Monday, March 7, 2011

Forgetting the Original Sin

Since I heard of the assassination of Shabaz Bhatti (Pakistan's Minister of Minorities), I have been trying to avoid writing this post, mostly due to the shock but also as I am not sure what I can add to the Pak Blogosphere. Ahsan (Five Rupees) has already covered its possible implications on our national development. Cafe Pyala has provided an excellent coverage of this event from a media oriented perspective. Not to mention that the blogosphere is dripping with analysis ranging from a CIA conspiracy to divert attention from the Raymond Davis case, to how this assassination is the beginning of the end for Pakistan.

I'm going to start off by condemning unequivocally, the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti. He was a beacon of hope for the minorities in this country and his death is a loss for all of us. But as I continue to read blog after blog, and talk show after talk show, I have noticed two important trends in the conversations taking place. Most people condemn the murder without talking about the context in which it took place; the infamous blasphemy laws. They tend to denounce this event, but with qualifying statements. E.g. Shahbaz Bhatti's assassination was wrong but it was a case of extremism, a conspiracy etc... The very few willing to connect the dots constantly mention Zia ul Haq. This is not surprising. After all, Zia introduced the infamous blasphemy laws within Pakistan's penal code and institutionalized religion within the public sphere as deliberate policy. However, the role of an important historical figure in the development of these laws is often omitted.

I am talking about Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

Most of us belonging to Pakistan's liberal elite class view Bhutto in positive secular terms. He is the man who raised the socialist slogan of "Roti, Kapra aur Makan" (Bread, Clothing and Housing). He is the man who fought for democracy under Ayub Khan. He laid the foundations for the nuclear program (not really positive, but considered as such in uber patriotic circles). He is one of the nation's greatest martyrs, executed over fraudulent charges of murder of a political rival. What most people tend to forget (either through ignorance or deliberately) is that Bhutto laid the foundation for the criminalization of blasphemy in Pakistan. 

When Jamat-e-Islami contested the elections in 1970 and lost, it started a massive campaign against Ahmadis in Pakistan. This campaign turned Jamat-e-Islami into a popular political force agitating for regime change. In order to buy off Jamat-e-Islami, Bhutto acquiesced, implementing constitutional changes that declared Ahmadi Muslims as apostates. This action opened the door for state involvement in religious affairs, setting precedent for Zia's blasphemy laws (Pakistan Penal Code 295A-C and 298A-C)  including the notorious Ordinance XX (criminalizing Ahmadis Muslims from referring to themselves as Muslims through speech, writing and action with a three year prison sentence).

The reason for this (in my somewhat informed opinion) is based on the success of Zulfiqar Bhutto as a symbol.  By this I am referring to the larger than life image created by Benazir throughout her political campaigning against Zia's regime. We ignore the role Zulfiqar Bhutto played in the blasphemy laws, or the separation of East and West Pakistan, or his brutal suppression of uprisings in Balochistan following Bangladesh's separation, or the fact that he passed three amendments curtailing the rights of the detained, limiting the jurisdiction of the courts in providing relief to political opponents and reducing the power of the judiciary because it does not correspond with our narratives of Pakistani history.

This is not simply about shifting the blame from Zia-ul-Haq to Bhutto. It`s about recognizing that it not only the religious or conservative members of our society are responsible for the rise of intolerance in our society, but that we "liberals" have also played an equal  role in the subjugation of our religious minorities. And until we admit to this, its is unlikely that conditions for minorities will change any time soon.

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