Nearly three weeks on from the callous murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, minority communities in Pakistan are still mourning the loss of their most prominent and determined advocate. For over two decades Bhatti had fought relentlessly to overturn oppressive blasphemy laws, end religious apartheid and create a pluralistic, tolerant state. His All Pakistan Minorities Alliance combined patriotism with respect for the traditions, beliefs and cultures of all Pakistani groups and his appointment as Minister for Minorities Affairs in 2008 led to genuine advances – including a quota for minorities in government jobs and reserved seats for minorities in the Senate, despite opposition from the rest of the government and numerous extremist groups.
Ultimately though, he knew that these successes would cost him his life and on March 2nd the worst fears of Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus, Shiites, Zikiris and other Pakistani minorities came to pass. Since then the violence has only continued, with the mysterious death of a Christian held in custody on charges of blasphemy and the unprovoked murder of an Ahmadiyya in Sindh Province being amongst the more high-profile sectarian incidents in the past week alone.
Of course religious persecution is nothing new in Pakistan. The vile blasphemy legislation still being used to pass death sentences against those accused of insulting Islam originated under colonial rule before being strengthened in the 1980s by dictator Zia Al-Huq. Similarly, the designation of Ahmadis as non-Muslims that is at the root of so much violence today, stems from the 1970s rule of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – the man widely regarded as the father of Pakistani democracy.
Ironically, the discrimination so efficiently executed by Bhutto, Al-Huq and subsequent Pakistani administrations including Zardari’s, has been a response to hardliners and fanatics – intended to placate them in the name of state stability- yet in practice it has had precisely the opposite effect. Beyond directly violating the human rights of minorities, the repressive laws, just as in Indonesia, have created an environment in which extremist groups actually flourish; allowing them to destroy religious buildings and carry out brutal massacres. Ali Eteraz succinctly and accurately describes how “the blasphemy law now provides convenient protection to anyone who ever wants to kill, murder, maim, beat up, mug, abduct, or punish any religious minority. All you really have to do is carry out your brutality and then point at the victim and say that he was blasphemous.” This situation is exacerbated by the complicity of government officials and police in sectarian violence- cumulating in a desperate state of affairs where most political commentators accept that though the authorities almost certainly did not pull the trigger on Bhatti, they undoubtedly contributed to his death through demonising advocates of religious equality and encouraging inter-communal violence.
Tragically Bhatti’s murder was just one of many signs that the persecution is worsening. Statistics demonstrate that 2009 was the worst year of oppression for Pakistani Ahmadis, until ninety-four were butchered in a single massacre during 2010. The exodus of Hindus into India is also growing and violent attacks against Christian communities appeared to be stepping up even before the nation’s only Christian Minister was killed. As the USA continues drone strikes against Taliban elements in Western Pakistan, Scotland’s Cardinal Keith O’Brien has called for conditions of religious freedom to be incorporated into UK-to-Pakistan aid; yet for all this international pressure, real progress can only come from a genuine shift in the Pakistani government’s mind-set. When Zardari and his administration finally accept that religious persecution increases extremism and turmoil rather than reducing it, then maybe –for the sake of stability if nothing else – official and legislative moves towards religious plurality may finally take place. Prior amongst these must be the repeal of blasphemy laws, recognition of Ahmadis as Muslims and a thorough restructuring of the police force. However, the bigoted school of thought that has dominated Pakistani politics for over half a century remains strong, making such moves currently unforeseeable. In post-Bhatti Pakistan, the outlook for minority groups is bleaker than ever.