In the history of some countries there comes a period when political and factional murder becomes almost routine – Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, Germany and its neighbours in the early 1930s. It has invariably been the precursor of a breakdown of legal and political order and of long-term suffering for a whole population. And last week, with the killing of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minorities, Pakistan has taken a further step down this catastrophic road.
To those who actually support such atrocities, there is little to say. They inhabit a world of fantasy, shot through with paranoid anxiety. As the shocked responses from so many Muslims in this country and elsewhere make plain, their actions are as undermining of Qur’anic ethics as they are of rational politics.
But to those who recognise something truly dreadful going on in their midst – to the majority in Pakistan who have elected a government that, whatever its dramatic shortcomings, is pledged to resist extremism – we have surely to say, “Do not imagine that this can be ‘managed’ or tolerated.”
The government of Pakistan and the great majority of its population are, in effect, being blackmailed. The widespread and deep desire for Pakistan to be what it was meant to be, for justice to be guaranteed for all, and for some of the most easily abused laws on the statute book to be reviewed is being paralysed by the threat of murder. The blasphemy case of the Pakistani Christian woman, Aasia Noreen, so prominent in the debates of recent months, and the connected murder of Salman Taseer, the Governor of the Punjab, make it crystal clear that there is a faction in Pakistan wholly uninterested in justice and due process of law, concerned only with promoting an inhuman pseudo-religious tyranny.
Pakistan was created by Muhammad Ali Jinnah as a consciously Muslim state in which, nonetheless, the non-Muslim enjoyed an absolute right of citizenship and the civic securities and liberties that go with it. In common with the best historical examples of Muslim governance, there was a realistic and generous recognition that plural and diverse convictions would not go away and that therefore a just Muslim state, no more and no less than a just Christian or secular state, had to provide for the rights of its minorities.
If the state’s willingness to guarantee absolute security for minorities of every kind is a test of political maturity and durability, whatever the confessional background, Pakistan’s founding vision was a mature one. The disdain shown for that vision by Bhatti’s killers is an offence against Islam as much as against Christianity in Pakistan.
What needs to change?
There needs to be a rational debate in Pakistan and, more widely, about the blasphemy laws that are at the root of so much of this. And this is likely to happen only if the international Muslim intelligentsia can form a coherent judgment on the level of abuse that characterises the practice of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan.
Most Muslim thinkers are embarrassed by supposedly “Islamic” laws in various contexts that conceal murderous oppression and bullying. Their voices are widely noted; they need to be heard more clearly in Pakistan, where part of the problem is the weakening of properly traditional Islam by the populist illiteracies of modern extremism.
And there needs to be some credible proof of the government of Pakistan’s political will not only to resist blackmail, but also to assess realistically the levels of risk under which minority communities and the individuals who support them live.
Bhatti knew what his chances of survival were – as the moving recorded testimony he left makes plain. He was not protected by the government he so bravely served. How many minority Christian communities, law abiding, peaceful and frequently profoundly disadvantaged, are similarly not protected by their government? What increased guarantees of security are being offered?
The protection of minorities of any and every kind is one acid test of moral legitimacy for a government; and such protection is built into Pakistan’s modern identity as an Islamic state with civic recognition for non-Muslims. Many are anxious about Pakistan’s future for strategic reasons. But those of us who love Pakistan and its people are anxious for its soul as well as its political stability.
It is heartbreaking to see those we count as friends living with the threat of being coerced and menaced into silence and, ultimately, into a betrayal of themselves. This must not be allowed to happen. They need to know of the support of Christians and others outside Pakistan for their historic and distinctive vision.
Bhatti died, for all practical purposes, as a martyr – let me be clear – not simply for his Christian faith, but for a vision shared between Pakistani Christians and Muslims. When he and I talked at Lambeth Palace in London last year, he was fully aware of the risks he ran. He did not allow himself to be diverted for a moment from his commitment to justice for all.
That a person of such courage and steadfastness of purpose was nourished in the political culture of Pakistan is itself a witness to the capacity of that culture to keep its vision alive and compelling. And that is one of the few real marks of hope in a situation of deepening tragedy that urgently needs both prayer and action.
Dr. Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author.