Dying on a cross in Pakistan (updated)

So it has happened again. It may be time for more showers of rose petals among some — repeat SOME — Muslims in the troubled land of Pakistan.

At this point, it would really help to watch the stunning piece of video that accompanies this post.

This is the martyred Shahbaz Bhatti, speaking for himself and for religious minorities in his homeland. Now, the goal is to search for any of these words — his key points about the blasphemy law and his own faith — in the mainstream media reports about his assassination. Good luck with that.

Meanwhile, here is the top of the Washington Post report, as an example of the early coverage.

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN – Pakistan’s federal minorities minister, a Christian, was gunned down in this capital city Wednesday in the second killing this year of a senior government official who had spoken out against the nation’s stringent blasphemy laws.

The assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti represented another severe blow to Pakistan’s beleaguered moderates, whose voices are increasingly drowned out by those of violent Muslim hardliners. The shooting came two months after the killing of Punjab province governor Salman Taseer, who, like Bhatti, argued that laws making insults to Islam’s prophet Muhammad a capital crime were wrongly used as tools to persecute religious minorities. …

Though there was no claim of responsibility for the killing, fliers found scattered on the road near the scene bore the names of what appeared to be two Islamist militant groups — the Al-Qaeda Organization and the Pakistani Taliban Punjab. The fliers condemned Bhatti as an “infidel, a cursed one” and said others who demonstrate “support of blasphemers” would meet the same fate. Bhatti’s profile had grown in recent months, after he condemned the November death sentencing of a Christian woman on the grounds that she had insulted the prophet Muhammad, an accusation he said was baseless.

Now, please remember that the goal is to focus on the journalistic issues involved in covering this case. In this case, I am left asking two basic journalistic questions:

(1) What did Bhatti, a Christian, and the late Salman Taseer, the Muslim governor of Punjab, say or do that constituted fatal insults against Muhammad? Readers need that information.

(2) In effect, did this moderate Muslim and this outspoken Christian die because of their opposition to a key element of sharia law? Did they die because they defended the basic human rights of religious minorities, such as the right to change one’s beliefs and to convert to another religion? It would help to know if mere opposition to the blasphemy law constitutes blasphemy and is, thus, an insult to the prophet. It is crucial, in particular, for American readers to know that blasphemy laws are used against Muslims that oppose elements of sharia, not just members of religious minorities that are considered “infidels” by some — repeat SOME — Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere.

Let’s see what the New York Times has to say. The key chunk of the story states:

The gunmen were wearing traditional Pakistani garb of baggy pants and long tunic, the inspector general of Islamabad police, Wajid Durrani, said. The pamphlet found at the site warned against changes in Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law and bore the imprint of the Taliban and al Qaeda, police officials said. It specifically named Mr. Bhatti.

Mr. Bhatti, like Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab who was gunned down Jan. 4, had campaigned for the reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The law, introduced in the 1970s, calls for the death penalty for those accused of speaking against the Prophet Muhammad. …

“This is the mindset adopted in the 1980s when Pakistan and the United States were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan,” said Athar Minallah, a liberal leader of the lawyers movement, who has condemned the killing of Mr. Taseer, and now Mr. Bhatti. “It says infidels are allowed to be killed.”

Once again we face the same questions: How did Bhatti and Taseer speak against the prophet? What did they say or do?

I am asking a quite literal question. It would help to have some direct quotes that demonstrate this kind of speech or, at the least, pinpoint the precise symbolic acts that led to their deaths. How, for example, does the law define the content of these insults? This information is not hard to find and, after reading the text of these laws on a site or two, I would like to know the nature of the crimes committed by this Christian politician and his moderate Muslim counterpart. Is defending the human rights of “infidels” insult enough?

How about the BBC? What was the key language there?

Mr Bhatti, the cabinet’s only Christian minister, had received death threats for urging reform to blasphemy laws. In January, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who had also opposed the law, was shot dead by one of his bodyguards.

The blasphemy law carries a death sentence for anyone who insults Islam. Critics say it has been used to persecute minority faiths. …

The minister had not been accompanied by his guards or the security escort vehicle that is standard for all Pakistani ministers, and it is not clear why.

Once again we have the same issues, plus a new problem.

“Critics say” that the law has been used to persecute minority faiths. How about, instead of the vague “critics,” a specific or two — such as the Vatican, the White House, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Archbishop of Canterbury, etc. etc.?

And another thing. Is there any doubt, at this point, that it has been factually proven that the blasphemy laws are being used BY SOME to persecute minority faiths? Then again, are assassinations a form of persecution? If so, is the government making strong efforts to prevent this form of persecution, or are the powers that be actually divided over taking that step?

How about the Los Angeles Times? OK, but I think you can see that the patterns are already clear:

The assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the country’s minority affairs minister, underscored the reach of extremism in a Muslim, nuclear-armed country founded on the principles of minority inclusion, as well as the government’s inability to protect its minorities.

Bhatti was an outspoken opponent of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which makes it a crime to utter any derogatory remarks about, or insult in any way, the prophet Muhammad, the Koran or Islam. Critics of the law say it can be exploited as a means to settle scores against adversaries or persecute minorities.

Again, one can’t help but marvel at the “critics of the law say that it can be exploited” language (emphasis added by me). I think journalists can find more precise language than that to describe the facts on the ground.

Meanwhile, I actually like the careful thought behind this passage that states that this latest killing “underscored the reach of extremism in a Muslim, nuclear-armed country”, etc. The question, of course, is whether a majority of Pakistanis actually support the blasphemy laws. Has anyone seen hard, factual coverage that addresses that question?

One more time, here is my basic journalistic question: As anyone seen a mainstream news report that reports the actual words or actions that led to the deaths of Taseer and now Bhatti? Just the facts. Some facts would be good.

UPDATED: As noted by Bob Smietana, ABC News has included a snippet of the video material in its online report.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia

    From Asia News:

    He boldly defended Asia Bibi, a Christian sentenced to death for blasphemy on the basis of false accusations. He belonged to the PPP, the progressive party in government. After the killing of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, who Islamic fundamentalists blamed for having defended Asia Bibi, Bhatti had become the radicals “top target”

    Looks like his crime was defending the woman who had been condemned to death for blasphemy.


  • http://goodintentionsbook.com bob smietana

    ABCnews.com quotes from the video in this story.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Thanks Bob, I will add that at the end of the post.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Just saw on the news that two American soldiers were gunned down in a German bus by a man yelling Islamist slogans.
    As for how popular the blasphemy laws are among Pakistanis–the media could have Googled and found the Dec. 31, 2010 story in the NY Times that reported that a strike called for by Islamist parties in support of Pakistan’s blasphemy law crippled the country and brought it to a standstill. I have seen no reference to that story or event to point out how popular the blasphemy law is among–NOT some- but huge swaths of the Moslem population.
    It is not Pakistan, but in Egypt the Zogby poll took a survey of Moslems there and found 84% of Moslems favor execution of anyone who leaves Islam.
    It is NOT just SOME rare, few radical Islamists who are the source of so much anguish for non-Moslems in the Islamic world–and our media seems to refuse to add stories together that clearly show this.

  • http://www.thehighwayhermit.com James Bulls

    I find it difficult to believe all or the vast majority of Islam favors laws like these. If we take a historical look back several hundred years ago we can find evidence of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism living in relative harmony as “people of the book” in Spain (for example). If this sentiment is correct, I wonder if it’s a historically recent attitude or if it’s been dramatically mis- or under-reported in other parts of the world.

  • Jerry

    I found some interesting history behind the law (note this story is from India) and was surprised at the origin:

    – In 1927, the British colonial rulers of the sub-continent made it a criminal offence to commit “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religious belief”. The law did not discriminate between religions

    – The law was retained when Pakistan gained independence in 1947 under the rule of the country’s moderate founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah

    – Pakistan’s late military ruler Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who was in power for 11 years from 1977, made several additions to its blasphemy laws, including life imprisonment for those defiling or desecrating the Koran

    – In 1984, followers of the minority Ahmadi sect, who believe that Ahmad was a prophet, were banned from calling themselves Muslims, punishable with three years in jail

    – The death penalty for anyone found guilty of defaming Islam was introduced in 1986. Pakistan has yet to execute anyone for blasphemy. Most of those given the death penalty have their sentences overturned or commuted on appeal


    I have so far been unable to find out the percentage of Pakistanis actually support that law but did find one poll that showed 90% worried about extremism.

  • sam

    Your title “Dying on a Cross… is disingenuous. This faithful follower of Christ DID NOT DIE ON A CROSS. He was ambushed and SHOT. You belittle those you have suffered and died ON a Cross, such as Christ and Peter and many others.
    We don’t say St. Paul “died on a cross” although he suffered many torments and tormentors. We speak the truth in Christ always.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Jerry–Did the poll define “extremism??? I doubt if those who took part in the massive pro-blasphemy law national strike that crippled Pakistan for a day would consider themselves “extremists”– far more likely just good Moslems. And I wonder about the Zogby poll (which was done for the U. of Maryland). Did the 84% who were in favor of capital punishment for those who leave Islam consider themselves “extremists”— or just good Moslems.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    It’s a metaphor, I admit that.

    Watch the video. You’ll see why I wrote the headline.

  • Ryan K.

    Is it just me or am I the only one that is surprised at how numb we are to this stuff anymore?

    I hear about this stuff in Germany today and this killing of a Christian in Pakistan and I know that few will find this truly shocking. If anything it has just become somewhat common and even expected.

    The routine has almost grown tiresome. Someone is killed by a individual/group of Muslims, the media ignores it or tries to tell you why it is the exception, and those that hear it just file it away in the long list of stories they have heard just like it over the years. …

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I haven’t seen any recent reports on public opinion regarding blasphemy laws, but it might be worth remembering the response from what was termed 500 “moderate” Muslim clerics to the assassination of Salman Taseer. They asserted that Sharia doesn’t just talk about washing feet but also demands killings such as this. In their statement, which you can read here, they point out that the Prophet Muhammad order the killing of an apostate in Mecca mosque.

    They said that “Those who support the perpetrators of blasphemy against Prophet [Muhammad] are also blasphemers.” They said no funeral should be held for Taseer and no mourning.

    They lauded the assassin and said he maintained the 1400 years of Muslim tradition and has “held the heads of 1.5 billion Muslims of the world high with pride.”

    They said that people who oppose Pakistan’s blasphemy law should “take a lesson from the death” of Taseer.

    They said that the punishment for blasphemy against Muhammad is “only” death, per the Koran, the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad and the consensus of Muslim opinion and explanations by Muslim religious scholars. Any blasphemous remark — including unintentional ones — make you an infidel.

    “There has been a consensus on this issue among the ulema of the ummah and muftis right from the eras of the prophet and the companions of the prophet until today. Those who committed blasphemy against the prophet were killed during the period of the four early caliphs.”

  • Jerry

    The problem as Mollie indicates with scare quotes around “moderate” is who is qualified to call someone a “moderate” what does it mean to be a “moderate”. Specifically about blasphemy and for that matter apostasy, there are many who disagree with those clerics:

    In full conformity with the above teachings, neither the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) nor any of the four rightly guided caliphs who succeeded him were in the habit of hunting down people and executing them for merely changing their religions. Rather, they refrained from doing so except in rare cases involving treason. Treason, however, is another matter. The punishment for treason in the Qur’an is as strict as it is in the Hebrew Bible. But it must never be confused with mere change of religion.


    I have given at least 3 examples that prove the Prophet Muhammad (sas) did not kill people for apostasy alone (peaceful apostasy). To refresh your memory they were:

    #1 Ubaydullah bin Jahsh (who became Christian).
    #2 Abdullah ibn Sa’d (who reverted to idolatory)]. Ibn Hisham even says the Prophet (sas) pardoned Abdullah ibn Sa’d!
    #3 The Bedouin man who left Islam. [Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 9, # 318].


    And when it comes to blasphemy, I found one reference within 5 minutes to a classical debate: http://www.paklinks.com/gs/religion-and-scripture/472061-punishment-of-blasphemy-in-islam.html

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Do you have any comments on the journalism issues in the actual post? The language issues in the stories?

  • Jerry

    Terry, the article mentioned moderates without scare quotes. Mollie’s post put the word “moderates” in quotes. I should have also added that to my last post commenting on “moderate” versus moderate.

    But I have noticed that people tend to, from time to time, comment on each others posts with disagreements, additions or corrections.

  • Peter

    I notice when Arabs are suffering from the hands of their dictators, they seem to demand Western intervention as an expectation. But here minorities are dying in their midst and no one pulls a finger…

  • http://twitter.com/ismat ISM

    Terry, I’m not sure I understand what you are implying. Vocal opposition to the Draconian blasphemy laws is enough reason for these mullahs and related organizations to take action against the like of Taseer and Shahbaz.

    Yes, it would have been nice to use Shahbaz’s quote “And whoever stands against their radical philosophy, they threaten them.” Because that quote answers your question. For those who killed Taseer and Shahbaz, suggesting that a law that supposedly “protects” and “honors” the Holy Prophet Muhammad is enough motive for them. And most of the news stories say this.

  • Ben

    re: (1) In the case of Taseer, he called the blasphemy law a “black law” and that seemed to trigger a charge from some clerics of blasphemy — since they view the law as part of sharia, then calling it black is insulting the religion. In the case of Bhatti, he never used that language. Before Taseer’s killing he said the law should be changed or amended because of its use to persecute minorities. After Taseer’s killing, he talked more of stopping the misuse of the law, but in foreign press venues he continued to talk of amending/changing.

    (2) These were extrajudicial killings, so we aren’t talking about these two violating the blasphemy law as written but violating the sense of propriety of the bodyguard and his champions (who were many), and Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban. The killers of the two men were different and I suspect in Bhatti’s case it’s more a tactic of Al Qaeda and the Taliban to stir up inter-religious trouble, whereas Taseer seemed to be killed for the perception he blasphemed with the “black law” comment. We’ll have to see in the coming days the exact reactions to Bhatti’s killing.

  • MarkP

    You keep repeating this question: “What did Bhatti, a Christian, and the late Salman Taseer, the Muslim governor of Punjab, say or do that constituted fatal insults against Muhammad?” But I don’t see anywhere that suggests Bhatti was killed for “insults against Muhammad”. He was killed for opposing a set of laws which his opponents see as a bulwark against apostasy (or against a slippery slope leading to western decadence, I suppose). I’m just not seeing the basic flaw you see in the reporting. In any case, a very bad thing was done because a bunch of fundamentalists are scared their way of life is doomed.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The Boston Globe–on today’s page 6–ran a short story on the slaying of the Pakistani Christian Cabinet member It was from the Washington Post and appears quite condensed. The last paragraph reads: “The police guard who killed Taseer [the other Pakistani Christian leader slain for being against Pakistan's anti-blasphemy law] has since been lauded as a hero even by Pakistani lawyers and mainstream Muslims, exposing the broad reach here of religious conservatism and intolerance.”
    In my opinion it is unfair to switch from reporting on what members of one religion, the Moslem religion, are doing and turn that into “religious conservatism” in general being the virtual cause of the violence and intolerance.
    On the other hand the article did raise the issue of “mainstream Muslims” being supporters of Taseer’s murder for being against the anti-blasphemy capital punishment law.
    But you learn this only in the last paragraph of a small story on page 6.

  • Bern

    I wonder why the vast majority of reports simply describe Mr. Bhatti as Christian rather than Catholic http://ncronline.org/news/vatican-condemns-murder-pakistani-minister