Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of slain former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has called those who celebrated the murder of a liberal politician who sought changes to the country’s blasphemy laws “the real blasphemers.”
His fiery remarks, which were made at the Pakistani High Commission in London on Tuesday, mark the toughest stance yet taken by the leadership of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in response to the assassination of Salman Taseer last week.
But the fact that the speech was given in English by a politician abroad may limit its impact at home. More broadly, say experts, it highlights the dwindling avenues of communication between liberal, often foreign-educated Pakistanis and the increasingly conservative majority.
Mr. Taseer, the governor of Punjab, had personally campaigned for the release of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman awaiting the death penalty on charges of insulting the prophet Muhammad, and had called the blasphemy law a “black law.” Following his death, People’s Party leaders had come under fire from liberals for not doing enough to champion the cause for which Taseer lost his life. No other mainstream PPP leader, including Bhutto Zardari’s father, President Asif Ali Zardari, has pressed for reform of the law.
Leaders appear more confident condoning the blasphemy laws. Indeed, in what observers feel was an effort to underscore his own religious credos, Interior Minister Rehman Malik went as far as to say he would shoot any blasphemer himself.
Zardari's fighting words?
In his speech, Bhutto Zardari, who is co-chair of the PPP, showed no such equivocation, and added a touch of bravado. “To the Christian and other minority communities in Pakistan, we will defend you,” he said, adding: “Those who wish to harm you for a crime you did not commit will have to go through me first.”
In response to clerics who warned Muslims not to mourn Taseer’s death, he offered a stark warning.
“Those who attack my religion, specially [sic] those who corrupt its peaceful message, you are what I call covert blasphemers and you will be defeated,” he said, adding: “This will be our jihad.”
Some 50,000 people attended a rally organized by religious parties in support of Taseer’s killer, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, and the blasphemy laws in Karachi on Sunday. A day after Taseer’s death, 500 leading religious scholars from the Barelwi sect of Islam signed a petition praising the killer.
Pope Benedict XVI, who demanded a repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy law on Monday, was also criticized by powerful Islamist politician Liaquat Baloch. “The Pope's statement is an open invitation for clash of civilizations and a bid to plunge the entire world into a deadly war,” he told the Associated Press of Pakistan.
By contrast, liberal voices denouncing the killing and the blasphemy law have been limited to candle-light vigils and marches attracting numbers in the low-hundreds, mainly in Taseer’s hometown of Lahore. Liberals have also been active in the English-language news media and on Facebook and Twitter – media that do not reach the majority of Pakistanis.
Context of those comments
In such a caustic atmosphere, Bhutto Zardari’s comments are nothing if not brave, says Pakistani columnist Mosharraf Zaidi. “Bilawal’s family; his mother, grandfather and uncles have a 30-year history of not fearing death,” he says. Bilawal Zardari’s mother, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in 2007, his grandfather Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was hanged by former dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, and both his maternal uncles were murdered.
But, adds Mr. Zaidi: “It’s not a direct challenge to the Pakistani right wing, because to make that challenge, you have to be standing in Pakistan speaking in Urdu.”
Zaidi believes that the PPP leadership have abdicated their responsibilities by leaving the moral burden of responding to extremism on the shoulders of the 20-something Bilawal Zardari, currently a student at Oxford University.
A widening wealth and cultural gap between affluent and poor Pakistanis makes it difficult for opposing sides to communicate with one another, he adds.
“All of these things are wrapped in a broader class and cultural war of which [Taseer] was also a victim … the fact is, there is an echo chamber amongst English speaking Pakistanis who respond to events with moral outrage and express that moral outrage to each other and to what is largely a Western audience,” he says.