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Paul Goodman: The martyrdom of Shahbaz Bhatti and the poisoning of Pakistan

by Paul Goodman

"Martyr" means "witness" - and Shahbaz Bhatti was bearing witness when he was gunned down by terrorists earlier today.

Bhatti was the only Christian in Pakistan's Cabinet.  But he wasn't so much bearing witness to his faith - though that is certainly true - as to the country's founding ideals of religious tolerance.  He'd urged repeal of the country's blasphemy laws, which carry the death sentence.  His car was ambushed and sprayed with bullets.  Pamphlets by Al-Qaeda and Tehrik-i-Taliban Punjab were found at the scene.  The latter described Bhatti as "a known blasphemer of the Prophet".

Bhatti thus joins another witness to the cause of religious tolerance - Salman Taseer, a Muslim, and the former Governor of the Punjab .  But Taseer wasn't gunned down by supporters of Bin Laden or the Taliban.  He was shot by one of his own bodyguards, who wasn't a member of an extremist group.  He wasn't even a Deobandi - the austere Islamic school many of whose adherents support the Taliban.  He was a Barelwi, a Sufi-influenced movement on the sub-continent.

Thousands of Pakistanis attended Taseer's funeral in January - proof that secular, liberal Pakistan is still alive and, in many ways, kicking.  But over 500 Barelwi scholars issued a statement advising that prayers shouldn't be said for Taseer, and that "there should be no expression of grief or sympathy on the death of the governor, as those who support blasphemy of the Prophet are themselves indulging in blasphemy".  I see that Dr Tahir Ul Qadri, a leading Barelwi scholar, has already done much better today.

When Pakistan was founded, no-one cared much that Jinnah, its guiding spirit, was a Shi'ite.  In the early years of Pakistan, the Ahmadiyya began to be singled out for persecution.  The Shi'ites followed.  More recently, Barelwi-Deobandi violence has followed too.  The legacy of the long Afghanistan wars, Zia al Haq's purist reforms, the rise of the Taliban and the strengthening of Islamism are poisoning not only groups who traditionally are politically moderate - like the Barelwis - but civil society in Pakistan as a whole.

With a powerful and numerous army to keep Pakistan together, it isn't a failed state - yet.  But it's now very close indeed to being one.  And it's on our doorstep - or might as well be, given the presence of perhaps a million people in Britain of Pakistani origin.

Below is a video of an interview with Bhatti made recently.  In it, he says -

"I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us.  I know what is the meaning of the cross, and I'm following the cross - and I'm ready to die for a cause.  I'm living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights."


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