Another day and yet another brutal killing in Pakistan for speaking your mind. Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for religious minorities, was ambushed this morning and gunned down on his way to his office. Bhatti, a Christian, had been receiving death threats after calling for the country’s controversial blasphemy law to be reformed.Pamphlets found at the scene of his killing warned of a similar fate for anyone opposed to the law.
His killing comes barley two weeks after Mumtaz Qadri was indicted for the murder of Salman Taseer, the governor of the Punjab province. Qadri, a police commando, was part of the security detail for Taseer when he gunned him down; his reason, Taseer’s opposition of the blasphemy law in Pakistan and his support for Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who had recently been sentenced to death under this law.
While popular reaction to Bhatti’s killing has yet to come out, if Taseer’s killing is any indicator, it could prove to be divisive. That killing sharply divided the country; while many Pakistanis denounced Qadri’s action, many more came out in his praise. Facebook pages were set up in his support, clerics glorified him in their sermons, and ironically, for religious conservatives who frown upon such practices, he was even sent Valentine’s Day gifts.
The killing of Taseer and the reception it got from many Pakistanis is indicative of how religious extremism has created a society increasingly intolerant of alternative voices.
Bhatti, Taseer and others are well aware of the dangers they put themselves in when they speak out and exercise their freedom of expression in the face of such extremism. Taseer was under great pressure to end his criticism of the blasphemy law, but he kept going on, maintaining he would not bow down even if he was the last man standing. After the killing of Taseer, Bhatti knew that he was a prime target for asking for the blasphemy law to be reformed. He too persevered, saying, “I was told that if I was to continue the campaign against the blasphemy law, I will be assassinated. I will be beheaded. But forces of violence, forces of extremism cannot harass me, cannot threaten me. ”
The problem, however, goes much deeper than just religious extremism; the simple truth is that from its independence Pakistan has failed to develop an inclusive and democratic culture. At the political level, time and again the military has intervened and taken over the running of the country. Further, in a religiously-minded society, both military and civilian governments have turned to religious elements to bolster themselves. Even though religious parties have never gained much support in elections, they do have considerable street power and can be useful allies.
Just as democracy has been unable to develop at the political level, so too has it been unable to develop roots in the wider society. Large parts of the population live under highly undemocratic tribal or feudal systems. Couple these undemocratic leanings with a religiously minded people and you have a society where any dissenting voice can be silenced by an appeal to religious sensibilities.
The solution to this situation is mainly twofold. First is to assure that a democratic culture takes root in the Pakistani society. Electoral democracy, though a necessary element, is not enough by itself; the entire society needs to be more tolerant and democratic. Second is for the promotion of secularism at the state level to ensure that the government no longer turns to religious elements in society to bolster up support. While other measures are also necessary to ensure that basic rights and freedoms are upheld, these two steps could be the building blocks of a more tolerant Pakistan.