The killing of two senior state officials for speaking up against the controversial blasphemy law in Pakistan raises serious concerns. For it is evident that both Punjab Province Governor Salman Taseer and Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti were assassinated by Islamist extremists although the Pakistani government has been a key ally of the United States in its war against terror for around a decade.
Both former President General Pervez Musharraf and the current head of State, Asif Ali Zardari, promised to repeal the blasphemy law embedded in Sections 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code. Their pledge acknowledged that the law was being misused to target religious minorities – Christians, Shi’as, Ahmadiyyas and Hindus – and was allowing Islamists to justify killings, thereby propagating their twisted belief that killing a “blasphemous” person earns a heavenly reward.
This law is dangerous particularly because there is no provision to punish a false accuser or a false witness of blasphemy. This means a Muslim can easily seek revenge by making an allegation against his or her adversary who is a non-Muslim. While Musharraf and Zardari fought terrorists with some genuine commitment, they failed to revoke the blasphemy law.
They failed because they tried to “sail in two boats,” as an Asian idiom goes. In other words, the Pakistani government is fighting Islamist terrorists on the one hand and acceding to their pressure on the other.
For example, the Pakistani government promptly condemned Taseer’s killing and arrested his bodyguard killer who is being prosecuted as per the law of the land. But weeks later, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani pressured his party colleague and legislator Sherry Rehman to withdraw a private bill she had tabled in the parliament to amend the blasphemy law. A typical Pakistani head of the government, Gilani thought his decision to keep the law intact was in the interest of peace in the country, as if it could be established only by pleasing the Islamists. What was the result? Apparently emboldened by the government’s move, they killed one of the strongest voices of sanity in Pakistan, Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in Zardari’s cabinet.
In a similar fashion, President Zardari had signed a directive imposing Sharia, or Islamic law, in the Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan in April 2009. It was part of a deal to end Taliban violence which had plagued the region for around a year.
“Zardari, who has vowed to stand up to the spread of militancy, had faced pressure from conservatives and the main political party in the northwest, who said Sharia law was the only way to bring peace to Swat,” said The Indian Express daily on April 14, 2009. A month later, the Pakistani Army did launch an offensive against the Taliban in the Valley, but elsewhere the government continued to allow Islamist extremists to carry on with their mission to indoctrinate Pakistani youth with the Jihadist ideology.
In October 2010, the Taliban in Pakistan set up schools on the outskirts of Karachi where young students were taught the skills to make bombs and carry out suicide attacks.
“One of the students, arrested by the police before he could blow himself up, said students were told that the Muslims in the world were being subjected to brutality and it was their duty to take revenge,” said a strategy analyst, Rajeev Sharma, in an article published by an Indian think-tank, South Asia Analysis Group. “It is not known how many schools and students are in these Taliban run schools. [But] these are not the only Taliban schools. In fact, pro-Taliban madrassas have been in existence across Pakistan, including Islamabad, for quite some time.”
A month later (November 2010), the Al-Rehmat Trust, a front for terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed in Pakistan, openly conducted courses on “jihadist verses” in the Quran in numerous cities across the country. The front reportedly recruited terrorists for fighting the U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2009, but the Pakistani government chose not to control its operations in the country.
The “two-boat” approach of the Pakistani government overlooks a recent development. The Islamic terrorists are no longer seeking to radically reform the state the way General Zia ul-Haq did in the 1980s. They now see the state as fundamentally anti-Islam and want to destroy it completely.
In his latest book The Morning and the Lamp, al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri suggested that the State itself needed to be abolished, as its Constitution was against Islamic principles.
“In making this call, Zawahiri is going beyond the name-calling and the declaration that Pakistan is an apostate government, to providing reasoned legal arguments to support his assertion that apostasy is rooted in the state’s foundational document,” said a senior researcher at Jamestown Foundation, Michael W.S. Ryan, in an article in the Terrorism Monitor periodical.
Ryan pointed out that while most polls showed that a majority of Pakistanis wanted their country to be an Islamic state, they saw freedom of speech and other democratic values as compatible with Islam. “Perhaps this is the confusion that Zawahiri is referring to when he complains that Pakistanis are attached to both Islam and Western culture, which he asserts are incompatible,” said Ryan.
This explains why the blasphemy law – which is mostly misused for settling personal scores by some local Muslims and does little to protect Islam – is such a big deal for the Islamists. The law represents what an Islamic State should be, as per the definition of the Islamists. So it is the opposition to the democratic freedoms – seen as part of a Western concept – that lies at the heart of the agenda the Islamists are seeking to advance by using violence and killings.
Regrettably, the United States has apparently failed to see this. This is why it does not treat religious freedom issues and other expressions of religious extremism inside Pakistan as part of its agenda. For the U.S., Pakistan is important only as an ally to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan. The U.S. must be warned that if the assassination of Taseer and Bhatti is not treated as the last straw, Pakistan may soon become another Afghanistan.