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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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.