Yet again, a man is brutally killed for speaking against the blasphemy laws of Pakistan. Shahbaz Bhatti, the sole Christian government minister of Pakistan was shot dead in Islamabad last week. Ironically, he was the minister for ‘minorities affairs’ in a country which has the majority, 95% of its 180 million population, as Muslims.
So, what is the protection for minorities in a country where a Minister of Minorities could be shot dead in broad daylight, for holding views contrary to the majority? And what is the state, when the majority simply stands and looks away, extremely tired, worryingly fearful, and indifferently silent to condemn this gross intolerance? What is this strange paralysis that grips and prevents intelligent people of Pakistan from voicing out against this violent extremism in the name of Islam? Tehreek-e-Taliban Punjab has proudly accepted the responsibility of killing Bhatti and, except for a few hackneyed phrases of bringing culprits to justice, there is no concrete condemnation, let alone action, from the country’s top officials.
Just a few days earlier, on January 4, Pakistan’s Governor of Punjab province Salman Taseer was also gunned down. By his own bodyguard described by many as a fanatic, but hailed as a hero by some religious groups and even lawyers. The killer allegedly said he was angry with the governor's stance on the same blasphemy laws.
Farhat Taj, a researcher and writer on Taliban, says that both these men had been vocally opposing Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws and publicly supporting the release of Aasia Bibi, a poor Christian woman implicated in a dubious blasphemy case. Both had been publicly highlighting legal flaws in the blasphemy laws. Saying that these flaws are used by some to victimize innocents. And what do these two get for speaking about the flaws in the blasphemy laws? What do they get for saying that these laws are draconian, and need be revised? What do they get? Murder. Death.
The thousands of people who thronged the roads in Khushpur, a Christian-dominated village of around 10,000 in eastern Punjab province, chanting slogans demanding justice as Bhatti's body was flown in and driven through in an ambulance covered with rose petals, are indicative of the respect the dead man had commanded. But what he did not command, and what he had to eventually fall down for, was the hatred and anger of killers who consider themselves sole guardians of Islam.
The Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani praised Bhatti and told an audience that included U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter, that "People like him (Shahbaz Bhatti) are very rare, I assure you, we will try our utmost to bring the culprits to justice." But it seems unlikely that anything is going to happen quickly, in bringing the killers to justice. Somehow, the State looks weak in the face of Islamic extremism.
I flinch as I type the phrase ‘Islamic extremism’ because no religion should be ever associated with extremism of this nature. And more so, Islam, which is supposed to be a word derived from the Arabic root "Salema" meaning peace, purity, submission and obedience. But atrocious acts like these by misguided elements have created this now ubiquitous but unfortunate phrase.
I heard BBC’s radio interview on this, with Bishop Michael Nazir Ali, who was earlier the Bishop of Punjab in Pakistan, and served later as the Bishop of Rochester in UK, say that the real problem in many parts of Pakistan is the indoctrination of the young into a hatred for anything non-Muslim. He says the growing indifference and intolerance is a result of years of teachings in the madrasas which drip-feed hate. And he calls for Muslim scholars to revamp what is being taught in some religious schools. But listening to contrarians seem to be an endangered phenomenon here. Some minds stubbornly want to stay closed.
While we do not yet know the solutions, what we do know is that only when a country is tolerant to accept diverse views and contrasting ideologies can it raise a new generation of forward-looking, open-minded individuals who eschew violence and embrace peace. And those wanting that change must let their voices be heard.