Officials from Muslim political parties and religious groups in Pakistan are reacting more negatively to yesterday’s assassination of Christian cabinet minister Shahbaz Bhatti than to the killing two months earlier of Gov. Salman Taseer. The change highlights the specific combination of religious offense and political expediency that drove many to condone Governor Taseer's killing.
Both men were killed after calling for changes to the country’s blasphemy law, which includes the death penalty for disrespect of Islam. Following Mr. Taseer’s death, hundreds of Islamic clerics signed a statement supporting the killing, lawyers showered the assassin with rose petals, and Muslim political parties offered qualified condemnations, if any at all.
But so far, few beyond the Pakistani Taliban – who claimed responsibility – are openly supporting Mr. Bhatti’s slaying. The difference: Bhatti had phrased his criticism of the law more discreetly, and by the time of his assassination, the government had already completely backed down.
“We wholly condemn the killing of Shahbaz Bhatti,” says Nawaz Kharal, spokesman for the Sunni Ittehad Council, which represents the Barelvi current of Sunni Islam. The secretary general of the council, along with other top Barelvi leaders, signed the statement of support for Taseer’s killing and pressured followers not to attend his funeral.
“At the time Salman Taseer was killed there was a whole movement to dismantle the blasphemy laws. When Bhatti was killed, that movement had finished,” says Mr. Kharal.
Additionally, Taseer couched criticism of the blasphemy law in harsher terms than Bhatti, calling the law a “black law.”
“There are two ways of making comments on the blasphemy law. If you say there are some weaknesses and they have to be resolved so that innocent are not caught, that is alright,” says Kharal, summarizing his view of Bhatti’s criticism. “But if you say it is a ‘black law,’ that is wrong.”
Pakistan’s major Muslim religious parties echoed this reasoning.
“It is not blasphemy to criticize the law. Taseer declared this was a ‘black law.’ That was a wrong stand,” says Liaqat Baloch, the secretary general of Jamaat-i Islami (JI).
JI condemned both killings, he says, but Taseer’s “wrong stand” created popular pressure for the government to remove him from his post. He blamed the government for not responding and said it’s now up to the courts to decide what to do with the assassin.
In Bhatti’s case, he blamed “international and national, internal and external conspiracies.” On the JI website, party chief Syed Munawar Hasan said the killing looked like an attempt to divert public attention from Raymond Davis, the CIA worker held in Pakistan, and that there may be a “CIA hand” behind Bhatti’s murder.
Kharal also suggested America could be behind the killing “so that followers of different religions fight among themselves.”
Many Pakistanis routinely blame “foreign hands” when things go wrong.
President Obama expressed sorrow yesterday, saying: “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.”
Like Taseer, Bhatti had called for changes to the blasphemy law because it has been used to persecute religious minorities or as a pretense in personal disputes. The government considered forming a committee to suggest changes, but backed down in the face of religious party opposition. After Taseer’s killing, even independent reform efforts collapsed.
The different tone of the two men’s criticisms appeared not to matter to Bhatti’s killers who seem to view any speech against the law as a blasphemous insult. They dropped pamphlets at the scene accusing him of having “insulted the prophet” and warning “others who try to reform the blasphemy laws will meet the same fate.”
While the killers have received little praise, eyebrows in Parliament went up when three members of another religious party, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam led by Maulana Fazal-ur Rehman, did not stand up during a moment of silence for Bhatti yesterday.
A party spokesman says that eight MPs from the JUI-F were present. All eight remained silent, but only five rose. “These three [who] were not standing, they have some problems in the legs because they are aged, maybe. This is not party policy,” he said.
The spokesman added that Maulana Rehman condemned the killings of both men. But the cases differ, because Taseer’s killing at a time of public protest when the government position was not clear. But Bhatti was killed when “there is no movement and the government position was clear, so there is no space for these activities, so there is no reason for this incident.”
Responding to Bhatti’s murder, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced that he would consult with political and military leaders to “formulate a strategy to deal with extremists who are spreading hatred and defaming Pakistan in the world.”
He added: “This is a question of the country’s security, over which there can be no compromise.”