Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law has claimed yet another victim, this time Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, who was on his way to attend the Federal Cabinet meeting in Islamabad on Wednesday when his car was stopped and riddled with bullets by a group of armed assailants.
The attackers scattered leaflets signed by "Al Qaeda and Tehreek-e-Taliban Punjab," claiming that they had "punished the cursed man" since Bhatti wanted to amend the controversial blasphemy law that ostensibly serves to protect the name of the Prophet Muhammad from insult but has frequently been used to settle personal scores in the name of religion.
Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder has raised several questions, not only about the nature and extent of religious radicalization and extremism in Pakistan but also about the overall direction of the country. But instead of focusing on these issues, local media organizations seem interested only in the specifics of the case, questioning whether or not Bhatti was assigned security guards instead of asking why he was killed in the first place.
This most recent killing in Islamabad, following just two months after the assassination of Punjab province’s flamboyant governor Salman Taseer, is yet another reminder that moderate forces are gradually losing ground in Pakistan. It also shows that the country’s administration, given the reality of the threat posed by militant groups, has no other option but to fight against the groups that are resorting to extremist violence to push forward their own political agenda.
However, the country’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which has traditionally stood for democracy and pluralism, is currently focused only its own political survival. It has practically disowned those members and activists who want to amend or repeal the blasphemy law, putting them in an awkward political position and leaving them at the mercy of militant outfits. One such individual is the former information minister, Sherry Rehman, who had submitted a bill in the National Assembly to propose amendments to the blasphemy law. Rehman had to withdraw the bill soon after Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said that his government was not interested in reforming the statute.
Rehman currently faces threats to her life after being declared a "non-Muslim" by the prayer leader of a Karachi mosque. Yet authorities have done nothing to sanction or detain the cleric who issued the fatwa that would permit her murder.
Of course, the PPP is not the only political faction that is unwilling to confront militant groups on the blasphemy law. The opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), like the PPP, condemned Bhatti’s assassination, but refused to even mention the law that got Bhatti killed. Moreover, PML-N officials have recently been accused of pandering to sectarian militant groups.
Others, such as a member of Pakistan’s leading religio-political party, Jamaat-e-Islami, refused to blame militant groups at all, describing the assassination not as a defense of the Prophet’s name but instead as Washington’s attempt to divert people’s attention from the Raymond Davis case.
Militant groups currently operate with near impunity in Pakistan. They do not fear anyone and, in the absence of a strong state and an effective legal system, see little reason why they should peacefully coexist with groups that have different political views and aspirations.
In order to confront extremism, the state must recognize that appeasement is not an option while dealing with the groups that use violence against its citizens and security forces to advance their own political interests.
Pakistan’s future will be largely determined by its willingness and ability to establish the rule of law and punish those individuals who are perpetrating violent acts in the name of religion. And in the absence of action, the violence striking at the heart of Pakistan’s government will only grow worse.
Wajahat Ali is The Asia Foundation’s William P. Fuller Fellow. Currently, he is working with the New America Foundation as their South Asia Research Fellow. The views expressed in this article are his own.