened."

Armed guards, as the subcontinent's people have brutally learnt, can be even more dangerous. But the real tragedy is for Pakistan's long-suffering minorities, who have lost their bravest champion.