March 3, 2011 Special Dispatch No. 3639

Pakistani Commentators Examine the Extremist Religious Mindset in Pakistan After Assassinations of Liberal Politicians over the Blasphemy Laws Controversy

March 3, 2011
Pakistan | Special Dispatch No. 3639

On January 31, 2010, Pakistani religious activists hold mass protests in Islamabad against potential attempts to amend the blasphemy laws of Pakistan (Image courtesy: Roznama Ummat, January 1, 2011)

(Also read – Document: A Guide to the Blasphemy Laws of Pakistan)

Pakistan's federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in the Pakistani cabinet, was killed in the federal capital of Islamabad on March 2 for supporting calls for reforming the blasphemy laws of Pakistan. This was the second assassination of a liberal Pakistani political leader in two months over the controversy surrounding the country's blasphemy laws. On January 4, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was shot dead by his own security guard for urging amendments in the blasphemy laws. Both Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti belonged to the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of Benazir Bhutto, who also was assassinated in December 2007, allegedly by Taliban personnel hired by some elements in the Pakistani intelligence services.

The editorials, article, and blog posting below examine the role of the Pakistani state in strengthening the extremist mindset in Pakistani society. All these opinions here represent a liberal criticism of the extremist mass thinking in Pakistani society.

In an editorial titled, "Another Tragedy," the liberal newspaper Dawn noted that the extremist mindset in Pakistan is sponsored by institutions of the Pakistani state. In an editorial titled "Death of a State," the mainstream daily The Express Tribune argued that Bhatti's assassination marks the end of the Pakistani state. In an editorial titled "Shahbaz Bhatti: a Great Loss," the Lahore-based Daily Times observed that liberal dissident voices are being silenced one by one by the religious groups.

In an article titled "One More Reason to Leave this Country?" Lahore-based lawyer Asad Jamal commented on the Bhatti assassination, wondering if those wanting to leave Pakistan are right, in view of the continuing violence. Pakistan's best-known cultural commentator and satirist Nadeem F. Paracha posted a blog titled "Another Death, Another Day," in which he argued that the mass extremist thinking in Pakistan is due to the support of the Pakistani state, and shows symptoms of a fascist mindset.

"The Real Culprit is Known to All: An Extremist Mindset That has, With the Sponsorship of Some Institutions of the State, Spread Far and Wide in Pakistani Society"

Following are excerpts from the Dawn editorial:[i]

"The cold, calculated assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister for religious minorities, in Islamabad yesterday is yet another blow to the idea of [founder Mohammad Ali] Jinnah's Pakistan. Mr. Bhatti's killers may have escaped the scene of the crime, but the real culprit is known to all: an extremist mindset that has, with the sponsorship of some institutions of the state, spread far and wide in Pakistani society. The tragic irony of a country created to protect the rights of a minority – Muslims in unified India – turning into a killing field for those standing up for the rights of minorities evokes a deep sense of pathos and helplessness.

"Yet, the second high-profile killing in less than two months in Islamabad linked to the issue of the country's blasphemy laws raises at least two hard questions.

"One, how was it that Mr. Bhatti, clearly a marked man, was left exposed to those who sought to kill him? Police officials have claimed that the slain minister rejected round-the-clock protection, but that is an insufficient explanation. It was the job of the authorities to keep Mr. Bhatti safe – whatever the minister's preferences. Short of leaving Mr. Bhatti completely exposed, as he was yesterday morning, more discreet security could have been afforded to him. A bullet-proof vehicle could also have saved Mr. Bhatti's life. Was the threat to him not clear enough? Is the best security only reserved for self-described 'VVIPs'?"

"Institutions of the State Which Have had a Hand in Creating and Sustaining the Culture of Jihad... Appear Dangerously Tolerant of Certain Mindsets, So Long As They Serve Some Perceived Tactical or Strategic Goals"

"Two, when will those responsible for shaping the policies of the state recognize that retreat in the battle against fanaticism and intolerance only gives the extremists more space? The PPP [ruling Pakistan People's Party] has now seen its chairman [Benazir Bhutto], a provincial governor [Salman Taseer], and a federal minister [Shahbaz Bhatti] slain by religious extremists of different hues. And yet the party which leads the federal and Sindh governments has maintained a resolute silence when confronted by its extremist enemies. In fact, senior party leaders have gone out of their way to seemingly placate the extremists.

"Similarly, other political parties and leaders have also either maintained a steadfast silence or pandered to religious extremists. Institutions of the state which have had a hand in creating and sustaining the culture of jihad and militancy also appear dangerously tolerant of certain mindsets so long as they serve some perceived tactical or strategic goals.

"For sure, all are not equal when it comes to influencing state policy. The political class is too often too unsettled and unsure of its position to challenge entrenched policies and mindsets. But if nobody stands up, if nobody tries to fight for what is good and right, the extremists will surely win."

"The Punjab Government has Simply Brushed Under the Carpet Repeated Incidents of Violence against Those Accused of Blasphemy"

Following are excerpts from the editorial in The Express Tribune daily:[2]

"Shahbaz Bhatti has been executed in Islamabad, by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Punjab chapter, as claimed in a pamphlet recovered from the site of the murder. He and the Christian community had been receiving threats for some time, after the conviction … of an illiterate Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, for blasphemy.

"In Pakistan's rapidly growing religious extremism, this is the second death which will probably shake the world, while Pakistani Muslims remain inured to the treatment received from the Taliban. The nation and the media are divided over a similar execution of former Punjab governor Salman Taseer over the controversial blasphemy law, which allows innocent people to be given death sentences.

"Bhatti had predicted his death. He had earlier voiced his fear that he would be 'the highest target,' following the assassination of Salman Taseer. He had also said that fatwas had been issued by extremist clerics calling for his beheading. The public spread of these messages of violence has continued to enjoy impunity. Now the world will mourn the death of another lonely Christian in a country where hardly anyone listens to the woes of his community and where the Punjab government has simply brushed under the carpet repeated incidents of violence against those accused of blasphemy.

"The Pakistani media has not paid much attention to this hapless community that opted to stay in Pakistan after 1947 because it had confidence in the leadership of Quaid-i-Azam [Great Leader, or Pakistan's founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah] and openly supported him. This was also the community that later served Pakistan well in the army and fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Muslims in the war against India, winning bravery awards. This is also the community that served Pakistan selflessly in the sectors of education and health, educating even the leaders who grew up to ignore their plight in Punjab, where they are concentrated. When the Pope at the Vatican protested the conviction of Aasia Bibi, the Urdu press thought it wise to publicize the wrath of the narrow-minded cleric against him. Consequently, the world outside thinks Pakistan is drowning in its own extremism."

"This is the Death of the State through Extremism; Nothing that Pakistan Says is Deemed Reliable by the Outside World"

"While the nation is in a fever from the threat it feels from the person of Raymond Davis, it is forgetting that the Taliban have a larger share in killing its sons and daughters. Even as Minister Bhatti was executed near his house, the other Taliban in Mardan attacked a girls' school and opened fire on innocent pupils who the state is no longer able to protect. No thought is being spared for the most vulnerable sections of our society as powerful clerics appear on TV channels to threaten more violence.

"Columnists don't tire of playing down the blood-thirstiness of the religious terrorists as they invoke scenes of destruction allegedly wreaked by America through its agents. So incensed was Taliban chief Hakimullah Meshud at the allegation that he was working for the CIA that he allowed himself to be included in the [picture] showing the execution of ex-ISI officer Colonel Imam, just as he had had his picture taken together with a Jordanian who had helped kill a number of CIA agents in Afghanistan.

"This is the death of the state through extremism. Nothing that Pakistan says is deemed reliable by the outside world. The economy is dying because its external links are snapped by the fear inspired by Pakistani thinking. Pakistanis say the country's courts are independent and free but no one believes it to be true as terrorists are let off by judges, the latter not being protected by the state against threats of assassination. Its leaders are killed by assassins known to their victims – as in the case of Benazir Bhutto – but columnists insist that she was assassinated by America. It is quite possible that in the coming days, a protesting world would be told that Shahbaz Bhatti was executed by a group of assassins organized by Raymond Davis under orders from Washington!

"Lawyers who have showered flower petals on the assassin of Salman Taseer should take pause and look at the extremism of the death of Bhatti, a citizen of Pakistan whose only fault was that he was representing his community and protesting against its targeting under the blasphemy law."

"Religious Intolerance is Increasing, While Dissident Voices are Being Silenced in Pakistan One after Another; All Those Who have Raised Their Voice against the Extremist Mindset are Being Threatened"

Following are excerpts from the Daily Times editorial:[3]

"No group initially took responsibility for the assassination, but pamphlets left by Mr. Bhatti's body were attributed to the Pakistani Taliban. Later in the day, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility and issued a statement that 'those proposing amendments in the blasphemy law will meet the same fate.' President [Asif Ali] Zardari and Prime Minister [Yousuf Raza] Gilani have strongly condemned the incident and ordered an inquiry into it. Within two months, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has lost two of its prominent members. Mr. Bhatti's assassination comes almost two months after Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer's murder in Islamabad.

"Being a member of the minority community, Mr. Bhatti was vocal about the misuse of the blasphemy laws. In an interview to the BBC, Mr. Bhatti had said: '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.' Mr. Bhatti's brutal assassination has once again highlighted the fact that we are fast turning into a violent society.

"Governor Taseer's assassination and now Mr. Bhatti's murder by religious zealots should serve as a wake-up call for the government. If the terrorists can kill the governor of Punjab and a federal minister in broad daylight in the capital of Pakistan, the government should not rest till the perpetrators are nabbed and brought to book. The extremist groups feel that they have a free hand to do as they please, to silence voices they disagree with. The PPP was pussyfooting around Mr. Taseer's murder. It is because of the PPP government's spineless response to Mr. Taseer's assassination that the religious right was further emboldened...

"It is also astonishing that even though the debate on any amendment or repeal of blasphemy laws died with the death of Mr. Taseer, the religious right continues to play this card to justify violence.

"Religious intolerance is increasing, while dissident voices are being silenced in Pakistan one after another. All those who have raised their voice against the extremist mindset are being threatened or harassed. The government must not let the terrorists challenge the writ of the state anymore. This is not the time to be frightened into silence. It is time to implement the law and not surrender in front of the extremists. Our founding fathers did not wage a struggle for an intolerant society. They wanted equal rights for all human beings regardless of their caste, creed, and religion..."

"I Wonder if All Those Who Said This was Not a Country Worth Living [In] were Right…; With Shahbaz Bhatti… Murdered, Like Salman Taseer was Two Months Ago, There is One More Reason to Fear, One More Reason to Leave This Country"

Following are excerpts from Asad Jamal's article:[4]

"I had never met Shahbaz Bhatti but I knew him to be a bold man… I saw Bhatti on the television screen trying to reason out why he thought the blasphemy laws should be reconsidered. In one such program, he was bullied by the aggressive female anchor as well as other participants, one an elderly senior Urdu-language columnist and the other a 'court reporter.'

"I recall when the elderly columnist, referring to Pope Benedict's statement about blasphemy laws, used rude language bordering on the abusive, Bhatti advised him to be civil, but this was ignored. The other participant, a reporter claiming to have done court reporting for years, went to the extent of saying in an extremely rude manner that Bhatti had no business questioning an Islamic law as he was not a Muslim. I was shocked. One could clearly see that Shahbaz Bhatti was disturbed; his face gave a bewildered look as he spoke.

"I was immediately reminded that the first book I open to find answers to questions on Islamic law is that of D. F. Mulla, a Parsi. How anyone could be so ignorant, so insensitive, I wondered.

"It's two o' clock in the afternoon on Wednesday as I write this [on the day of Bhatti's assassination]. About three hours have passed since Bhatti's assassination. A text message from a friend calls us to join a protest march against the murder, which makes me wonder: How long we will keep protesting, how long will they keep killing our people and how long will we keep counting the bodies? I wonder if all those who said this was not a country worth living were right. I text these disjointed thoughts to a friend who says he gave up on this country a while back.

"With Shahbaz Bhatti, our member of parliament and federal minister for minorities, murdered, like Salman Taseer was two months ago, there is one more reason to fear, one more reason to leave this country. But both of them lived here despite threats to their lives, till their fates were decided. And this makes me wonder: Could there be a better reason to stay on and shed fear and speak out till everyone else has turned into a Malik Mumtaz Qadri [the assassin of Salman Taseer]?

"I decide to join the protesters."

"What Can be Expected from a State That has a History of Both Creating and Hosting Exactly the Kind of Faith-Driven Lunacy Each and Every Pakistani is Bow Engulfed In?"

Following are excerpts from Nadeem F. Paracha's blog:[5]

"No surprises here. Another voice bold enough to speak out against the madness that has gripped the country has been silenced. Bhatti, a Pakistani Christian, had been an outspoken critic of the misuse of the controversial Blasphemy Law and according to his colleagues he was facing death threats from those who just wanted him to shut up.

"After former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer's assassination at the hands of a uniformed extremist more than a month ago, Bhatti has become the second high-profile victim of the violent fanaticism being demonstrated by those who want the Blasphemy Law to stay put, without any amendments whatsoever.

"Why shouldn't these madmen continue the way they have been so far – slaughtering innocent men in the name of faith, taking out highly-charged rallies condoning the murders and using mosques to announce their list of those who (according to them) are wajibul qatal [deserving to be killed as per Islam].

"Why shouldn't they, indeed. Because who are they afraid of? Not the state, not the government, not the law. All three have simply capitulated in front of the psychosis that is ever so often being presented to us through TV talk shows, mosques and cyber space as the 'true faith.'

"Forget the state, the government, and the law. One never knows where they stand on anything anyway. The government is weak and is more interested in its own Machiavellian survival, blackmailed into further submission and paranoia by an anarchic, double-talking group of allies and an opposition still stuck in limbo between Riyadh and Raiwind!

"And the state? Well, what can be expected from a state that has a history of both creating and hosting exactly the kind of faith-driven lunacy each and every Pakistani is now engulfed in?"

"For Years a Convoluted Narrative has Been Circulated by the State, the Clergy, Schools and Now the Electronic Media: i.e. Pakistan was Created in the Name of Islam…; Thus, Only Muslims… have the Right to Rule, Run, and Benefit…"

"For years a convoluted narrative has been circulated by the state, the clergy, schools, and now the electronic media: i.e. Pakistan was created in the name of Islam (read, a theocratic state). Thus, only Muslims (mainly orthodox Sunnis) have the right to rule, run, and benefit from this country. 'Minority' religions and 'heretical Islamic sects' who are citizens of Pakistan are not to be trusted. They need to be isolated constitutionally, socially, and culturally.

"What else? Yes, parliamentary democracy too cannot be trusted. It unleashes ethnic forces, 'corruption,' and undermines the role of the military and that of Islam in the state's make-up. It threatens the 'unity' of the country; a unity based on a homogeneous understanding of Islam (mainly concocted by the state and its right-wing allies). Most of our political, economic and social ills are due to the diabolical conspiracies hatched by our many enemies.

"Now the same state is struggling to control the glorified monsters that it created. These monsters have no fear of their creator. The state is hapless and stunned; only good to play silly games with its subjects. The Pakistani state is not grounded in reality. In fact it is not grounded at all. It is a fantasy that has now started to rot and look redundant. It is a 63-year-old daydream about being pious, just and strong. And yet it has been anything but.

No one trusts the Pakistani state anymore – ironically not even those who want to make Pakistan look and sound macho, ghiaratmand [the self-respecting] and devout…"

"The State and Its Religious Allies have For Long Collaborated to Continue Sidelining and Alienating the Non-Muslim and Non-Sunni Minorities"

"So now I wonder, who applauded the killing of a 'blasphemer' this time? Bhatti was shot not only because he was vocal about the controversies that surround and emerge from a man-made law that is considered divine, he was also shot because he was from a minority religion in this country.

"By the way, men like Taseer too are a minority: an orthodox Sunni Muslim but secular and liberal. Think about it.

"The state and its religious allies have for long collaborated to continue sidelining and alienating the non-Muslim and non-Sunni minorities, so much so that there are actually state-approved history textbooks out there which to allude them as enemies.

"It seems as though Pakistan's survival can only be justified by the number of enemies we can concoct. As if there is no honor in being a country that does not have or cannot make any enemies. The whole 'jihad' industry that we have constructed, the fatwa factories and an army of twisted apologists, their performance and credibility is measured by the number of 'enemies' they can either kill or pinpoint."

"The Bad News is That Such Beliefs are Symptomatic of a Society that has Started to Respond Enthusiastically to the Major Symptoms of Fascist Thought"

"The bad news is that such beliefs are symptomatic of a society that has started to respond enthusiastically to the major symptoms of fascist thought.

"Symptoms such as a xenophobic exhibition of nationalism, a disdain for the recognition of human rights, identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause, supremacy of the military, obsession with national security, the intertwining of religion and government, disdain for intellectuals and the arts, and an obsession with crime and punishment.

"We do not debate. We only react and then huddle up behind our flimsy and lopsided historical and national narratives about 'Pakistaniat' [Pakistanism]. We manifest our destiny as conquering Muslims, cursing the world for our ills, looking out for 'infidels' and 'heretics' among us, or for scapegoats in the shape of media-constructed punching bags.

"We are going nowhere. We are only busy constructing walls around ourselves. Societies that do this have lost their will to keep up with and positively compete with the world at large. It begins to isolate itself, cut-off from the outside world and only allowing itself to be compared to its own mediocrities…"


[1] Dawn (Pakistan), March 3, 2011. The texts of the editorials and articles in this dispatch have been lightly edited for clarity.

[2] The Express Tribune (Pakistan), March 3, 2011.

[3] Daily Times (Pakistan), March 3, 2011.

[4] The Express Tribune (Pakistan), March 3, 2011.

[5] (Pakistan), March 2, 2011.

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