By Qurat ul Ain Siddiqui
KARACHI, Pakistan: Last month, Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated outside his Islamabad home. The so-called Tehrik-i-Taliban (Student Movement) of Punjab claimed responsibility for the attack in pamphlets discovered at the scene of the shooting. The perpetrators stated that their act was a response to the minister’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are meant to protect against anyone insulting Islam and/or the Prophet Muhammad. Violating these laws can lead to fines, imprisonment and even capital punishment. Several segments of the Pakistani public support the laws, thinking they have been derived directly from the Quran. However, there is no evidence to support this perception.
Bhatti’s murder, which came just 57 days after the killing of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer by a member of his security detail for opposing the same laws, is an unfortunate reminder that the Pakistani state has yet to respond effectively to the intolerance and religious extremism that thrive in certain segments of society — trends that are rendering the country’s religious minorities increasingly vulnerable.
The killing of Bhatti, a Roman Catholic and a founding member of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) who had been working for the country’s marginalized religious minorities, has further highlighted an urgent need for the state to protect voices calling for moderation and interfaith harmony, and to clamp down on an environment of growing extremism.
Bhatti had been receiving death threats since the 2009 riots in the town of Gojra, in Punjab, that were triggered by rumors of blasphemy and which led to the killings of eight Pakistani Christians. However, the threats increased once Bhatti began calling for “a thorough re-investigation and fair appeal” of Aasia Noreen’s case. Noreen, a Christian Pakistani woman, was sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy by a court in Punjab’s Nankana Sahib district. An appeal filed in November 2010 against that ruling is still pending in the Lahore High Court.
As investigations into Bhatti’s assassination continue and questions over the absence of security around the Minister keep emerging, the state must also tackle the broader issues at stake — intolerance and religious extremism — and examine the obstacles standing in the way of a pluralist state as envisioned by Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
Bhatti’s and Taseer’s assassinations, as well as similar incidents, are an affront to the vision which was crucial to the formation of Pakistan — protecting the rights of all citizens regardless of religious beliefs.
To prevent the recurrence of such incidents, it is imperative for the government to devise a comprehensive, wide-ranging policy to remedy the effects of religious intolerance and strengthen the foundation of a state that was created to uphold the principle of freedom of religion and to protect all its citizens through the rule of law.
To begin with, the government could implement a policy Bhatti had encouraged the Education Ministry to adopt that resolutely promotes the principles of religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence in schools. Revising the existing curriculum and re-orienting teaching methodologies would be essential steps that could, in the long-run, produce results such as a shift in mindset and entrenched biases.
Bhatti also hoped the government would enforce a statute that made incitement to violence against individuals and groups on the basis of their religious affiliation illegal. Simultaneously, laws that encourage political and social discrimination on religious grounds, including the blasphemy laws, should be reviewed, and legislative safeguards should be introduced for religious minorities and other vulnerable groups.
The government could also make a difference if it were to initiate programs that foster interfaith harmony and dialogue between representatives of Pakistan’s various religious communities.
Each of these steps will only be effective if the state guarantees security and fundamental rights to individuals and communities, in accordance with the Pakistani constitution.
A government that advocates interfaith harmony and works actively and effectively to curb extremist forces will go a long way towards protecting Pakistan’s religious minorities, thereby reclaiming Jinnah’s vision of a pluralist, progressive Pakistan.
Qurat ul ain Siddiqui is a journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).