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Assassinated Pakistani Minister 'Wasn't Afraid Of Being Killed'

Mourners at the burial of slain Pakistani Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti at his family graveyard in his native village Khushpur, Pakistan, on March 4.
Mourners at the burial of slain Pakistani Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti at his family graveyard in his native village Khushpur, Pakistan, on March 4.
Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's minister for minorities and the only Christian serving in the government, was gunned down in a drive-by shooting on March 2. Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassination, which ended one man's lifelong pursuit of religious tolerance in the face of violent extremism. Bhatti had recently sought to reform the country's blasphemy laws, under which insulting Islam is punishable by death.

Michael Horowitz, a close friend of Bhatti and an expert on religious freedom at the Hudson Institute, a conservative-leaning Washington think tank, spoke with RFE/RL about the assassination and how liberalism can be supported in Pakistan.

RFE/RL: In an interview with us in November 2010, you described Shahbaz Bhatti as "the bravest man I know." Tell us more about your relationship with him and your impressions of him.

Michael Horowitz: I knew him quite intimately. I think that both of us regarded each other as, literally, brothers. It's what we called each other. So this has been quite stunning and devastating for me. I'm a Jew and he spent a Passover seder at our house a few years ago. [In] my last conversation with Shahbaz, I said, "Listen, if you don't protect yourself and [you] get yourself assassinated, I'm going to kill you." We both had a good laugh about that.

We had worked very, very hard, along with members of Congress, to get the State Department to pressure the government of Pakistan to provide adequate security, which they, of course, did not. And [Bhatti] was a hard-headed realist -- not the guy looking to be martyred that he is sort of portrayed as. [But] he wasn't afraid of being killed, and it took a little persuading to get him to care about his own life -- that's true.

RFE/RL: What do you think Bhatti's assassination says about the viability of liberalism in Pakistan?

Horowitz: [It's] hard to tell. I think the assassination says that time presents opportunities, and that if lost, they often are lost forever. Here's what I mean: The West, and particularly the United States, did not understand [Bhatti's] potential importance as a figure able to change the rules of the game in Pakistan and through the example of Pakistan, in much of the Muslim world.

He got elected to the parliament as one of the minority representatives, and then, wonder of wonders, he was appointed to the cabinet. When he was appointed to the cabinet, by the way, there were celebrations in cities throughout Pakistan by all the minority religions.

Here he was, this brave man and this example of what the possibilities in Pakistan really could be; and then, as minister, he began developing powerful relationships with the Islamic clerics.

Most notably, he called an all-day session attended by the four principal imams of Pakistan, by heads of the leading madrasahs, and by the heads of all the other religious communities. They joined in this statement of principles calling for religious harmony throughout the country. The radicals -- the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, the Islamists -- they knew who was behind it and they knew how targeted he was.

At that point, there was an extraordinary opening to bring those Muslim moderates from out of the foxholes, but that would have taken press recognition of the importance of this statement. That would have taken an American ambassador who really understood its importance. That effort was not made. There was no recognition.

RFE/RL: How should the Pakistani government and the West respond to Bhatti's assassination to best discourage similar acts of violent against moderates?

Horowitz: There's only one possible response and one understanding of the situation in Pakistan and it is this: Words won't do anything. Indeed, they'll be worse than nothing because they will announce to the murderers that the murders of [Punjab Governor Salman] Taseer [and] the murder of Bhatti served their purposes.

There is, however, another response, and that is to take Bhatti's murder and the murder of Taseer and make of it what happens when a great leader is assassinated. The leaders of the world congregate at a memorial service. If the [U.S.] secretary of state or, indeed, the vice president, or in my judgment, the president does not attend -- it's probably too late to attend a funeral -- but if we are not planning a memorial service in Islamabad to which [British] Prime Minister [David] Cameron comes, to which President Obama comes, the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti will serve the purposes of the murderers.

Once we [in the West] show that we stand with Shahbaz, once we say after the Taseer and Bhatti murders, "Never again," once we show up with our bodies and in strength and not just write pieces of paper a thousand miles away, watch how religious tolerance increases in Pakistan.

RFE/RL: Does Pakistani civil society have the ability to respond meaningfully to Bhatti's assassination?

Horowitz: One of the things [Bhatti] did as minister of minority affairs was set up around 120 district committees -- harmony committees -- of six Muslims and six non-Muslims, who regularly met with each other and began to understand each other's issues and created that kind of civil society community. This was another extraordinary achievement that this remarkable man produced.

Shahbaz deeply believed that there really was this impulse. And yet, here was the United States giving $5 billion a year or so to Pakistan. Did anybody in the United States say, "Hey, we're giving you $5 billion, you better make sure that $20 million goes to the Ministry of Minority Affairs to help strengthen these harmony committees"? No.

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