PAKISTAN’S FEDERAL minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was shot dead on 2 March morning in Islamabad. This news was not just shocking but mind-numbing. Bhatti’s murder is also a rap on the knuckles of all those who had chosen to stay silent or were indifferent at the brutal assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer just two months ago. On 4 January, we lost Taseer at the hands of a religious extremist. The reaction to his murder was as appalling as the murder itself. Many people celebrated Taseer’s murder; lawyers showered his murderer with rose petals; rallies were taken out by the religious right to warn every liberal, secular and progressive Pakistani who dared to speak up for the rights of minorities and asked for the amendment or repeal of the controversial blasphemy laws.
Taseer and Bhatti raised the issue of the misuse of blasphemy laws. It was in response to this that both men were killed in broad daylight by religious zealots. When Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, was sentenced to death on a blasphemy charge by a lower court in Punjab, both Taseer and Bhatti campaigned against the misuse. According to reports, Bibi was falsely accused by some women after she got into a fight with them when they refused to drink water she brought because she was a Christian.
The blasphemy laws were introduced in the subcontinent by the British in 1860 in order to protect religious sentiments. Pakistan adopted the same laws after Partition but General Zia-ul-Haq, the religious fascist that he was, amended them and made death penalty mandatory for anyone disrespectful towards Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). It is interesting to note that the number of blasphemy cases rose dramatically once the death penalty was introduced. Most of the blasphemy cases are based on personal feuds, property disputes, rivalry, etc. In many cases, those accused of blasphemy have lost their lives at the hands of vigilante mobs and extremists before or during a trial. Human rights organisations and Pakistan’s civil society have long been asking for a repeal or amendment of these flawed laws but to no effect. No government — military or civilian — has been able to bring about a change because of threats from the religious right.
The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan has claimed responsibility for Bhatti’s assassination. According to the group’s spokesperson, “This man (Bhatti) was a known blasphemer of the Prophet (PBUH). We will continue to target all those who speak against the law that punishes those who insult the Prophet (PBUH). Their fate will be the same.” Pamphlets left at the crime scene were signed by the Taliban al Qaeda Punjab. The pamphlets said that anyone who is disrespectful to the Prophet (PBUH) is worthy of death. “We swear upon Allah, either you will survive or us… The mujahideen will kill you one by one,” the pamphlets said. This is a message for all those who have so much as raised a voice against the blasphemy laws.
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has lost two of its most vocal members at the hands of religious extremists because of the blasphemy issue within two months. High-profile political assassinations are not unheard of in South Asia, especially in Pakistan. From our first PM Liaquat Ali Khan to former PM Benazir Bhutto, Pakistani politicians have lost their lives under mysterious circumstances. But the recent months have seen political murders in a religious context. Taseer was falsely accused by the religious right for blaspheming just because he advocated that neither Muslims nor minorities should be unjustly targeted under the blasphemy laws. Bhatti also vowed to protect citizens from such injustice. “I was told that if I was to continue the campaign against the blasphemy law, I will be assassinated,” he had said. “I will be beheaded. But forces of violence, forces of extremism cannot harass me, cannot threaten me.” Unfortunately, the forces of extremism succeeded in silencing Bhatti. It is a grim reminder of the level of violence and intolerance in Pakistani society.
Bhatti’s death is a grim reminder of the level of violence and intolerance in Pakistani society
THE DEBATE on blasphemy laws died a silent death after Taseer’s assassination. The PPP acquiesced to the demands of the religious right and assured them that no changes will be made in the statute books and these laws will remain as they are. This was a mistake. Had the PPP taken a clear stand on the issue instead of remaining vague, things could have been much different. The PPP isolated Taseer. He was left to fend for himself in the face of threats and fatwas. He was declared a blasphemer and wajib-ul-qatl (worthy of murder). His innocent blood was shed for a cause that was dear to many but not all of them had the courage to speak as boldly as he did in public. Bhatti met the same fate because our State tried to appease the extremists instead of taking them head-on. The onus of their deaths is on all political parties, especially the PML-N that has given state patronage to banned militant outfits. And it is not just the political class that should be blamed, our State and society as a whole is equally responsible.
For the past four decades, Pakistan has nurtured religious extremists for its own vested interest. From maintaining a ‘strategic depth’ (read death) in Afghanistan to the Kashmir jihad, Pakistan’s military establishment has given both financial as well as logistical support to terrorist networks. These militant outfits have always been dubbed as our ‘assets’ when in reality they have proved to be anything but. Sectarian outfits like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have killed thousands of Shias in Pakistan. The Ahmadis, a minority sect that was declared non-Muslim by Pakistan in 1974, have been persecuted at the hands of all militant outfits. Last May, two Ahmadi mosques were attacked by terrorists in Lahore. The perpetrators are still roaming free. Shia processions are regularly targeted by militants. Sufi shrines and mosques have been attacked in recent years, yet the religious parties don’t condemn such attacks. A ubiquitous ‘foreign hand’ is mostly blamed for such attacks.
It is high time the Pakistan nation and State stop living in denial and admit that the enemies are as much Pakistani as us. We are the ones who harboured this Frankenstein’s monster and now we are reaping what we sowed. I am reminded of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s great words after each terrorist attack:
First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Our silence is criminal because one day, there will be no one left to speak out for you or I if we continue to remain silent. Our future generations need us to speak out for tolerance, pluralism, secularism. If we do not speak out now, we will leave behind a cruel legacy, a country where it is okay to kill someone just because you do not agree with his/her opinion. Let’s not cave in to the religious zealots because that is exactly what they want to achieve. Let’s speak up and not go without a fight. Pakistan needs sane voices. We cannot let anyone mute us, come life or death.