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Another tragedy

March 02, 2011

THE cold, calculated assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister for religious minorities, in Islamabad yesterday is yet another blow to the idea of Jinnah’s Pakistan. Mr Bhatti’s killers may have escaped the scene of the crime, but the real culprit is known to all: an extremist mindset that has, with the sponsorship of some institutions of the state, spread far and wide in Pakistani society. The tragic irony of a country created to protect the rights of a minority — Muslims in unified India — turning into a killing field for those standing up for the rights of minorities evokes a deep sense of pathos and helplessness. Yet, the second high-profile killing in less than two months in Islamabad linked to the issue of the country’s blasphemy laws raises at least two hard questions.

One, how was it that Mr Bhatti, clearly a marked man, was left exposed to those who sought to kill him? Police officials have claimed that the slain minister rejected round-the-clock protection, but that is an insufficient explanation. It was the job of the authorities to keep Mr Bhatti safe — whatever the minister’s preferences. Short of leaving Mr Bhatti completely exposed, as he was yesterday morning, more discreet security could have been afforded to him. A bullet-proof vehicle could also have saved Mr Bhatti’s life. Was the threat to him not clear enough? Is the best security only reserved for self-described ‘VVIPs’?

Two, when will those responsible for shaping the policies of the state recognise that retreat in the battle against fanaticism and intolerance only gives the extremists more space? The PPP has now seen its chairman, a provincial governor and a federal minister slain by religious extremists of different hues. And yet the party which leads the federal and Sindh governments has maintained a resolute silence when confronted by its extremist enemies. In fact, senior party leaders have gone out of their way to seemingly placate the extremists. Similarly, other political parties and leaders have also either maintained a steadfast silence or pandered to religious extremists. Institutions of the state which have had a hand in creating and sustaining the culture of jihad and militancy also appear dangerously tolerant of certain mindsets so long as they serve some perceived tactical or strategic goals. For sure, all are not equal when it comes to influencing state policy. The political class is too often too unsettled and unsure of its position to challenge entrenched policies and mindsets. But if nobody stands up, if nobody tries to fight for what is good and right, the extremists will surely win.