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Carrying on the Legacy of Pakistan’s Shahbaz Bhatti

Nina Shea

To remember Pakistan’s Shahbaz Bhatti is to be inspired by a ray of goodness and hope amidst the gathering darkness in that country.

It has been three years since Pakistan’s minister of minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated on March 2, 2011, in broad daylight in that nation’s capital, and still no one has been convicted. The trial for the murder of the country’s only Christian cabinet member started last month but is hampered by death threats to the prosecuting attorney, the complainant, and the witnesses

Yesterday’s suicide bombing of an Islamabad courthouse, which killed eleven and wounded many more among the judges, lawyers, constables, and ordinary citizens present, underscores the fear that is the constant companion of every Pakistani, great and small, who dares to resist or even stand in the way of the militants’ Islamist agenda.

Bhatti himself was a heroic resister, an indefatigable and peaceful proponent for civil rights both within the government and through the non-governmental All Pakistan Minorities Alliance that he founded. While a student, he had become a committed activist on behalf of religious freedom and it was for this cause that he was murdered.

Bhatti knew his days were numbered. Undaunted, he continued to campaign for justice on behalf of religious minorities in the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim nation. He never backed off his mission, only his personal life — by never marrying, as he told me, so as to spare a young family his expected fate.

His last breaths, at age 42, were in defense of Asia Bibi, the illiterate Christian mother of five who was jailed in 2009 for blasphemy against Islam. She remains on death row. Her appeal hearing for February 14 was abruptly cancelled, with officials commenting only that it was a “sensitive” case.

Shahbaz rightly saw that, by adopting blasphemy laws, the state had given Islamist extremists an upper hand. These protean laws allow the most extreme voices to determine the limits of public discourse and they provide a particularly effective legal weapon for targeting religious minorities. (In blasphemy trials, oral testimony is often the only evidence and a Muslim’s testimony carries twice the weight of a non-Muslim’s.)

After Shahbaz’s murder, his brother, Paul, was brought into the government. He was not appointed to the cabinet (that position was abolished after the assassination because it too was “sensitive”) but to an advisory role on “national harmony and minority affairs,” a post Shahbaz helped to establish.

Before he left for Italy after receiving death threats and following a change in government last May, Paul Bhatti worked to counter extremist ideology through dialogue. He was instrumental in bringing about the successful release of Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl who was jailed for blasphemy in 2012 even though she was mentally disabled and only 14 years old at the time. Masih and her entire family then fled to Canada.

Yet Pakistan’s blasphemy laws remain and their list of victims lengthens. Just weeks ago, Mohammad Asghar, a 70-year-old retired British-Pakistani politician, diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, was sentenced to death. He allegedly claimed to be Islam’s Prophet Mohammad.

In another recent case, Sajjad Masih, a 29-year-old Seventh-Day Adventist, was convicted and given a life sentence last July for sending blasphemous text messages to a member of a religious extremist group in 2011, despite there being no evidence presented at trial.

Masood Ahmad, a 72-year-old Ahmadi Muslim, a faith tradition declared blasphemous by the constitution, was detained for two months on blasphemy charges in Lahore. A British homeopathic doctor, Ahmad was accused of “posing as a Muslim” by two extremists posing as patients who secretly videotaped his reading the Quran at the clinic. After official British protests, he was released on bail and allowed to escape back to Britain. The situation facing the Ahmadi community has become so dire that an Ahmadiyya Muslim Caucus was started in Congress last Friday by Republican representative Frank Wolf with Democrat representative Jackie Speier.

Horrific atrocities are also committed extra-judicially against members of minority faiths. Topping the list are individual murders, mob rampages through Christian neighborhoods, and attacks against Ahmadi, Shiite, and Christian houses of worship, such as the suicide bombing of Peshawar’s Anglican All Saints Church during services last September 22. Much of this violence is rooted in accusations of apostasy and blasphemy. A pogrom against the Joseph Colony, a Christian neighborhood in Lahore, last March, which saw the torching of 200 homes and churches, was triggered by a rumor that a sanitation worker who lived there had committed blasphemy.

Inside Pakistan, fewer and fewer moderate voices remain to challenge the blasphemy laws. Others, including another of Shahbaz’s brothers, Peter Bhatti, are carrying on Shahbaz’s legacy from Western-based NGOs. They need help.

Instead of taking out Pakistani television ads to apologize for irreverent, private YouTube videos as President Obama and Secretary Clinton did in September 2012, our leaders should firmly press Islamabad for the decriminalization of blasphemy and the immediate release of Asia Bibi and the other victims. As Shahbaz Bhatti knew, rather than placate extremists, the blasphemy laws legitimize the drive to control belief and expression, silence the moderates, fan religious resentments, and set up religious minorities as fair game.

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