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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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.