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Thursday, March 10, 2011

A deathly silence grips Pakistan


LONDON — At least with a dictatorship, you know where you are — and if you know where you are, you may be able to find your way out. In Pakistan, it is not so simple.

While brave Arab protesters are overthrowing deeply entrenched autocratic regimes, often without even resorting to violence, Pakistan, a democratic country, is sinking into a sea of violence, intolerance and extremism. The world's second-biggest Muslim country (185 million people) has effectively been silenced by ruthless Islamist fanatics who murder anyone who dares to defy them.

What the fanatics want, of course, is power, but the issue on which they have chosen to fight is Pakistan's laws against blasphemy. They not only hunt down and kill people who fall afoul of these laws, should the courts see fit to free them. They have also begun killing anybody who publicly advocates changing the laws.

Salman Taseer, the governor of the Punjab, Pakistan's richest and most populous province, was murdered by his own bodyguard in January because he criticized the blasphemy laws and wanted to change them. He said that he would go on fighting them even if he was the last man standing — and in a very short time he was no longer standing. But one man still was: Shahbaz Bhatti.

Bhatti was shot down March 2. The four men who ambushed his car and filled him with bullets left a note saying: "In your fight against Allah, you have become so bold that you act in favor of and support those who insult the Prophet . . . And now, with the grace of Allah, the warriors of Islam will pick you out one by one and send you to Hell."

Shahbaz Bhatti was not a rich and powerful man like Salman Taseer, nor even a major power in the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) that they both belonged to. He was the only Christian member of the Cabinet, mainly as a token representative of the country's 3 million Christians, but he had hardly any influence outside that community. Nevertheless, he refused to stop criticizing the blasphemy laws even after Taseer's murder, so they killed him too.

That leaves only Sherry Rehman, the last woman standing. A flamboyant member of Parliament whose mere appearance enrages the beards, she has been a bold and relentless critic of the blasphemy laws — and since Taseer's murder she has lived in hiding, moving every few days. But she will not shut up until they shut her up.

And that's it. The rest of the country's political and cultural elite have gone silent, or pander openly to the fanatics and the bigots. The PPP was committed to changing the blasphemy laws only six months ago, but after Taseer was killed President Asif Ali Zardari assured a gathering of Islamic dignitaries that he had no intention of reviewing the blasphemy laws. Although they are very bad laws.

In 1984 Gen. Zia ul-Haq, the dictator who ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988, made it a criminal offense for members of the Ahmadi sect, now some 5 million strong, to claim that they were Muslims. In 1986 he instituted the death penalty for blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad. No subsequent government has dared to repeal these laws, which are widely used to victimize the Ahmadi and Christian religious minorities.

Ahmadis and Christians account for at most 5 percent of Pakistan's population, but almost half of the thousand people charged under this law since 1986 belonged to those communities. Most accusations were false, arising from disputes over land, but once made they could be a death sentence.

Higher courts generally dismissed blasphemy charges, recognizing that they were a tactic commonly used against Christians and Ahmadis in local disputes over land, but 32 people who were freed by the courts were subsequently killed by Islamist vigilantes — as were two of the judges who freed them.

The current crisis arose when a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, was sentenced to death last November, allegedly for blaspheming against the prophet Muhammad. Pakistan's liberals mobilized against the blasphemy laws — and discovered that they were an endangered species.

The murders of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were bad, but even worse was the way that the political class and the bulk of the mass media responded. A majority of a population fully supports the blasphemy laws, making it very costly for politicians to act against it even if the fanatics don't kill them. Political cowardice reigns supreme, and so Pakistan falls slowly under the thrall of the extremists.

Being a democracy is no help, it turns out, because democracy requires people to have the courage of their convictions. Very few educated Pakistanis believe that people should be executed because of a blasphemy charge arising out of some trivial village dispute, but they no longer dare to say so. Including the president.

"We will not be intimidated nor will we retreat," said Zardari on March 3, but he has already promised the beards that the blasphemy laws will not be touched.

Nor is it very likely that the murderers of Taseer or Bhatti will be tracked down and punished. You could get killed trying to do that.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist and historian whose columns appear in 45 countries.


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