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Who Will Speak Out On Behalf Of Pakistan's Moderates?

Pakistanis hold a cross and a poster of slain Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti during a protest in Hyderabad after his killing.
Pakistanis hold a cross and a poster of slain Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti during a protest in Hyderabad after his killing.
First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

That poem by German pastor Martin Niemoeller was directed against the collective failure of his fellow Germans to speak out publicly to condemn the crimes committed by the Nazi regime.

The cold-blooded murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, the only minister in the Pakistani cabinet representing minorities, is not the first such killing and is unlikely to be the last. The silence of the Pakistani government, the all-powerful security establishment and self-serving politicians sends a message to the religious bigots that they are free to act as they please.

On January 4, Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, Pakistan's largest province, was assassinated by his own security guard. The killer was given a hero's welcome when he was brought before a court the following day. And mind you, those were learned lawyers and graduates of Western-style colleges, not the bearded mullahs from unregistered religious seminaries who garlanded the assassin when he confessed in front of multiple television cameras seconds after committing the crime.

Rights activists staged a few silent protests. But not a single member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party that installed Taseer as presidential representative in Punjab openly condemned his killing.

Former Information Minister Sherry Rehman was forced to go underground last year after she proposed amending the blasphemy law written by then-dictator General Zia to serve his personal interests.


But who cares about a lone woman like Sherry in a land where the country's prime minister is forced to retract his criticism of a law, as Yousaf Raza Gilani was?

Pakistan -- whose name translates as "the land of pure" -- is an outlandish country in the sense that its 185 million people are hostage to a tiny minority that has imposed its will on them.

Interestingly enough, Pakistan's intelligence apparatus and army, which are regarded as among the most professional in the world, seem powerless to counter the militants, to the point that some people believe they either turn a blind eye to what is going on or even support the militants.

Nobody batted an eye when a suicide bomber attacked Asfandyar Wali Khan, leader of the secular Awami National Party (ANP), at his home in the town of Charsadda in northwestern Pakistan in December 2008.

Instead of condemning that terrorist attack, Punjab province Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif once publicly pleaded with the Taliban not to carry out attacks in his province as his government was not engaged in a direct fight with them.

Not only did militants ignore Sharif's pleas, but the blood-letting on the streets of Lahore continued. Since 2008, militants attacked the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team, an Ahmadi community place of worship, a police training center, a Shi'ite procession, and the offices of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), together with a string of lower-profile targets.

The blood-and-fire game, which has its roots in India-Pakistan animosity over Kashmir and the Afghan Jihad, is now being played out in the streets of Islamabad. There is more than a grain of truth to the observation that the Pakistani capital is located 22 kilometers from Pakistan, given that the lifestyle and standard of living in Islamabad are totally different from that in Rawalpindi, just 22 kilometers away, not to mention the rest of Pakistan.

Although the killings of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti -- both slaughtered at the altar of the controversial blasphemy laws -- have inculcated deep fear in the hearts of moderates and secular elements, voices of rebellion are nonetheless being heard from the oppressed.

On March 2, I heard for the first time a public call for the repeal the controversial 295 B/C clause of the law on blasphemy. Clause A of the same law enumerates the punishment for attacking minorities or their religious views or places of worship.

A handful of Christian demonstrators who gathered in Islamabad to lament the killing of their representative openly spoke out against the law, though their terrified leaders, like the Muslim moderates, continue to keep low profiles rather than put their lives at risk.

Moderates Bear Brunt

Rumor-mongering aside, Pakistani politics is under the control of the country's security establishment one way or another. While there is always room for conspiracy theories, adducing insecurity to remove or force the resignation of the existing government is an established ploy.

A close ally of the ruling PPP told me that the existing government does not serve the interests of the establishment and they want it out of office before the Senate elections due one year from now.

As the PPP has a majority in the national assembly and the general election is scheduled to be held in 2013, the party might easily win a clear majority in the Senate (the upper house of parliament) if the Senate election is held in March 2012 as scheduled. In this case, even if the PPP losses the 2013 general elections, the party will have a say in lawmaking because of its majority in the Senate. To prevent that from happening, anti-PPP forces are plotting to oust the government and dissolve the national and provincial assemblies before March 2012. Well, we can expect anything when men hide behind their shadows and there are wheels-within-wheels.

Whatever the true motive in the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, it was done in the name of religion and it is the moderates who are bearing the brunt of the fallout. In the words of Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, a moderate Pakistani religious scholar now living abroad for his own safety, "the [religious] lunatics don't see what is right or wrong. Rather, they target any one who does not conform to their religious views."

Pakistan is not a suitable place for moderates to live, he says: "If they live there, then they have to toe the line."

Pakistani moderates and progressive elements are indeed toeing the line, mainly because they do not want to share the fate of Taseer and Bhatti. However, they must realize that "there must be someone let to speak out for them when they come for them."

Daud Khattak is acting director of RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL