What the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti means for Pakistan

The PPP’s decision to back down on blasphemy laws gives a huge boost to the country’s extremists.

Shahbaz Bhatti has become the second prominent Pakistani politician this year to die for his opposition to the country's blasphemy laws.

Bhatti, the minister for minorities and the only Christian member of the cabinet, was shot dead outside his home in Islamabad by four gunmen proclaiming themselves to be the "Punjabi Taliban".

Like Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab who was shot on 4 January, Bhatti advocated reform of the controversial laws, which can carry the death sentence for anyone who criticises Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. Because they do not require much concrete evidence, they are frequently abused to persecute minorities and settle personal scores.

The political tension over the issue flared up in November when a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, was sentenced to death for allegedly blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad. Both men spoke out in her favour.

However, they were left politically isolated when the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) – of which both were members – distanced itself from those advocating reform.

Yousuf Raza Gilani told parliament at the beginning of February that his government would not touch the legislation. "We are all unanimous that nobody wants to change the law," he said.

The statement followed pressure from the religious right, which whipped up public sentiment with huge street rallies. However, giving such a major concession sets a dangerous precedent and indicates that the government is unwilling or unable to fight the extremists in the battle for public opinion.

It also suggests that the administration has learned little from the disastrous 2009 truce with the Taliban. Under that peace agreement, Islamabad agreed to let the Taliban implement Islamic law in parts of north-western Pakistan in the hope that it would decrease the violence in the region. Predictably, the Taliban became more audacious in its move inland, and the deal soon fell apart.

There are now fresh fears for Sherry Rehman, a former PPP information minister who has championed reform. Although the Taliban have declared her "fit to be killed", she has so far refused to leave the country. She has been in semi-hiding since January.

Poignantly, Bhatti was well aware of the danger to his life, and recorded a farewell statement four months ago in which he referred to threats from the Taliban and al-Qaeda. He vowed that he would continue to speak out for minorities:

I will die to defend their rights. These threats and these warnings cannot change my opinions and principles.

The government's decision to back down to religious clerics over this issue will be hugely fortifying to the country's extremists. It does not bode well for the future of Pakistan, or for its beleaguered minorities.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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