Pakistan’s blasphemy law took another life on Wednesday. The country’s only Christian cabinet minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, was gunned down 50 metres away from his home.
Bhatti had been a vocal critic of the law, under which anyone can be sentenced to death for ‘insulting’ Islam. The minister never intended to insult Islam --- he wanted the law repealed because it is being summarily used to persecute Pakistan’s small non-Muslim minorities.
Before the attack, Bhatti had been warned repeatedly and threatened to stop speaking out, but he remained defiant. Recently, he recorded a message about defending the rights of minorities which was broadcast on BBC and Al Jazeera: "I will die to defend their rights. These threats and these warnings cannot change my opinions and principles.”
The dangers were real. Just two months ago, Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s most populous province Punjab, was killed by his own bodyguard for speaking against the law. Bhatti knew he was play with fire, but he stood by his words.
Yesterday, those words took his life when two gunmen stopped his car, dragged his driver out, and sprayed Bhatti with 25 bullets. He died immediately. The killers than flung pamphlets signed "Taliban al-Qaida Punjab" across the scene.
Bhatti, persisting in his stance on the blasphemy law, found himself on the wrong side of the gun. But more importantly, he found himself on the wrong side of his government’s sympathies.
Ever since Taseer’s assassination, President Asif Ali Zardari and his ministers have backed down from any proposed amendments or repeal of the controversial legislation. They have also backed down from criticising the groups who have all but declared war on religious tolerance and freedom of speech.
Two months ago, when Salman Taseer was assassinated, I wrote:
The Pakistani Government's continued lack of strong action against this tide is only going to strengthen the fundamentalists who are threatening to derail any semblance of progress made towards democracy in recent years. Democracy does not mean anything if the rule of the majority translates into the oppression of a minority.
Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and all other non-Muslims in Pakistan will remain unsafe as long as people like Taseer are killed because the government does not want to address religious fundamentalism amongst its ranks and those of the military. The section of Pakistan’s population calling itself "liberal" will have to conform to fundamentalist ideas, live in fear or leave the country. This would effectively end Pakistan’s pursuit of a democratic state.
I regret that we are witnessing the fulfilment of that prediction. The killing of Bhatti, who was not only a minister but also the head of Pakistan’s Christian Liberation Front and one of the founders of the All-Pakistan Minorities Alliance, sends a very clear message not just to elected politicians but also to Pakistan’s religious minorities: Speak against the law and you will be killed.
If a Cabinet minister can be slain, then, people like Asia Bibi, whose blasphemy case sparked this debate, can say good-bye to their freedom and indeed their lives if they choose to upset anyone who is willing to use the blasphemy law against them.
The government, in its silence, has failed to protect its ministers. In its refusal to amend the law, it is refusing to assume its responsibility to protect all of its people. So doing, it is going to take the back seat to a minority of violent Pakistanis who seek nothing but to destroy the country’s religious harmony and its fragile democracy.
God help the nation.