The cost of cowardice

In December 2010, frustrated, irate, and depressed at the uproar around the case of Aasia Bibi and the reticence of the Pakistani government in amending the Blasphemy Laws that had condemned her to death, I interviewed Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities and the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) national assembly member Shahbaz Bhatti on the ...

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

In December 2010, frustrated, irate, and depressed at the uproar around the case of Aasia Bibi and the reticence of the Pakistani government in amending the Blasphemy Laws that had condemned her to death, I interviewed Pakistan's Federal Minister for Minorities and the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) national assembly member Shahbaz Bhatti on the telephone. Bhatti, the man responsible for protecting Pakistan's minority groups, told me, "Many people are facing death threats and problems. They're in prison and are being killed extra-judicially. This law is being misused." Bhatti had just been named by President Zardari as the head of a committee to discuss the country's blasphemy laws. "They have their own opinion and they are free to express it, we have our own," Bhatti calmly replied to a query about the stance taken by the religious right-wing against amending the Blasphemy Laws, or pardoning Bibi.

Perhaps Bhatti himself didn't know that three months later that "right" would take the shape of an assassin's bullets that claimed his life outside his Islamabad residence.

Nearly two months ago, Punjab province governor Salmaan Taseer was gunned down in a similar fashion at the hands of his police guard, and for nearly identical reasons: supporting amendments in the Blasphemy Laws, denouncing their use as a tool of persecution and highlighting Aasia Bibi's plight. But while the responsibility for the attacks have been claimed by different people -- in Bhatti's case by the Taliban and al Qaeda who have sworn to kill all those who want to change the Blasphemy Laws, in Taseer's case by the guard Mumtaz Qadri who claimed he was killing a blasphemer, both murders have highlighted the Pakistan People's Party's failure in safeguarding fundamental rights: the right of expression and the right of freedom of religion. Instead, they have ceded all possible ground to the religious right-wing, giving a whole new meaning to the term "capitulation."

In December 2010, frustrated, irate, and depressed at the uproar around the case of Aasia Bibi and the reticence of the Pakistani government in amending the Blasphemy Laws that had condemned her to death, I interviewed Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities and the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) national assembly member Shahbaz Bhatti on the telephone. Bhatti, the man responsible for protecting Pakistan’s minority groups, told me, "Many people are facing death threats and problems. They’re in prison and are being killed extra-judicially. This law is being misused." Bhatti had just been named by President Zardari as the head of a committee to discuss the country’s blasphemy laws. "They have their own opinion and they are free to express it, we have our own," Bhatti calmly replied to a query about the stance taken by the religious right-wing against amending the Blasphemy Laws, or pardoning Bibi.

Perhaps Bhatti himself didn’t know that three months later that "right" would take the shape of an assassin’s bullets that claimed his life outside his Islamabad residence.

Nearly two months ago, Punjab province governor Salmaan Taseer was gunned down in a similar fashion at the hands of his police guard, and for nearly identical reasons: supporting amendments in the Blasphemy Laws, denouncing their use as a tool of persecution and highlighting Aasia Bibi’s plight. But while the responsibility for the attacks have been claimed by different people — in Bhatti’s case by the Taliban and al Qaeda who have sworn to kill all those who want to change the Blasphemy Laws, in Taseer’s case by the guard Mumtaz Qadri who claimed he was killing a blasphemer, both murders have highlighted the Pakistan People’s Party’s failure in safeguarding fundamental rights: the right of expression and the right of freedom of religion. Instead, they have ceded all possible ground to the religious right-wing, giving a whole new meaning to the term "capitulation."

Since November, faced with keeping a fragile coalition together, and unwilling to engage in a public discourse on a set of laws that has been used to persecute Muslims and non-Muslims alike, the PPP has chosen instead to back down on the stance on protecting minorities that it had adopted prior to the elections held in 2008. Instead of cracking down on those inciting murder against Salmaan Taseer and National Assembly members Sherry Rehman and Shahbaz Bhatti or demanding that provincial governments take action against those issuing fatwas against the trio, it chose to disband the committee set up to discuss the Blasphemy Laws, announce that Aasia would not be pardoned, and that the laws would not be changed.

Religious Affairs Minister and PPP National Assembly member Khursheed Shah said that the bill introduced by Rehman proposing amendments in the Blasphemy Laws "had nothing to do with the government." Interior Minister and PPP Senator Rehman Malik said he would shoot any blasphemer himself. Law Minister and PPP National Assembly member Babar Awan recommended that the Blasphemy Laws not be changed. And even as Bhatti’s body awaits burial, the PPP has yet to announce that it will take any decisive action on the core issue that led to Bhatti’s untimely death. Every time the PPP buries its head in the sand, it shows clearly its moral cowardice and abandons those who raise a voice against injustice.

Bhatti’s death is not the death of reason, or liberalism, or freedom of expression — that was buried when Taseer was laid to rest in Lahore in January. This is just the beginning of a new era in Pakistan, where, like the Taliban have vowed: they will kill each of those that dares raise their voice. And while one can blame extremist forces for being responsible for the attacks, it is time those that rule the country take a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror, and realize that their hands are stained with blood. Bhatti has paid the highest price, and his crime was not just his bravery, but for being part of a political party that is now excelling in abandoning its own.

Huma Imtiaz works as a journalist in Pakistan and can be reached at huma.imtiaz@gmail.com

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.