"I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us," the doomed man said, staring straight into the video camera. "And I am ready to die for a cause." Shahbaz Bhatti had no hesitation in his voice as he responded to a question about threats from the Taliban and al-Qaeda. "I'm living for my community ... and I will die to defend their rights." It was his last answer in a four-month-old self-produced video that was to be broadcast in the event of his death. But the radicals had the final say. On March 2, Bhatti, Pakistan's Minister for Minority Affairs, was shot dead in Islamabad. Pamphlets scattered on the ground claimed the act for a new alliance of "the organization of al-Qaeda and the Punjabi Taliban" and asserted that other infidels and apostates would meet the same fate.
Bhatti's death had been foretold not just by himself but also in the nation's response to a previous assassination, that of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer on Jan. 4. Taseer, a self-made millionaire, had turned his largely ceremonial post into a platform for a campaign to amend Pakistan's blasphemy laws. Bhatti, the only Christian in the Cabinet, refused to be a token and swore to battle intolerance. Both men supported clemency for Aasia Noreen, a Christian woman who had been accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. Taseer's stance on the issue infuriated a large part of the population that, thanks to religious leaders and school curriculums, believes that blasphemy is a sin deserving of execution. In the weeks leading up to his assassination, Taseer had been denounced at Friday prayers, excoriated in the media and largely abandoned by his Pakistan People's Party (PPP) for fears that his campaign would prove politically toxic. The witch hunt culminated in a bodyguard's pumping 27 rounds into his head and chest in the parking lot of a popular Islamabad shopping center.
Within hours of Taseer's death, telephone text messages celebrating his assassination made the rounds. "Justice has been done," read one. "If you love the Prophet, pass this on." A Facebook fan page for assassin Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri garnered more than 2,000 members before site administrators shut it down. Even the leaders of state-funded mosques refused to say funeral prayers for the slain governor. When Qadri was transferred to a local jail, he was garlanded with roses by hundreds of lawyers the vanguard of a movement that in 2008 helped unseat a military dictator offering to take on his case for free.
At his court appearance a few days later, Qadri told the judge that he believed in a Pakistan where loyalty to the Prophet eclipses all other rights. According to Taseer's daughter Shehrbano, her father "wanted an egalitarian society where open debate is protected and people are not killed for speaking out." And Bhatti dreamed of a nation true to founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah's vision, one where "you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship." Which vision prevails Qadri's or Taseer and Bhatti's will decide the future of the country.
The Roots of Extremism
It is not news that Pakistan has a lunatic fringe. What is disturbing is that after Taseer's murder, when the silent majority finally spoke up, it praised Qadri, not his victim. The public reaction exploded the myth of Pakistan's moderate Islam; Qadri belongs to a mainstream sect that routinely condemns the Taliban. "The Pakistan we saw in the wake of Taseer's killing is the real Pakistan," says Amir Muhammad Rana of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies. For the past two years, Rana's organization has conducted in-depth interviews with a broad spectrum of Pakistani citizens. "They might dress Western and eat at McDonald's, but when it comes to religion, most Pakistanis have a very conservative mind-set."
Pakistan's religious parties rarely do well at the polls a fact often cited by those countering concerns that the country is going fundamentalist but their street power is considerable. The furor over blasphemy appears to be partly in response to significant losses for the religious right in the 2008 elections. With the current government on the verge of collapse and popular sentiment against the PPP mounting, the religious parties are betting on significant gains if fresh elections are called. The case of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor accused of killing two Pakistanis during what appears to have been a botched attempt to rob him, demonstrates the state of Pakistan's politics. It has gone virtually unremarked in Pakistan that Qadri, a confessed murderer, has been hailed as a national hero, while Davis who, whatever his background, seems to have been acting in self-defense is considered worthy of the death penalty. Over the past few weeks, street rallies led by the religious right have simultaneously called for the release of Qadri and the hanging of Davis.
Using religion to shore up political support is nothing new in Pakistan. Founded as a Muslim nation carved from a newly independent India in 1947, Pakistan has long struggled to unite a diverse population divided by language, culture and ethnicity. Islam was the common denominator, but Jinnah was famously enigmatic about its role in government.
Then, in 1977, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, an Islamist military general, overthrew the democratically elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was already retrenching his secular vision of Pakistan in an effort to win religious support. To further appease Muslim religious leaders, Zia-ul-Haq strengthened the colonial-era blasphemy laws, mandating that breaches should be answered by the death penalty. Since then, more than 1,274 cases have been lodged. As repeating blasphemous words could be considered to be perpetuating the crime, many cases are accepted without evidence, a system well primed for the pursuit of vendettas. That nobody has yet been executed by court order is hardly reassuring: 37 of the accused have been killed by vigilantes. (In 1929, Jinnah famously defended an illiterate carpenter who shot to death a Hindu publisher accused of blasphemy. The plea failed, and after the carpenter was hanged, Taseer's father was one of the pallbearers.)