Another bomb; same song in Pakistan

A long, long time ago — pre-Internet, for heaven’s sake — I had a long conversation with Bill Moyers, then of CBS, about why the mainstream press has so much trouble covering religion. This was one of those occasions in which he used a striking image to describe this problem — that far too many reporters and editors are “tone deaf” to the music of religion.

Since this interview for the Charlotte News took place in 1982, Moyers still had Iran on his mind and the reporting he had done during his travels in the Muslim world.

A major obstacle that he faced, he said, was that many of his colleagues could not grasp that there is no “separation of mosque and state” in Islam. Thus, they would say that the events unfolding in Iran and elsewhere were merely political and not religious. It was hard for them to grasp that the events s they were reporting were saturated in religious images and belief.

Politics? Yes. Religion? Yes. They were covering the opera, but they could not hear the music.

I thought about that conversation while reading the latest Washington Post report from Islamabad about yet another assassination attempt, only this time the target was a much more complex figure than either Salmaan Taseer, the progressive Muslim governor of Punjab, or Shabbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet.

You will recall that both were gunned down because of their opposition to the nation’s draconian blasphemy laws. Please keep that in mind as you read through this report, starting at the top:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – One of Pakistan’s most influential religious leaders and politicians narrowly escaped a second assassination attempt in two days Thursday as he was touring the country’s volatile northwest to address a string of rallies.

There was no immediate indication who was behind the two attacks on Sen. Fazlur Rahman, the longtime leader of a faction of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-i-Islami party. A complex and colorful figure, Rahman is strongly anti-American and once supported the Afghan Taliban, but he operates within the country’s democratic system and is mistrusted by Pakistani Taliban extremists.

“I am safe. … There is blood everywhere, and my clothes are covered with blood,” the gray-bearded Rahman told witnesses Thursday in the town of Charsadda moments after a powerful bomb exploded amid his convoy, killing 14 people and injuring at least 30. Rahman was traveling to a rally in a police van after an attack Wednesday morning.

So, at this point, no one has claimed responsibility for these attacks.

Some experts pointed at forces linked, or hired, by the United States. Others claimed that it was his strong support for sharia law that caused the attacks, again hinting at violence coming from those who, as one source puts it, “want to stop the Islamic revolution in Pakistan.” Others said that the Taliban was simply doing everything possible to sow discord and chaos in the nation. Another step toward an Islamic revolution, perhaps.

In other words, politics and religion, but mainly politics.

Then again, maybe there was another motive. Check out the next to last paragraph:

Rahman, a Sunni cleric in his 60s who wears a signature orange turban, was once an outspoken radical Islamist, but his tone moderated as he became prominent in national politics, and he emerged as a bridge between Islamic militants and the government. Yet he is also known for his independent principles, and officials said his recent call for correcting abuses of Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law could have angered extremist groups.

You know what? That may have had something to do with it. Ask the families of Taseer and Bhatti.

Hey Post editors: Perhaps this information could have gone higher in the story? I realize that this would, again, put a heavy emphasis on a clash between some — repeat SOME — Muslims in Pakistan and the nation’s Christians, Hindus and other religious minorities (along with progressive Muslims who oppose the blasphemy laws as currently written). But that’s the reality. That’s the news.

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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.

  • Ben

    Well, it was only a nine paragraph story and the rationale wasn’t really known so no need to hype speculation, right?

    While Fazlur Rahman condemned the Bhatti killing, I wouldn’t say he and his party really made an inspiring show of it:

    While the killers have received little praise, eyebrows in Parliament went up when three members of another religious party, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam led by Maulana Fazal-ur Rehman, did not stand up during a moment of silence for Bhatti yesterday.

    A party spokesman says that eight MPs from the JUI-F were present. All eight remained silent, but only five rose. “These three [who] were not standing, they have some problems in the legs because they are aged, maybe. This is not party policy,” he said.

    The spokesman added that Maulana Rehman condemned the killings of both men. But the cases differ, because Taseer’s killing at a time of public protest when the government position was not clear. But Bhatti was killed when “there is no movement and the government position was clear, so there is no space for these activities, so there is no reason for this incident.”

  • Bain Wellington

    But the intended victim and two named colleagues/officials of his own political party deliberately did not link the attack to Rahman’s alleged “recent call for correcting abuses of Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law”, so I think it’s reasonable for the reporter to make those points before turning to speculation from an unnamed source that it was so linked.

    As to that, what “recent call” by Rahman did the unnamed source have in mind? Last I heard, Rahman was fiercely against amending those laws. On 9 January 2011 he (in his signature orange turban) addressed an estimated 50,000 in Kartachi asserting support for . . guess who? . . Mumtaz Qadri, the man accused of murdering Taseer.

    This critique of the WP article is very off-base unless Rahman dramatically reversed himself between 9 January and 31 March.

  • Bain Wellington

    The nearest I have found to an alleged “recent call for correcting abuses” of the anti-blasphemy laws is a report in a Pakistan news outlet called Dawn that Maulana Fazlur Rehman stated in Pakistan’s National Assembly on Friday 4 March that “a perceived misuse of the blasphemy law could be discussed.” Sure, he condemned the killing of Bhatti, but he clearly supports the anti-blasphemy laws and is merely open to discussing perceived abuses of it (which is quite some distance from asserting – as Bhatti did – that it should be amended).

  • John Pack Lambert

    Just to complicate things more in Pakistan there is also a long-standing fight between Sunni and Shi’ah. It is at least in theory possible this attack was done by Shi’ah who dislike Rahman because he is a Sunni. Each Muslim group has bombed the mosques of the other.


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