Pakistan has taken several important steps forward over the past four years. From President Zardari’s willingly devolving powers that had been consolidated under past military dictators to an elected parliament completing its full tenure, there are, as Peter Bergen recently noted, many reasons to be hopeful about Pakistan’s future. But despite Pakistan’s overall positive trajectory, there remains a disturbing trend that threatens the promise of a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Pakistan – the ongoing attempts to silence Pakistan’s progressive voices.
Citizens for Democracy (CFD), a coalition of Pakistani professional groups, NGOs, trade unions, student unions, political parties and individuals outraged by the consistent misuse and abuse of the ‘blasphemy laws’ and religion in politics, recently held a letter writing campaign in Karachi during which 15,000 letters were posted demanding an end to vigilante violence and justice for the late Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti and Governor Salmaan Taseer.
At a camp set up in front of Jahangir Kothari Parade, opposite Park Towers, Clifton, Karachi, people signed and posted letters addressed to the president, prime minister, interior minister, chief justice of Pakistan, and Chief Ministers, for interfaith harmony and action against calls for violence and vigilante justice. The letter demands that notice and action be taken against the rampant lawlessness in Pakistan, in an atmosphere “in which extremist and militant forces are operating with impunity, and where calls to murder and violence are publicly made, celebrated and rewarded”.
Referring to the murder of Federal Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti and governor Salmaan Taseer, the letter urges the government and its functionaries to swiftly apprehend, charge, try and punish their murderers. It urges political parties, parliamentarians and government functionaries “to take a clear stand” on the blasphemy issue: “no citizen has the right to cast aspersions on the faith and beliefs of any other citizen or to term someone a ‘blasphemer,’ ‘kafir,’ or ‘non-Muslim’.”
The campaign aimed to dissipate the atmosphere of intimidation, draw people out of their homes and enable them to speak up and voice their concerns by directing them to the relevant authorities. The signature campaign will be taken to other parts of the city including North Nazimabad, Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Boulton Market etc., as well as to other cities of Pakistan.
Anti-democratic groups in Pakistan such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Jamaat-ud-Dawa may be able to materialize large street protests at short notice, but their nuisance factor is far larger than their actual influence among the public. Most hard working Pakistani families have neither the time nor the inclination to make their voice heard through burning tires and chanting slogans in the streets. Unfortunately, this is too often used to claim that there is no popular support for democracy, justice, and tolerance in Pakistan. Nothing could be further from the truth.
By organizing a family-friendly event where ordinary Pakistani citizens could come out and peacefully express their desire for democracy, justice, and tolerance, ‘Citizens for Democracy’ was able to demonstrate that, despite the often dour headlines, the people of Pakistan have not given up on Jinnah’s vision of a Pakistan “where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another,” a Pakistan based on “this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.”
Members of Congress introduced a resolution expressing the condolences of the House of Representatives to the people of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan upon the assassination of Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti and called on the United States to renew its efforts with international partners in the Human Rights Council and the United Nations General Assembly to promote religious freedom and tolerance in accordance with international human rights standards.
The bi-partisan resolution, H. Res 164, was introduced by Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey and co-sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York, Rep. Michael Capuano of Massachusetts, Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Rep. Daniel E. Lungren of California, Rep. Jackie Speier of California, Rep. Walter Jones, Jr. of North Carolina, Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, and Rep. Albio Sires of New Jersey.
The resolution recognizes the vision of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, for a nation of religious plurality and equality, and expresses support for the government’s actions to promote religious tolerance and the rights of minorities in the country including President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani’s appointing the first cabinet-level official on religious minorities in 2008 and the allocation of a quota of 5 percent of all federal jobs for members of minority religious groups.
The resolution also recognizes that extremist groups for have used the blasphemy laws to trigger sectarian violence, intimidate members of religious minorities and others with whom they disagree, and exploit these laws for their own political ends including falsely accusing Muslims and non-Muslims alike for the settling of personal disputes,. The resolution further recognizes that the law is used against Muslims more than any other religious group.
In addition to expressing condolences on the assassination of the Minister, the resolution calls on the US to “assist efforts to protect the religious freedom of all Pakistanis through prioritizing the prevention of religiously motivated and sectarian violence, enhancing training for local law enforcement including emergency response and scene investigation, prompt and thorough investigation of any incidents of violence, and training of judges on inter- national human rights obligations.”
The resolution was referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs yesterday.
Pakistan’s Embassy in Washington hosted a memorial for fallen Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti on Wednesday. Pakistan’s Ambassador, Husain Haqqani, was joined by American officials including US Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero in calling for increased religious tolerance the world over.
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, said he decided to hold a service for Bhatti at the embassy as there was an “unconscionable silence” by many Pakistanis who in their hearts are respectful of other faiths.
“When Shahbaz Bhatti was murdered and we remain silent, some of us have died with him,” Haqqani told the service attended by US officials and Pakistani expatriates.
“If we are silent, we allow evil to win,” Haqqani said. “It is unacceptable, it is un-Islamic, it is not what Pakistan was founded for, it is not what Pakistanis living abroad can be proud of as Pakistanis and — if I may use a term that has been abused in Pakistan — it is blasphemy.”
I am shocked and outraged by the assassination today of Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti. This was an attack not only on one man, but on the values of tolerance and respect for people of all faiths and backgrounds championed by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father.
I recently had the opportunity to meet Minister Bhatti. He was a patriot and a man of courage and conviction. He cared deeply for Pakistan and dedicated his life to helping the least among us on Earth. I extend my deepest condolences to his family and friends.
The United States remains committed to working with the government and people of Pakistan to build a more stable and prosperous future for all — a future in which violent extremists are no longer able to silence the voices of tolerance and peace.
I am deeply saddened by the assassination of Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti today in Islamabad, and condemn in the strongest possible terms this horrific act of violence. We offer our profound condolences to his family, loved ones and all who knew and worked with him. Minister Bhatti fought for and sacrificed his life for the universal values that Pakistanis, Americans and people around the world hold dear – the right to speak one’s mind, to practice one’s religion as one chooses, and to be free from discrimination based on one’s background or beliefs. He was clear-eyed about the risks of speaking out, and, despite innumerable death threats, he insisted he had a duty to his fellow Pakistanis to defend equal rights and tolerance from those who preach division, hate, and violence. He most courageously challenged the blasphemy laws of Pakistan under which individuals have been prosecuted for speaking their minds or practicing their own faiths. Those who committed this crime should be brought to justice, and those who share Mr. Bhatti’s vision of tolerance and religious freedom must be able to live free from fear. Minister Bhatti will be missed by all who knew him, and the United States will continue to stand with those who are dedicated to his vision of tolerance and dignity for all human beings.