Posts Tagged ‘ Shahbaz Bhatti ’

Is Pakistan’s Hard Line on Blasphemy Softening?

By William Dalrymple for The Guardian

It is rare these days to read any good news coming out of Pakistan. It is rarer still to read good news concerning matters of religion. However, in one week two stories seem to show that Pakistan is for once bringing the force of law to bear on those who abuse religion to provoke violence against minorities.

Last Sunday Mohammed Khalid Chisti, the mullah who had accused a 14-year-old Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, of blasphemy, was himself arrested and charged with the same law. The turnaround took place after the muezzin of his mosque gave evidence that he had framed the girl and falsified evidence. More remarkable still, the far-from- moderate All Pakistan Ulema Council came to Rimsha’s defence, calling her “a daughter of the nation” and denouncing Chisthi: “Our heads are bowed with shame for what he did.”

On Tuesday an even more unexpected event took place. Malik Ishaq, the leader of the banned Sunni terrorist group Lashkar–e-Jhangvi, which is accused of killing hundreds of Shias, was arrested on his return from a fund-raising trip to Saudi Arabia. Lashkar operates quite openly in Lahore despite being officially banned; yet on this occasion Ishaq was immediately brought to court. There he was accused of involvement in more than 40 cases in which 70 people have been killed. He now resides in Kot Lakhpat jail on 14-day judicial remand.

When Pakistan was created in 1947 as a homeland for Indian Muslims, its clean-shaven, tweed-jacketed, spats-wearing and pork-eating founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, made sure the constitution of his new country provided the right for all its citizens to profess, practise and propagate their religion: “You may belong to any religion, caste or creed,” he said in his first address to the constituent assembly of Pakistan on August 11 1947. “That has nothing to do with the business of the state. In due course of time Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims will cease to be Muslims – not in a religious sense, for that is the personal faith of an individual – but in the political sense as citizens of one state.”

It was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who started the rot. In 1974 he bowed to pressure from the religious right and had the country’s small Ahmedi minority declared non-Muslim. The situation became worse still in the 1980s with the military coup of General Zia. Zia was responsible for initiating the fatal alliance between the conservative military and the equally reactionary mullahs that led to the use of Islamic radicals as part of state policy. At the same time Zia started tinkering with the law. He introduced the Islamic punishment of amputation for theft, and established the Hudood ordinances of sharia law, which asserted that the evidence of one man was equal to that of two women, and made any sex outside marriage a punishable offence for women. Rape was to be punished with the public flogging of the female victim as well as the perpetrator.

Between 1982 and 1986 Zia introduced radical changes to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws – the notorious sections 295 B and C of the penal code – prescribing life imprisonment for anyone who defiles a copy of the Qur’an and death for insulting or criticising the prophet Muhammad. Because there is no strict definition of blasphemy, and virtually no evidence above the word of the accuser is needed to bring a guilty verdict, the laws have often been exploited by individuals with grudges against innocent non-Muslims. In 1988 Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad publicly committed suicide to protest against the laws; and although no one has yet been executed under the statutes, an estimated 1,200 to 4,000 blasphemy cases have been filed. The number of cases has multiplied in recent years, and the result is often prison sentences of three years or more.

Christians are widely derided in Pakistan; most are descended from “untouchable” converts who still perform the most menial tasks: cleaning the sewers and sweeping the streets. There has been a steady stream of attacks on the community, most bloodily in the murder of 16 Christians at a church in Bahawalpur in 2001. But it is not just Christians who have suffered. Hysteria about blasphemy has also been used to target Hindus, Sikhs, Ahmadis and Shias. In addition to formal convictions, there were at least 34 extrajudicial killings of people accused of blasphemy between 1990 and 2010. Of those, 15 were Muslim, 16 Christians, two Ahmadis and a Hindu. Indeed it is the Shias, not the Christians, who have suffered the brunt of the violence meted out by Lashkar–e-Jhangvi.

The high-water mark for religious intolerance in Pakistan was reached last year when the former governor of the Punjab, Salman Taseer, and the only Christian minister in the government, Shahbaz Bhatti, were both shot dead for suggesting that the blasphemy laws should be reviewed. Last week’s turnaround seems to represent a dawning realisation that things had gone too far – that a descent into mob violence was imminent. “There has been some genuine remorse on the right,” Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir told me. “They realised a line had been crossed.”

This is certainly good news, but it is only a beginning. Rishma remains in custody and Malik Ishaq has yet to be convicted. “I am not optimistic that the laws will be repealed,” says Jahangir. “In fact, you cannot even discuss it.” While politicians such as Imran Khan have bravely called Rishma’s arrest “shameful … against the very spirit of Islam”, neither he nor any other major political figure has called for an outright repeal of the blasphemy laws. Nor, given the fate of Salman Taseer, are they likely to any time soon.

And as long as the laws remain on the statute books, cases like these will continue to occur, and major injustices will continue to be perpetrated on all of Pakistan’s religious minorities.

Pakistan Minister ‘Hopeful’ For Blasphemy Girl Bail

As Reported by The Associated Press

A Pakistani cabinet minister says he is “very hopeful” a young Christian girl accused of blasphemy will be released on bail later this week after spending more than three weeks in custody.

Rimsha Masih is currently on remand in the high-security Adiyala jail in Islamabad’s twin city Rawalpindi after being arrested on August 16 for allegedly burning pages containing verses from the Koran.

She is “uneducated” and has a mental age of less than 14, according to a medical report, and her case has prompted international concern and anger from rights campaigners.

Proceedings to free Rimsha on bail have been repeatedly postponed, most recently on Monday when Judge Muhammad Azam Khan again adjourned the matter after the lawyer for her accuser asked for a stay to show solidarity with a provincial lawyers’ strike.

Paul Bhatti, the Minister for National Harmony told AFP in an interview on Monday he was optimistic the youngster would be released at the next hearing, on Friday.

“Unfortunately there was strike of the lawyers and that was a technical problem and it was not possible to proceed (with) the hearing,” he said.
“On the 7th we are very hopeful that she would be released.”

The case took an unexpected twist on Saturday when the imam who first gave police evidence against Rimsha was accused by his deputy of adding pages from the Koran to the burnt papers taken from Rimsha.

Activists say legislation is often abused to settle personal vendettas, and even unproven allegations can prompt a violent public response.
But it is rare to see anyone investigated for making a false allegation or interfering with evidence of blasphemy and Bhatti said it could be an important turning point.

“The disclosure about the tampering with the evidence will discourage future accusers to misuse this law,” Bhatti said.
Bhatti is Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet minister. His brother and predecessor Shahbaz was gunned down last year for speaking out against the blasphemy law.

Pakistan Should Abolish Overly-Abused Blasphemy Laws

By Arsalan Iftikhar for The Washington Post

My grandfather was one of the most well-known literary figures in Pakistan’s history and once famously told me that, “Anger is the most extravagant luxury in the world.” I am always reminded of my beloved grandfather’s poignant sentiment whenever I read stories about death sentences being meted out in accordance with Pakistan’s blasphemy laws; with the most recent example being the case of an 11-year-old Christian girl in Pakistan who is facing blasphemy charges for allegedly burning pages of the Koran in rural Pakistan.

The child was arrested last week in a Christian area of the capital Islamabad, after a crowd of people demanded that she be punished for allegedly desecrating pages of the Muslim holy book. According to BBC News, it is not clear whether she burned pages of the Koran or was just found to be carrying them in her bag. Additionally, the BBC reported that doctors in Pakistan have examined this young Christian to further determine her mental capacity (some unconfirmed reports stated that she has Down’s Syndrome), with the results due to be presented in a Pakistani court in the coming days.

Pakistan’s Minister for National Harmony, Paul Bhatti, has said she is innocent of the charges and should be released. Shortly after her arrest, Bhatti told BBC News that, “The police were initially reluctant to arrest her, but they came under a lot of pressure from a very large crowd who were threatening to burn down Christian homes.”

As an international human rights lawyer, it is my personal belief that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are one of the most obvious obstacles preventing the nation of Pakistan from protecting its religious minorities (including members of the Christian, Hindu and Ahmadiyya communities). According to Pakistan’s penal code, here are the primary sections dealing with blasphemy charges and their potential criminal punishments:

“Whoever will fully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Koran or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable for imprisonment for life. Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

In recent times, these controversial blasphemy laws in Pakistan have created major international headlines and generated debate across the globe. In November 2010, a Pakistani Christian female laborer named Asia Bibi was sentenced to death after a fellow worker accused her of insulting Islam. Her sentence is under appeal, and Bibi is still in jail. Only a few months after Bibi’s death sentence, provincial Gov. Salman Taseer and Federal Minister Shahbaz Bhatti – both prominent Pakistani politicians – were assassinated in cold blood after public calls to amend the blasphemy laws.

CNN also further reported that militants attacked two mosques in May 2010 and killed more than 90 worshipers of the Ahmadiya sect, a minority Muslim group often “viewed as heretics and blasphemers by hardline Sunnis” in Pakistan.

As a proud and practicing Muslim, I have written previously on “blasphemy” issues insulting Islam around the world and how modern Muslim societies should respond to such controversies. Most Muslims are aware of a well-known Islamic parable which tells the story of the prophet Muhammad and his daily interactions with an unruly female neighbor who used to curse him violently and then proceed to dump garbage onto him every day from her perch-top window each time he would ever walk by her house.

One day, prophet Muhammad noticed that the woman was not present to throw garbage outside of her window. In an act of true prophetic kindness, he actually went out of his way to inquire about her well-being and then proceeded to visit his hostile neighbor at her bedside inside of her own home when had found out that she had fallen sick.

This genteel act of prophetic kindness toward unfriendly (and overtly hostile) neighbors is the truly Muslim and Islamic standard that we should all use within our collective lives, not threats of violence and/or death sentences which disparately impact religious minorities in Muslim-majority nations. After all, if our prophet Muhammad treated those who cursed him with kindness, shouldn’t other Muslims do exactly the same?

Thus, although Pakistan has a very long way to go in terms of protecting religious minorities within their national borders, it can take a giant step in the right direction by abolishing its overly-abused blasphemy laws and show compassion to people of other religions, something that Islam’s prophet taught us over 1,400 years ago.

Arsalan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer, founder of TheMuslimGuy.com and author of “Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era.”

Pakistan, Islam & Radicalism

By Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi for The Huffington Post

I was in Kasur, a small town near Lahore, Pakistan, where the celebrated mystic poet Bulleh Shah is buried. Thousands gathered for the 254th anniversary of his death. Slogans chanted on that occasion would be branded ‘blasphemous’ by extremist organisations in Pakistan.

Neither Hindu nor Muslim,
Sacrificing pride, let us sit together.
Neither Sunni nor Shia,
Let us walk the road of peace.

Bulleh Shah penned these verses challenging religious extremism and orthodoxy that plagued Muslim society hundreds of years ago. He was exiled from his home town and, history has it, he was denied a burial in Muslim cemetery. His advice has clearly gone unheeded as my country is still yet to find peace. Not even the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah has been spared being labelled ‘the great infidel’.

Incidentally, the same ilk of religio-political parties who now manipulate public discourse were at the forefront of using religious narrative for political point scoring before Pakistan came into being.

4 January 2011 is a day I cannot forget. Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Pakistan’s biggest province Punjab, was gunned down by his bodyguard. He was killed for supporting a Christian woman accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. He was shot twenty six times.

For the entire week after the killing, I was scared. I don’t remember being in that state of mind since Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. It’s not a very heartening sight to see fellow ‘educated’ countrymen glorifying a murderer and justifying his actions based on ignorant rhetoric. Scores of fan pages popped up on Facebook, many of my friends changed their profile pictures to one of the killer, Mumtaz Qadri, exalting a murderer as hero.

Very few turned out to pay homage to the slain governor in days to come, as ‘liberals’ arranged vigils in his remembrance. Yet thousands poured on to the streets to defend Mumtaz Qadri, his assassin. The media, which has been a primary tool in fanning conspiracy theories in public, had again played a pivotal role in enticing ‘religious’ emotions on this issue.

The killer of Salman Taseer had confessed proudly. The brave judge who sentenced him to death has gone into hiding and will not be re-appearing anytime soon.

7 March 2011. The start of another week of gloom and, if I’m honest, I was ashamed to be a Pakistani. We had arranged a protest to condemn the killing of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Federal Minister for Minorities who was brutally assassinated on 2 March. He was an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the only Christian in the cabinet. Only a few youngsters turned up.

When it comes to numbers, we can gather thousands but the ’cause’ has to be against India, Israel or America. Not many will show up if the demonstration is against radical organisations, or asking for introspection within.

Many who rallied for Gaza in early 2009 were not seen in protests condemning Taliban atrocities in Swat at the same time. Many who burnt down shops in anger at the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad never stood up for Parachinar, a small town near the border of Afghanistan where thousands have been killed in sectarian violence between Sunni’s and Shia’s.

9 October 2011. I was stuck on the Islamabad Highway, the main road that connects Islamabad with Rawalpindi as it was blocked by flash mobs protesting for the release of Mumtaz Qadri.

Two decades and 40,000 deaths later which includes top politicians, generals and clerics – not many things have changed when it comes to checking radicalism within Islam.

Many attacks on places of worship of minority sects within Islam, recurring violent brawls between followers of different schools of thought, reaction to the murder of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, recent acts of violence in Baluchistan and the tale of Parachinar are chapters in recent history which expose the extent of radicalisation in Pakistani society.

Soon, we as citizens of a country founded because a minority felt discriminated against and followers of the great religion of Islam, need to face up to the challenge of the radical minded and their extremist ideology.

This is a war of ideologies and is inevitably a war that must be fought with opinions and ideas; it must encourage discourse and exchange of reason. It is a war that must form the basic pillar of a new and improved national paradigm for Pakistan

We as a society cannot ignore an emerging threat from radicalism within our ranks, because if it gets too late, there might be no ‘music’ left to face.

Slain Pakistani’s Daughter Takes Up His Cause

By Nahal Toosi for The Associated Press

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 realized something else: Her father’s death had lit a fire in her.

In the months since, the daughter of the late Punjab province Gov. 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’s received threats from militants, who’ve warned her to remember her father’s fate.

“These extremists, they want to tell you how to think, how to feel, how to act,” says Taseer, a slim, elegant young woman with intense brown eyes. “It has made me more resolute that these people should never win.”

Salmaan Taseer was assassinated on Jan. 4 at a market in Islamabad by one of his own bodyguards. The confessed killer, Mumtaz Qadri, boasted that he’d carried out the slaying 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 relatively moderate, said Taseer deserved to die because, in their view, speaking out against the blasphemy laws was tantamount to blasphemy itself.

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 her family’s home in the eastern city of 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.”

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

Salmaan Taseer, a father of seven, was not afraid to be blunt — a trait that attracted both enmity and grudging respect. On Twitter, Salmaan Taseer openly taunted and trashed extremists, once tweeting that he’d 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 criticize Pakistan’s discriminatory laws, especially blasphemy claims that have reached the courts since her father’s death.

When she singles out a politically marginalized community, either on Twitter or her other outreach, 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 Pakistani woman whose case attracted international attention because of allegations that she was gang-raped on the orders of a village council. The governor asked 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 Bhatti, the Christian leader, 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.

But Taseer has found that many Muslims, even moderate, liberal ones, 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,'” Taseer says.

She’s dismayed at the toll extremism is taking on Pakistan by spawning violence or an intolerant mindset. She’s 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 passing laws that discriminate against certain religious sects.

Unlike many Pakistani politicians, she’s willing to criticize the role Saudi Arabia has played in funding numerous hardline Islamist schools in Pakistan. And she’s quick to note that the United States as well as Pakistan says little about it — after all, it needs Saudi Arabia’s oil.

Pakistan has a tradition of dynastic politics. The most famous political family has been that of the Bhuttos, which spawned 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 akin to 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.

Sherry Rehman, a People’s Party lawmaker who also has been threatened for speaking out against the blasphemy laws, says Shehrbano Taseer will “chart her own future.”

“She’s found a torch to carry, and she will do it,” Rehman says. “It’s what her father would have wanted.”

Taseer is frustrated with the Pakistani justice system’s delays in processing the case of Qadri, her father’s confessed killer.

Pakistan’s courts have very low conviction rates, even in terrorism cases. Qadri’s confession may not be enough to persuade a court to punish him, considering the threats facing any judge who dares pass such a judgment.

Taseer wants the former bodyguard to spend his life in prison, in solitary confinement. A death sentence is “too easy,” and 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.”

Pakistan’s Secular Martyrs

By Beena Sarwar for The News International

The murder of professor Saba Dashtiyari in Quetta last week, coming on the heels of the killing of investigative journalist Saleem Shahzad, is yet another sign of an ongoing ‘genocide’ of progressive Pakistani intellectuals and activists. ‘Genocide’ generally means the deliberate destruction of an ethnic group or tribe. In this context, it applies to the tribe of Pakistanis who have publically proclaimed or implicitly practiced the enlightenment agenda of freedom of conscience. They may have very different, even opposing, political views but they are people who are engaged knowingly or unknowingly in spreading ‘enlightenment’ values. Perceived to be out to undermine or eliminate members of this tribe are sections of state long engaged in establishing Pakistan’s “Islamic” identity and determining the “national interest”. They decide who is a patriot or a Muslim. Most of those killed in mysterious circumstances over the years were critics of this sate of affairs.

Let’s list some of them (a complete list is not possible here), starting with the former governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer, murdered by an official bodyguard. Contrary to standard operating procedures, the other guards did not open fire on the assailant – who had been assigned to this duty despite his “extremist views” due to which the Special Branch had earlier dismissed him. Barely two months later, two human rights defenders were gunned down — former federal minister for minority affairs Shahbaz Bhatti in Islamabad, and Naeem Sabir, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s former coordinator in Khuzdar, Balochistan.

The assassins “may perhaps belong to different groups,” said the HRCP, but the murders were “the work of militants out to eliminate anyone who raises his voice against persecution of the vulnerable people”. Naeem Sabir, associated with the HRCP since 1997, had been targeted off and on “by minions of the state” for his coverage of human rights abuses. A shadowy group calling itself the ‘Baloch Musala Defai Tanzeem’ (Armed Baloch Defence Committee) claimed responsibility.

Saba Dashtiyari was not exposing human rights abuses but he was doing something more dangerous – opening young minds to progressive thought. Although he received his basic education in the slums of Lyari he shared a wealth of knowledge, running “kind of a (liberal) university within the (strictly controlled) university,” writes his former student Malik Siraj Akbar. The disparate group of students around him often comprised “progressive and liberals”; they clutched books by “freethinkers like Bertrand Russell, Russian fiction by Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky,” and writings of Pakistani progressive intelletuals like the late Syed Sibte Hasan and Dr Mubarak Ali. Their discussions revolved around “politics, religion, revolutions, nationalism” and also included social taboos like sex and homosexuality. He contributed his salary “to impart cultural awareness and secular education”.

The state, on the other hand, is “constructing more and more religious schools to counter the liberal nationalist movement” which only accelerates the process of right-wing radicalisation (Obituary: The Martyred Professor, June 2, 2011, Baloch Hal).

Prof Dashtiyari had lately become “a staunch backer of the Baloch armed resistance for national liberation” (‘The Baloch Noam Chomsky Is Dead’, Baloch Hal, Jun 2, 2011). Although he himself had not taken up arms, his views were anathema to the ‘establishment’ as defined above.

In April last year, another professor at the University of Balochistan, Nazima Talib was murdered — the first time a woman was target-killed in the province. The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) said it had killed her in response to the security forces’ killing of “two Baloch women in Quetta and Pasni and torture of women political workers in Mand and Tump”. Security forces routinely pick up Baloch youth for questioning. Far too often, mutilated bodies are found in what Amnesty International has termed as “kill and dump” operations. Since July 2010, the rights body has documented “the disappearances and killing of at least 100 activists, journalists, lawyers and teachers in Balochistan, with victims’ relatives often blaming the security and intelligence services”.

One can empathise with the anger of the Baloch. But revenge killings cannot be justified or condoned. When victims become oppressors, it becomes even harder to emerge from the downward spiral.

The murder of Nawab Akbar Bugti in Gen Musharraf’s military operation of August 2006 contributed to this downward spiral, sparking off a wave of target killings of non-Balochis, particularly educationists and civil servants. Those killed since include former education minister Shafique Ahmed and Hamid Mehmood, former secretary of the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education.

Although shadowy groups with long names sometimes claim responsibility, it is usually “unidentified assailants” who are said to be behind the murders, like those who gunned down former senator Habib Jalib of the Balochistan National Party (BNP-Mengal) last July.

Journalists remain vulnerable, walking a tightrope between the military and the militants, as Saleem Shahzad did. At least half-a-dozen Baloch journalists have been target-killed over the past nine months alone: Rehmatullah Shaeen, Ejaz Raisani, Lala Hameed Hayatan, Ilyas Nazar, Mohammad Khan Sasoil, Siddiq Eido and Abdus Rind. These murders have not been investigated, nor has the mainstream media taken any notice of them.

Many compare the situation to 1971. Just before Bangladesh’s liberation (albeit with foreign intervention), extremists trying to kill progressive ideas in the new country massacred progressive intellectuals. Is a similar mindset at work in what’s left of Pakistan? Extremists know they cannot win the argument so they silence the voices that make the argument.

Musharraf’s “moderate enlightenment” led to an escalation of violence against those who are genuinely enlightenment partisans from all shades of political opinion. This is not just a series of “incidents” but a tacitly agreed upon plan operating under a culture of impunity for both the state and the insurgents, fostered, it must be noted, by non-elected arms of the state. All demands for accountability, and for these acts to be tried and punished as criminal offences have so far come to naught.

There are signs of hope in the unprecedented number of people speaking out, in the Supreme Court’s seeking of the past three-year record of targeted killings in Balochistan, and in the Aghaz Huqooq-i-Balochistan (“the Beginning of Rights of Balochistan”) introduced by the government in November 2009. It is essential to build on these moves and urgently address Balochistan’s long-standing grievances about economic and political disenfranchisement, and human rights abuses.

As mentioned above, the genocide of Pakistan’s progressives is not limited to Balochistan. After educationist Latifullah Khan was murdered in Dir in November last year the Communist Party of Pakistan noted that since the start of the Taliban insurgency in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, systematic elimination of the enlightened and educated people had been underway. Terming it ‘rampant ‘intellecticide’, the CPP urged the international community to take note as not a day passed without a university professor, chancellor, doctor, enlightened teacher or a progressive political worker being target-killed or kidnapped.

Saba Dashtiyari is the latest in a long line of such ‘enlightenment martyrs’ in Pakistan. They include those fighting the land mafia – like Nisar Baloch (of Gutter Bagheecha fame, Karachi), and the fisherfolk Haji Ghani and Abu Bakar who spearheaded a movement against the destruction of the mangrove forests along the coast.

Let this blood not have been spilt in vain.

The writer is a journalist working with the Jang Group

Low-key Easter Preparations for Pakistan’s Christians

By Kamran Haider for Reuters

Christians in the small Pakistani town of Gojra are making low-key preparations for Easter this year.

Residents of the neighbourhood, known as Christian Colony, in the town in Punjab province, are haunted by memories of a 2009 attack by a Muslim mob in which seven members of a family were killed and dozens of houses torched.

A few days before Easter, which Christians believe marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ three days after his crucifixion, bare-foot children played cricket in the town’s dusty alleys while some men chatted on a bench under a tree.

“If we celebrate it with a fanfare, we fear somebody might get annoyed and attack us,” said Khalid Anjum, 45, the owner of a small snooker hall. The only sign of the approach of Easter was a few young men rehearsing hymns in St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

“Fear is there but we cannot give up our religion,” said Wilson Rafiq, the leader of the group of singers, who plays a traditional drum set known as a tabla.

Pakistan was founded in 1947 as a home for the Muslims of South Asia at the end of British colonial rule, with the country’s founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, promising that all communities would be able to worship freely.

But today, Jinnah’s pledge of religious tolerance often seems hollow as religious violence increases. Religious minorities account for about 4 percent of Pakistan’s 170 million people, with about three quarters of members of religious minorities Christian.

The independent Human Rights Commission said at least 100 people from minority communities were killed in 2010. The bloodiest attack was on Ahmadis, a sect that mainstream Muslims consider heretical, when 86 people were killed.

This year, the liberal Muslim governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, and Christian Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, were killed in separate shootings for speaking out against a blasphemy law aimed at defending Islam.

Under the law, anyone who speaks ill of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad commits a crime and faces the death penalty but human rights activists say the law’s vague wording has led to its misuse, often against members of minority religions.

Compounding a climate of fear, Islamist militants, angered by Pakistan’s alliance with the United States since 2001, have carried periodic attacks on minorities as part of a campaign to destabilise the state.

“FEAR IN THEIR HEARTS”

In Gojra’s Christian Colony, the level of fear has increased since the sentencing Monday of a Muslim to death for shooting dead two Christians who had been accused of blasphemy.

Rather then welcoming what some people might see as justice, Christians fear that if the sentence is carried out, it will only mean more trouble for them. “Things will only get worse. If one is punished, someone else will stand up to take revenge for him,” said housewife Shahida Kashif.

“My kids still get scared whenever there’s a small disturbance. They says ‘mother, they’ve come. They’ll set fire to our houses again’. They still have fear in their hearts,” she said, referring to memories of the 2009 riot.

A mob of about 1,000 Muslims, incensed by rumours that a Christian had desecrated the Koran, rampaged through the neighborhood, firing guns and throwing petrol bombs.

Hameed Pannum Khan was shot dead and six members of his family, including two women and two children, were burnt to death when their hut was torched.

Authorities blamed militants linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban for the violence. Abdul Khaliq Kashmiri, a Muslim prayer leader, was locked up for 15 months on charges of inciting the attack.

He was recently released after Christians, fearing his continued detention would only make things worse for them, told authorities they had no proof of his involvement. Kashmiri denied any part in it and appealed for tolerance.

“Everybody should follow their own religion and should stop slinging mud at others,” he said. Christian Allah Rakha, a relative of the family killed in 2009 said the hatred had to stop for the sake of future generations.

“We all should get rid of this evil,” said Rakha, 70, sitting on a threadbare sofa in the drawing room of his single story home. “If we talk of revenge we’ll never have peace.”

A Nation Overloaded with Religion

By Tanzeel for Tanzeelism

Frequent assassinations of Pakistan People’s Party leaders have not only shaken the ideology of this country but left a clear cut message for Government to avoid any confrontation against strengthening religious lobby in Pakistan.

The Tehreek e Taliban and Al Qaeda backed groups in Pakistan especially in Punjab are after the ruling party and eradicating its moderate forces one by one. As a result the PPP systematically takes back seat, and gets blackmailed by the religious forces.
Government’s evident policy shift from the party manifesto of ensuring religious harmony among all faiths in the wake of doctrine of necessity further pushes nation in the hands of extremists.

From the assassination of Benazir Bhutto to Shehbaz Bhatti, the message is clear. Let Taleban pursuit their agenda of violent Islam and whoever comes in between will become history.

In such horrific circumstances when even the ruling party leaders are not safe how unarmed liberal forces would dare voice their opinion seems to be a big ask. As a result the clouds of insanity steadily prevailing and a common man is reluctant to counter them not because of being blithe but for his own safety resulting mass surrender of journalists, civil society, liberal political forces and minority rights groups against religious forces.

A common Pakistani despite wanting to express deep displeasure is suppressed by the bearded gun totted black sheep who are gelled up in the society to take necessary ‘religious measures’ against those who prefer humanity over religion.

Salman Taseer’s assassination by his own security guard Mumtaz Qadri and the subsequent showering of rose petals by lawyers’ community is one of the shocking examples of deep rooted religious fanaticism within our society. Be it media, armed forces, politics (not to mention the historical speech of Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Shareef during which he proudly endorsed the agenda of Taleban), judiciary, education or even sports.

In my view the traces of religious terrorism can be found back during partition campaign when the voices of independent ‘Muslim Land’ were on rise.

At that time some of the Muslims might had opted the idea of migrating to separate land due to vested interests but by and large it was the dominating religious sentiment that caused division with the objective of turning Pakistan into the “Fort of Islam” comprised by majority of Muslims.

Two- Nation Theory which clearly rejects any of idea co existence of Muslims with Hindus is a true depiction of Pakistan’s current situation where Muslims are unable to coexist with other sects let alone religions and ethnicities.

Today, I being a moderate Muslim who is deeply concerned about his country’s image foresee not only the bleak future of Pakistan but raises the doubts whether creation of Pakistan was really an apt approach.

Shahbaz Bhatti, Modern Day Martyr in Pakistan

By Terry Mattingly for The Pocono Record

In the early days of Christianity, martyrs often gave their final testimonies of faith to Roman leaders before they were crucified, burned or fed to lions.

Times being what they are, Shahbaz Bhatti turned to Al-Jazeera and YouTube. The only Christian in Pakistan’s Cabinet knew it was only a matter of time before his work as minister for minority affairs got him killed. Threats by the Taliban and al-Qaida kept increasing.

“I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of the cross and I follow him on the cross,” said Bhatti, in a startlingly calm video recorded several weeks before his assassination on March 2.

“When I’m leading this campaign against the sharia laws for the abolishment of blasphemy law, and speaking for the oppressed and marginalized persecuted Christian and other minorities, these Taliban threaten me. … I’m living for my community and suffering people and I will die to defend their rights. So these threats and these warnings cannot change my opinion and principles.”

The last straw was almost certainly the Catholic statesman’s defense of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who was sentenced to death last November for the crime of blasphemy after she publicly defended her faith in a village argument. The verdict — which must be upheld by a higher court — further polarized a tense nation and sparked a global firestorm.

Then again, in 2009 Bhatti received the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s first medallion for the promotion of religious freedom. A year later, he met with Pope Benedict XVI to discuss interfaith work and religious liberty in Pakistan. Bhatti was not hiding his convictions.

The blasphemy laws in question went into effect in 1986, during the dictatorship of Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. They ban, among other actions, the use of “derogatory remarks, etc; in respect of the Holy Prophet. Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

These blasphemy laws have been used against hundreds of Muslim dissenters and Ahmadi sect members, whose approach to Islam is specifically attacked in the laws. In practice, conversion from Islam to another faith is considered blasphemy, as are attempts to advocate or defend minority faiths, such as Christianity or Hinduism.

Vigilantes often kill those formally or informally accused of blasphemy — making trials irrelevant.

This was the case with Bhatti’s death in a wave of machine-gun fire into his unarmored car. Pakistani officials had denied his request for an armored car, despite the constant threat of drive-by shootings.

Formalities were also irrelevant on Jan. 4, when Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. This outspoken Muslim also defended Bibi and called for reform in the use of blasphemy laws.

Adoring crowds showered Taseer’s assassin with rose petals and garlands as he arrived to face a magistrate, while moderate Muslim leaders remained silent. Pakistan’s legislators observed a moment of silence for Bhatti, since it probably would have been fatal for anyone to offer a prayer in his honor.

After all, pamphlets left by those who killed Bhatti warned that they would keep fighting “all the world’s infidels, crusaders, Jews and their operatives within the Muslim brotherhood. … This is the fate of that cursed man. And now, with the grace of Allah, the warriors of Islam will pick you out one by one and send you to hell, God willing.”

Apparently, many radicals in Pakistan have concluded — a perfect Catch-22 — that it is blasphemy to oppose the blasphemy laws.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani conference of Catholic bishops is preparing to render a judgment of its own. Later this month the bishops will review a proposal to ask the Vatican to designate Bhatti as a martyr.

“Bhatti is a man who gave his life for his crystalline faith in Jesus Christ,” Bishop Andrew Francis of Multan told a Vatican news agency. “It is up to us, the bishops, to tell his story and experience to the church in Rome, to call for official recognition of his martyrdom.”

-Terry Mattingly is director of the Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

In Pakistan, Justifying Murder for Those Who Blaspheme

By Aryn Baker for Time

“I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us,” the doomed man said, staring straight into the video camera. “And I am ready to die for a cause.” Shahbaz Bhatti had no hesitation in his voice as he responded to a question about threats from the Taliban and al-Qaeda. “I’m living for my community … and I will die to defend their rights.” It was his last answer in a four-month-old self-produced video that was to be broadcast in the event of his death. But the radicals had the final say. On March 2, Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs, was shot dead in Islamabad. Pamphlets scattered on the ground claimed the act for a new alliance of “the organization of al-Qaeda and the Punjabi Taliban” and asserted that other infidels and apostates would meet the same fate.

Bhatti’s death had been foretold not just by himself but also in the nation’s response to a previous assassination, that of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer on Jan. 4. Taseer, a self-made millionaire, had turned his largely ceremonial post into a platform for a campaign to amend Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Bhatti, the only Christian in the Cabinet, refused to be a token and swore to battle intolerance. Both men supported clemency for Aasia Noreen, a Christian woman who had been accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. Taseer’s stance on the issue infuriated a large part of the population that, thanks to religious leaders and school curriculums, believes that blasphemy is a sin deserving of execution. In the weeks leading up to his assassination, Taseer had been denounced at Friday prayers, excoriated in the media and largely abandoned by his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) for fears that his campaign would prove politically toxic. The witch hunt culminated in a bodyguard’s pumping 27 rounds into his head and chest in the parking lot of a popular Islamabad shopping center.

Within hours of Taseer’s death, telephone text messages celebrating his assassination made the rounds. “Justice has been done,” read one. “If you love the Prophet, pass this on.” A Facebook fan page for assassin Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri garnered more than 2,000 members before site administrators shut it down. Even the leaders of state-funded mosques refused to say funeral prayers for the slain governor. When Qadri was transferred to a local jail, he was garlanded with roses by hundreds of lawyers — the vanguard of a movement that in 2008 helped unseat a military dictator — offering to take on his case for free.

At his court appearance a few days later, Qadri told the judge that he believed in a Pakistan where loyalty to the Prophet eclipses all other rights. According to Taseer’s daughter Shehrbano, her father “wanted an egalitarian society where open debate is protected and people are not killed for speaking out.” And Bhatti dreamed of a nation true to founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s vision, one where “you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship.” Which vision prevails — Qadri’s or Taseer and Bhatti’s — will decide the future of the country.

The Roots of Extremism

 
It is not news that Pakistan has a lunatic fringe. What is disturbing is that after Taseer’s murder, when the silent majority finally spoke up, it praised Qadri, not his victim. The public reaction exploded the myth of Pakistan’s moderate Islam; Qadri belongs to a mainstream sect that routinely condemns the Taliban. “The Pakistan we saw in the wake of Taseer’s killing is the real Pakistan,” says Amir Muhammad Rana of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies. For the past two years, Rana’s organization has conducted in-depth interviews with a broad spectrum of Pakistani citizens. “They might dress Western and eat at McDonald’s, but when it comes to religion, most Pakistanis have a very conservative mind-set.”

Pakistan’s religious parties rarely do well at the polls — a fact often cited by those countering concerns that the country is going fundamentalist — but their street power is considerable. The furor over blasphemy appears to be partly in response to significant losses for the religious right in the 2008 elections. With the current government on the verge of collapse and popular sentiment against the PPP mounting, the religious parties are betting on significant gains if fresh elections are called. The case of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor accused of killing two Pakistanis during what appears to have been a botched attempt to rob him, demonstrates the state of Pakistan’s politics. It has gone virtually unremarked in Pakistan that Qadri, a confessed murderer, has been hailed as a national hero, while Davis — who, whatever his background, seems to have been acting in self-defense — is considered worthy of the death penalty. Over the past few weeks, street rallies led by the religious right have simultaneously called for the release of Qadri and the hanging of Davis. (Read: “Pakistan’s Christians Mourn, and Fear for Their Future.”)

Using religion to shore up political support is nothing new in Pakistan. Founded as a Muslim nation carved from a newly independent India in 1947, Pakistan has long struggled to unite a diverse population divided by language, culture and ethnicity. Islam was the common denominator, but Jinnah was famously enigmatic about its role in government.

Then, in 1977, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, an Islamist military general, overthrew the democratically elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was already retrenching his secular vision of Pakistan in an effort to win religious support. To further appease Muslim religious leaders, Zia-ul-Haq strengthened the colonial-era blasphemy laws, mandating that breaches should be answered by the death penalty. Since then, more than 1,274 cases have been lodged. As repeating blasphemous words could be considered to be perpetuating the crime, many cases are accepted without evidence, a system well primed for the pursuit of vendettas. That nobody has yet been executed by court order is hardly reassuring: 37 of the accused have been killed by vigilantes. (In 1929, Jinnah famously defended an illiterate carpenter who shot to death a Hindu publisher accused of blasphemy. The plea failed, and after the carpenter was hanged, Taseer’s father was one of the pallbearers.)

The Uses of Blasphemy
When a nation rises up in support of a murderer instead of his victim, it’s hard not to believe it is heading down a dangerous path. “What is happening now won’t matter in five years,” says Shehrbano Taseer. “It will matter in 25 years. What we are seeing now is the fruit of what happened 30 years ago. If people had stood up against [Zia-ul-Haq], we would not be here today. Because of that silence we have madrasahs spewing venom, a true Islam threatened by the same people who claim to serve it, and a cowed majority too afraid to speak.”

President Asif Ali Zardari, an old friend of Taseer’s, condemned the murders but didn’t go to either funeral. After paying his respects to Taseer’s family, Interior Minister Rehman Malik gave an impromptu press conference outside Taseer’s house during which he announced that he too would kill any blasphemer “with his own hands.” A few days later, the Prime Minister announced that he would drop the issue of the blasphemy laws altogether. Meanwhile, the government is under pressure to go through with Aasia’s sentence, and now her two champions are dead.

Reaction to Bhatti’s murder has been muted, characterized mostly by denial. What little newspaper coverage there was focused on security lapses or the role of the country’s Christian community rather than on the motives of the killer. On television talk shows, members of the religious parties and right-wing commentators spun a conspiracy theory that alleged that Bhatti’s murder had been “a plot” hatched by “outside forces” to “divert attention from the Raymond Davis affair.” There was no mention of the fact that Bhatti was campaigning alongside Taseer on the issue of blasphemy.

The PPP was founded in 1967 with the goal of bringing secular democracy to a nation under military rule. It vowed to give power to the people and promised to protect the nation’s downtrodden. That Pakistan’s most progressive party — one that has already endured the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto — should cave in the face of religious fundamentalism speaks volumes about the strength of the religious right. A candlelight vigil promoting a progressive Pakistan a few days after Taseer’s assassination drew nearly 1,000 supporters; a religious rally in Karachi the same day had 40,000 in the street chanting Qadri’s name. “Taseer’s murderer was tried in the court of public opinion, and he has emerged a hero,” says a woman shopping for vegetables in the same market where the governor was killed. “If someone kills me because I criticize Qadri, will he too be called a hero?” She declined to give her name. (Read: “Murder in Islamabad: Pakistan’s Deepening Religious Divide.”)

Of course, few Pakistanis would ever go as far as Taseer’s or Bhatti’s killers. But their ambivalence can easily be manipulated. “Just because we are religious does not mean we will all be reaching for guns the next time someone says something wrong,” says Malik Khan, a university student who spent a recent afternoon at a shrine in Lahore dedicated to a revered Islamic saint. “But Salmaan Taseer was an extremist as well. He should not have touched the blasphemy law.” Khan received a text message praising Qadri and exhorting him to pass it along. It posed a moral quandary: “I don’t agree with the message,” he says. “But I love the Prophet. My thumb hesitated a long time over the delete button.” In the end, he passed the hate along.

Qadri himself was the religious-minded youngest son of a family just stepping into the middle class. Like his brother, he joined the special-forces branch of the Punjab police in 2002. He had been flagged as a security risk because of his strong religious leanings but was nevertheless appointed to Taseer’s security detail when he visited Islamabad. In his confession, Qadri said he had been inspired by the teachings of his local mullah, Hanif Qureshi. At a rally a few days later, Qureshi claimed credit for motivating Qadri. “He would come to my Friday prayers and listen to my sermons,” he said. Then he repeated his point: “The punishment for a blasphemer is death.”

But is it? Two weeks after Taseer’s murder, I visited Qari Muhammad Zawar Bahadur, the head of one of Pakistan’s mainstream religious groups and a co-signer of a statement that advised Muslims not to show “grief or sympathy on the death of the governor, as those who support blasphemy of the Prophet are themselves indulging in blasphemy.” For more than an hour, he justified his group’s stance, telling me that the Koran was clear on the issue. I asked Bahadur to show me the exact verse that detailed the punishments for blasphemy. He mumbled that “there are several passages,” as if there were so many, he couldn’t decide which one to quote. When pressed further, he consulted a Koran and read aloud a passage that spoke of killing a man who had once harmed the Prophet.

That verse has routinely been dismissed by leading Islamic scholars as referring to a specific case and having nothing to do with blasphemy. They say there is no definition of blasphemy in the Koran, nor any prescription for its punishment. “Nobody challenges these mullahs, and that is our problem,” says Omar Fazal Jamil, who runs a p.r. firm in Lahore. “We can’t invoke liberal secular values anymore. I have to have the knowledge to contradict these men who distort our religion for their own political gain. I have to be able to say, ‘No, this did not happen, this is not right, and show me where it says in the Koran that blasphemers should be shot on sight.’ ”

The Sin of Silence
In the absence of such challenges, those favoring religious intolerance will continue to have things go their way. In late 2007, Benazir Bhutto released an updated manifesto for her father’s party. “The statutes that discriminate against religious minorities and are sources of communal disharmony will be reviewed,” it said. Less than a month later she was dead, killed in a bomb attack just 13 km from where both Taseer and Bhatti were murdered. Her death was an opportunity to rally the nation against the forces of extremism. Instead the party focused on consolidating power. The manifesto remains an empty promise, and two more voices of tolerance have been silenced. For evil to prevail, goes the old aphorism, all that is required is for good men to do nothing.

With reporting by Ershad Mahmud / Lahore and Omar Waraich / Rawalpindi

The Myth of ‘Moderate Pakistan’

By Sadanand Dhume for The Wall Street Journal

It’s time to bury the myth of moderate Pakistan. You know the one: the notion, repeated ad nauseam in magazine articles, think-tank reports and congressional testimony—as though saying it often enough will make it true—that Pakistan is an essentially tolerant country threatened by a rising tide of fundamentalism. Here’s a news flash: The tide has risen.

The most recent reminder of this came last Wednesday in Islamabad, when suspected Taliban militants shot dead Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s 42-year-old minister for minority affairs and the only Christian in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation’s cabinet. His crime? Supporting the repeal of a barbaric blasphemy law that makes insulting the prophet Muhammad punishable by death.

The law is often used to settle scores with hapless religious minorities, especially Christians such as Asia Bibi, an illiterate peasant sentenced to hang last year after she allegedly badmouthed the prophet during a row with Muslim coworkers. Bhatti’s assassination comes two months after a bodyguard murdered Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer for visiting Ms. Bibi in jail and speaking out against abuse of the law.

To be fair, Pakistan’s claim to relative moderation has been kept alive thus far by more than just wishful thinking. Overtly Islamist parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami have rarely commanded more than a fraction of the national vote. Women enjoy freedoms in the public square that their counterparts in Saudi Arabia and Iran could only dream of. At great personal risk, a small but courageous group of activists, intellectuals and politicians speak out publicly against bigotry and religious intolerance.

Scratch the surface, however, and a bleaker picture emerges. Islamist parties may not garner large-scale electoral support, but Islamist ideas are widely tolerated by mainstream political parties. The major opposition party, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, flaunts its closeness to sundry Islamists, including Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the parent organization of the international terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Ostensibly secular, the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party supported both Kashmiri militancy and the Afghan Taliban in the past. In its current incarnation it appears permanently cowed by the country’s legion of vocal fundamentalists. President Asif Ali Zardari failed to attend the funerals of either Taseer or Bhatti. His government has made it clear that it will not touch the controversial blasphemy law. Interior Minister Rehman Malik declared that he would personally kill anyone who dared blaspheme Muhammad’s name.

As for Pakistan’s undeniably brave activists and intellectuals, unfortunately they appear to have more admirers overseas than among their compatriots. Hand-wringing in the pages of Dawn and the Friday Times, two of the country’s leading English-language newspapers, has not prevented Mumtaz Qadri, Taseer’s murderer, from becoming a national hero.

Not surprisingly, anti-American sentiment—often a reliable shorthand for a society’s paranoia and self-loathing—is rampant. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, American favorability ratings stood at 17% last year, the lowest of all countries surveyed. On the streets, bloodcurdling yells for the execution of alleged Central Intelligence Agency operative Raymond Davis, accused of killing two Pakistanis in January, have prevented the government from granting Mr. Davis the diplomatic immunity that the U.S. claims he is entitled to. This despite personal pleas by President Barack Obama and Sen. John Kerry.

By now the reasons for Pakistan’s predicament are well known. They include the intolerance embedded in the nation’s founding idea of a separate “land of the pure” for Indian Muslims, the malign shadow of Saudi Arabia on religious life, blowback from the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s, and the overwhelming influence that the army and its thuggish intelligence wing, the Inter-Services Intelligence, wield on national life. The army’s very motto, Jihad-fi-Sabilillah, or jihad in the path of Allah, is an exhortation to holy war.

For the international community, the long road to fixing Pakistan begins with the simple recognition that the country’s true face is not the urbane intellectual making reasoned arguments, but the frenzied mob showering rose petals on a murderer for his services to the faith. Over time, Pakistan can only be saved by re- arranging the basic building blocks of the country.

This means backing provincial autonomy and linguistic identity as an alternative to the centralized pan-Islamism used by the military and its supporters to weld the country together. It means deploying social networks and satellite television to open the door to reasonable discourse about religion. It means channeling aid to ensure that children are no longer taught to glorify Islamic conquest and reflexively mistrust the West and India. It means accepting that the most poisonous madrassas—such as Jamia Binoria in Karachi and Darul Uloom Haqqania outside Peshawar—must be shuttered if they can’t be reformed.

Needless to say, none of this will be easy. But the consequences of the alternative—pandering to fundamentalists while blaming outsiders for all the country’s ills—can be seen in the freshly turned soil of Bhatti’s grave.

-Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com.

Our Noblest Selves

By Marvi Sirmed for Newsweek Pakistan

Be careful. After the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister for minorities, on March 2 and of Salmaan Taseer, governor of the Punjab, two months before that, friends and family put out the same, simple message. Be careful. But with two brave men slain so violently and so publicly, can we afford to be careful?

Everything changed after the governor’s assassination. For Taseer’s killer, there are shrines on Facebook and rose petals. For those of us who, accurately, refer to Taseer as a martyr, there is concern from well-wishers—and death threats from others. Lawyers lined up in the hundreds to defend and garland Taseer’s self-confessed killer, while cleric after another refused to lead his funeral services. The right’s pundits called Qadri a ghazi or holy warrior, while state-owned Pakistan Television dropped shaheed or martyr for Taseer within hours of his death. Qadri supporters brandished their bloody hands at rallies that pulled in tens of thousands, while those who mourn Taseer and what he represented struggled to manage mere hundreds at vigils. The polarization and plight of Pakistan have never before been so painfully obvious.

Like Taseer, Bhatti, too, gave his life up for a cause that must be owned by those who run our country. But people everywhere are being careful. And this just won’t do.

Bhatti was one of those rare public figures who never sought the spotlight, who spoke softly, who had no skeletons in his closet. Bhatti could have played it safe. He began receiving death threats after the Gojra massacre. These picked up after he championed the cause of Aasia Noreen, a Christian mother convicted under the blasphemy laws, which the Pakistan Peoples Party had committed to review in order to prevent their misuse. After Taseer’s death, Bhatti could have played it safe and gone quiet. He did not. He was not “careful.” He was laid to rest in Faisalabad on March 4 with thousands turning out to honor him.

What can we do? We need to be honest with ourselves. Bhatti was killed by a group that calls itself the Punjabi Taliban. Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has taken exception to interior minister Rehman Malik highlighting this fact. Terrorists are a national problem, they are not Punjabis or Sindhis, says Sharif, who is also the home minister of his province. What more has to happen before the chief minister, a compassionate man by most accounts, finally acknowledges that we have a problem in the Punjab?

Second, we need to stop passing the buck and offering contrition practiced for television. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani reportedly offered his resignation to the cabinet the day Bhatti was assassinated. There have been two shocking high-profile murders in Islamabad in as many months and not a single soul has been sacked. There’s no shortage of candidates who deserve the ax. Let’s start with the state-employed clerics who refused to perform Taseer’s last rites.

Third, name and shame the members of Parliament who refused to raise their hands in prayer for Taseer and Bhatti. There was a prayer for Taseer in the National Assembly, but, infamously, not in the Senate. Bhatti got two minutes of silence in the National Assembly on March 3 and a walkout from all parties—including, oddly, the ruling party—against the government’s failure to protect Bhatti, but no prayers. What have we come to when we cannot bring ourselves to pray for the departed and their devastated families? This is not coldhearted or remotely Islamic, but pure evil.

Fourth, we need to enforce a strict ban on hate speech. Incitement to murder, character assassination and hate words cannot be provided mainstream platforms—whether print or electronic—under the pretense of free speech. Some channels promoted the false impression that Taseer had blasphemed, and they publicized fatwas against him. They also hyped up pro-Qadri rallies. It never came to light that these processions, while big, were limited to three cities. Responsibility will not suddenly dawn on our lawless media. To keep television honest and to counter the state’s halfhearted ban on militant groups, corporations need to step up and withhold ad spend from channels providing support to the jihadists. Consumers can then hold these corporations accountable by buying or boycotting their products.

The brave among us refuse to be careful when they see the rapid undoing of their motherland, and whose faith in man’s goodness speaks to our noblest selves. We are not a nation of murderers and monsters, but we sure are close.

Sirmed is a rights activist in Islamabad.

Bombing kills 25 Near Intelligence Office in Eastern Pakistan

By Karen Brulliard for The Washington Post

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN – A car bomb exploded near an office of Pakistan’s main intelligence agency in the eastern city of Faisalabad on Tuesday, killing 25 people in the type of militant attack that is growing more common in the country’s populous heartland.

A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban asserted responsibility for the attack and said it was aimed at the intelligence office, the Associated Press reported.

Police said the bomb, which was detonated at a gas station, sparked additional explosions of natural gas cylinders, compounding the damage. The blast destroyed parts of several businesses, including an office of the national airline, and wounded at least 100 people.

Sectarian violence is common in Faisalabad, Pakistan’s third-largest city and a textile-producing hub, but Tuesday’s blast was the first major militant attack there. Militants have often carried out bombings in other large cities, including Lahore, about 80 miles to the east. The attacks regularly target Pakistan’s security forces, who in recent years have mounted counterterrorism offensives against insurgent hideouts in the mountainous northwest.

Now, Pakistani authorities and analysts say, violent extremist organizations are spreading across Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital.

Southern Punjab is home to militant groups that traditionally focused attacks on Indian targets but are now thought to be deepening ties to Taliban factions in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The car bombing occurred nearly a week after the assassination of federal cabinet minister Shahbaz Bhatti, which a group calling itself the Punjabi Taliban said it had carried out.

Bhatti, a Christian, had spoken out against Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws, which are enforced most stringently in Punjab. The laws are defended by religious groups, which say that violators of the statutes – and supporters of the violators – deserve death.

Not much Islamic about Islamic Pakistan

By Haroon Siddiqui for The Toronto Star

In the failing state of Pakistan, a junior cabinet minister is killed. Shahbaz Bhatti was a member of the Christian minority. He had taken up the cause of a poor Christian woman condemned to death for allegedly defaming Islam. He knew he was a marked man. But on a recent visit to Canada, where his brother lives, he said he was determined to carry on.

Eight weeks ago, a veteran politician was gunned down for the same sin. He, too, had championed the woman’s cause and condemned the blasphemy law that imposes the death penalty for insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. Salman Taseer was the governor of Punjab, the most populous and prosperous province, and an influential billionaire tycoon, a socialite and an unrepentant liberal in a society that’s becoming militantly conservative. He was a Muslim.

Bhatti was gunned down by unknown assailants. Taseer was assassinated by a member of the elite security unit assigned to guard him. More shockingly, the assassin was hailed a hero. Hundreds turned up at his house, chanting “we salute your bravery.” About 500 clerics signed a statement calling him “a true soldier of Islam.” When he appeared in court, young lawyers showered rose petals and kissed him. At a rally in cosmopolitan Karachi, marchers waved his portrait.

This is a sick society. There’s little Islamic about the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

The blasphemy law may have been enacted by the British colonials in 1860. But it was toughened by the Muslim rulers of Pakistan in the name of Islam. And both in its wording and implementation, the law violates the most basic principles of Islamic jurisprudence. In allowing hearsay evidence and innuendo, it ignores the necessity of incontrovertible proof for a finding of guilt.

The act is allowed to be abused in personal and property disputes. (A majority of those charged have been Muslims, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a voluntary organization). Or it is wielded as a weapon in political and religious vendettas. In one particularly horrific case, two Christian brothers were framed with a handwritten note defaming the Prophet, found in a marketplace with their home address and phone number.

Yet local police and magistrates dare not toss out such trumped-up charges. Cases have to be taken to higher courts to be overturned. Not a single person has been executed under the act. Yet more than 30 people charged or acquitted have been killed.

Under Islamic law, such jungle justice constitutes a greater crime than the alleged original one. It is deemed particularly egregious when the innocents prosecuted are poor and powerless.

The blasphemy law is just one of many flashpoints.

Christian churches have been bombed. So have been mosques belonging to the minority Ahmadi sect, deemed heretic. So also mosques of the minority Shiite Muslim sect. So also Sufi shrines, along with the devotees who turn up for the anniversary festivals of dance and music dedicated to those saints.

Not just that.

Pakistani Taliban and other militants have been killing fellow Muslims who won’t side with them. Such attacks were once restricted to the remote Afghan-Pakistan border but now they are routine in the populated south. Tens of thousands have been killed, including Benazir Bhutto, assassinated in December of 2007.

Yet the government is too weak to provide basic security and too corrupt to care — both egregious Islamic crimes. The politicians and the bureaucrats are not the only ones on the take. Too many clerics are also money-grabbing machines.

Several reasons are proffered for this sad state of affairs.

One is that Pakistan has had too many military dictators, and that the longest-serving one, Zia ul-Haq (1977-88) Islamized Pakistan, which he did. But he did so in tandem with the American-led effort to Islamize the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Another inconvenient truth is that while the military used jihadist proxy militias against India and Afghanistan, political parties use them as vote banks and to flex street muscle.

The secular-Islamic divide is also cited. Yet both religious and secular elites have pandered to extremists. It was the wine-sipping prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who in the 1970s restricted liquor and declared the Ahmadi sect non-Muslim. It is his People’s Party, once again in power, that abandoned backbencher Sherry Rahman after she proposed amendments to the blasphemy law.

Meanwhile, the economy is in ruins. Inflation is rampant, the currency is losing value and the central bank is printing more rupees.

Don’t be surprised if Pakistanis begin clamouring, yet again, for the return of the military to power.

Haroon Siddiqui is the Star’s editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears on Thursday and Sunday. hsiddiqui@thestar.ca

Assassinations are a blemish on Pakistan’s soul

By Shahina Siddiqui for The Montreal Gazette

The assassination by terrorists of Pakistan’s federal minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, follows the brutal killing of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer a couple of months ago. Both were targeted by extremists because they called for the reformation of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws. These and other attacks on Christians and Muslims in the name of blasphemy laws is a blemish on the national soul of Pakistan that cannot be washed away by empty rhetoric and the muted cowardly condemnations by the political and religious leadership in Pakistan.

There is no place for laws in Muslim countries that are the very antithesis of the spirit, soul, and letter of Islamic law. Prophet Muhammad in his lifetime was insulted, ridiculed and physically hurt, and yet he never ordered, condoned or recommended the killing or even harming of these individuals. There are documented cases where the prophet intervened to save the perpetrators from the wrath of his companions. We do not honour the prophet by murdering the innocent in his name. We honour him by practising compassion and dealing with mercy toward all of God’s creation, yes, even those who hurt us.

There is no justification for the blasphemy laws in the form they exist in Pakistan. The misuse and abuse of these laws have caused the security of religious minorities to deteriorate and be exploited, and it has become a licence to kill people, to destroy property and to create havoc for personal and political interests.

The terrorists are using this law to paralyze an entire nation into submitting to their whims through fear and trauma. The inept political leaders of Pakistan are more interested in maintaining their power and control on the country’s wealth then in actually working for the betterment of their country. The few who dare to stand up to this injustice find themselves isolated and without support.

The genuine religious leaders, on the other hand, are afraid to be labelled by these pseudo-religious terrorists as supporters of blasphemers, and thereby fear losing their own support base, their lives and their reputations. The socalled religious political parties are supporting these laws unconditionally, manipulating the love the masses have for their faith and their prophet, to ensure their own popularity and political gains.

In such a vacuum of moral, religious and human courage the terrorists thrive, the extremists dance in the streets and the ordinary Pakistanis struggle to survive. This ugly situation in Pakistan calls for an uprising of the silent majority. But the disconnect between rural and urban, rich and poor, and the excruciating poverty and illiteracy are barriers that make this an unlikely scenario.

Pakistanis, unlike their coreligionists in the Middle East, face brutality on many fronts: the war on terror that is consuming the country’s resources, the drone attacks that are killing hundreds of innocent civilians, the Talibanbacked terrorists who kidnap, torture, brainwash and blackmail poor rural youth into becoming suicide bombers who target fellow Pakistanis on an alarmingly frequent basis.

The indifference of the ruling elite – political and feudal – and the tyrannical pseudoreligious extremists seem to have paralyzed this nation into a pathological resignation to its “fate.” There is no credible leadership at the national level that is nurturing national pride, identity and vision. The people are adrift, holding on to any straw, no matter how fragile, that will keep them afloat.

In spite of these many challenges, however, I am confident – having observed firsthand the courage, resilience and moral strength of non-governmental organizations, selfless philanthropy by the affluent, and the development and growth of civil society – that Pakistanis will rise and can defend their nation. They must, however, break the chains of fear that are choking their conscience, and stand up for justice.

My prayer is for Pakistan to realize the vision of its founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah: a vision in which all Pakistanis are granted freedom and security to practise their religions and maintain their places of worship, and where all Pakistanis thrive together, as equals under the law, regardless of ethnicity, gender and religion.

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