Pakistan has had many dark days in recent years, and yesterday was even darker. The assassination of the Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, robs the country of another of its leading voices for religious freedom, equal rights, justice and peace. It also robs the country of a true patriot, and the world of an inspirational and courageous activist. It may be no exaggeration to say that Pakistan has now lost its Martin Luther King.
I had the privilege of working with Shahbaz Bhatti for five years, during which I supported his campaign for the repeal of Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws. I counted Shahbaz as a friend, as well as a close partner. He always impressed me with his personal integrity, deep faith, unflinching commitment to religious freedom, social justice and human rights, and his love of Pakistan.
Shahbaz, founder of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, was one of the most selfless and compassionate people I have ever met. He and I shared some profound experiences together. I will never forget meeting a little seven year-old girl, Sharee Komal, who had been brutally raped and tortured because she came from a Christian family. Shahbaz was helping her and her family, because no one else would. He and I missed a bomb at the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad by five minutes in 2004. He faced daily death threats and attempts on his life for many years, long before he became a Cabinet minister. He worked extraordinary hours, never took a holiday or a day off, and was entirely focused on helping the poor, the oppressed, the persecuted and the marginalised minorities. In 2007, for example, a Christian community in Charsadda, in the North-West Frontier Province, received threats from extremists, giving them an ultimatum: convert to Islam or face the consequences. The night the deadline expired, I telephoned Shahbaz to ask for an update, and to my surprise he told me he was in Charsadda. The community were terrified, he said, and they expected an attack at any moment, so he had gone to be with them. That was typical of Shahbaz.
In 2008 Shahbaz, a member of Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), was elected to the National Assembly, and within a few months was appointed Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs. His promotion was significant and offered some signs of hope that the new government was serious about reform, for it was the first time a Christian activist of his calibre had been appointed to that post, and the first time the position was given Cabinet rank. Last month, when the Cabinet was reduced by two-thirds, he was reinstated. All this shows the respect in which he was held.
Shahbaz was devoted to many causes in pursuit of making Pakistan, and the world, a better place. He fought for equal rights for people of all faiths, for women subjected to horrific violence, for the poorest in society and, most recently, he was leading pioneering work bringing Islamic clerics and religious minorities together to oppose extremism. The major cause, however, was the pursuit of reform of the country’s blasphemy laws.
These notorious laws, set out in Section 295 B and C of the Pakistan Penal Code, breed a culture of terror. Poorly defined, and with no requirement for evidence except the accusation of one person, they are widely misused to settle scores. The vast majority of cases affect Muslims, although they are sometimes used by extremists against religious minorities. The case of Asia Bibi brought international outcry, and prompted the Pakistani government to reiterate an intention to review the laws. Shahbaz had been negotiating potential reform for over a year, but after the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab, in January a climate of fear grew. Extremists accused anyone questioning the blasphemy laws of themselves committing blasphemy. Sherry Rehman, a brave Parliamentarian who took action to support calls for reform, went into hiding after receiving almost hourly threats. The government later made fresh statements denying any intention to review the blasphemy laws. Shahbaz was assassinated because he fought for these laws to be changed.
The tributes that have poured in since Shahbaz’s murder show how respected he was on a global level. President Obama, David Cameron, William Hague, Ban Ki-Moon and the EU’s Catherine Ashton have all condemned the killing. FCO Minister Alistair Burt added his own personal message:
"The assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti marks a new low point in Pakistan’s struggle against violent religious extremism. Shahbaz Bhatti was a powerful voice against extremism and a fearless voice for tolerance and respect for minorities. His death is a tragic loss for Pakistan.
I had met Minister Bhatti on a number of occasions, as a fellow Minister and believer in the rights of minorities. I supported my friend in his difficult role, and in his attempt to revise his country’s Blasphemy laws. Those laws had been abused to target minorities, and Minister Bhatti’s courage in urging peaceful, moderate change, had been met with violence. All moderate people of all faiths should unite and condemn this act, and work together to end the violent extremism which demeans us all.
This is not only an attack on a dedicated Government Minister but on the people of Pakistan and their future. The UK will continue to work with the leaders of Pakistan and its people, who deserve a stable, democratic and prosperous future, where violence and intimidation is not allowed to threaten freedom of speech and proper democratic debate.”
Given the ties between the UK and Pakistan, Shahbaz’s assassination has serious ramifications beyond Pakistan’s borders. Extremism is paralysing Pakistan, a serious campaign to silence those with democratic values is underway, and hatred, violence and fear are taking root. These are completely at odds with the vision of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, had in 1947 when he said:
“You are free. You are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State … We are starting with this fundamental principle, that we are all citizens and citizens of one state.”
Shahbaz Bhatti died for his belief in Jinnah’s vision. He told a conference in London organised by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) that his position as a government minister would never change his determination to pursue justice. “I live for religious freedom and I am ready to die for this cause,” he said. The most fitting way to honour Shahbaz would be to redouble our efforts to help Pakistan pull back from the abyss, confront extremism in all its forms, and restore Jinnah’s vision for the country. It is in our own interests to do so, for the consequences for us of Pakistan continuing in the direction it is heading are far too dangerous to ignore.