Pakistan can be a dangerous place: Violent extremism is widespread and there is little confidence that perpetrators will be held accountable. For religious minorities in the land of the Sunni majority, however, life is particularly precarious. The US State Department has repeatedly named Pakistan one of the worst places in the world for religious freedom for good reason. All groups suffer: Shiites, Hindus, Christians, Ahmadis, infidels – and all Sunnis who oppose the extremists of their own beliefs.
Pakistanis who protest abuse and work for a more tolerant society risk their lives. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the murder of two such risk takers: Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti. These grim anniversaries shed a bright light on the question that continues to span the future of Pakistan: Will the country continue to slide from the democratic ideals of its founding in 1947 towards religious intolerance and extremism? Much is at stake for the diverse Pakistani population of over 200 million people. A Pakistan plagued by sectarian hatred and huddled in fear of religious extremists cannot modernize – and will continue to lag behind its South Asian neighbors. And the consequences for the region and the world could be dire if the nuclear-armed nation becomes even more radical.
Taseer and Bhatti were both officials who came under the crosshairs of Sunni extremists. Taseer was the chief minister of Punjab Province, while Bhatti was the federal minister for minority affairs. One was well known, the other was calm; One was a Muslim, the other a Christian. The two men formed an unlikely alliance and spoke out in favor of members of religious minorities. One they helped was Asia Bibi, a Catholic mother of five, after she was sentenced to death in November 2010 for allegedly blasphemous statements during a fight with staff. Despite Pakistan’s intolerant and threatening climate, Taseer and Bhatti publicly and loudly pleaded for their release and called for a reform of Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy law. Sunni extremists hated them for their boldness and wanted them dead.
In a tony neighborhood of Islamabad on January 4, 2011, Taseer’s own bodyguard shot him several times in the back. Even more shocking than the murder, however, was the public reaction: Taseer’s assassin became a hero for many Pakistanis, and the victim’s family struggled to find an imam to officiate at the funeral.
I spoke to Bhatti soon after. He felt chased – but regardless of the danger, he was determined to move forward. Then, almost exactly two months after Taseer’s murder, members of the Pakistani Taliban ambushed Bhatti’s unarmored limousine in Islamabad on March 2, 2011 and shot him right in front of his mother’s house. World leaders, including then-US President Barack Obama, condemned the murder. But such public condemnations were difficult to find in Pakistan. Officials feared for their lives and most skipped Bhatti’s funeral. The murderers went free.
After losing these two brave men, it was clear that no one could safely touch blasphemy problems in Pakistan. In my conversations with officials and lawmakers over the past few years, they have literally been scared to death of touching the law. And for good reason – even more so today.
Pakistan is probably worse off now. More than ten years ago, extremism was embedded in the country’s political culture – and the moderate center, which has supported Pakistan’s political, social and economic development since independence, is rapidly shrinking. It took nearly a decade to overturn Bibi’s death sentence, although cases of blasphemy are mounting. (She has since fled the country to find an unfamiliar location in Canada.) Minorities are a regular target, but studies suggest a new trend: at least 75 percent of the 200 blasphemy cases in 2020 were against Muslims allegedly defeating the Blasphemed Islam. The law urgently needs to be substantially reformed or deleted entirely. Instead, Pakistan’s special envoy on religious harmony said the government wanted the United Nations to enforce a global ban on blasphemy.
While the extrajudicial rampage that killed Taseer, Bhatti and others has slowed, violence rages across all communities. And there are still murders of minorities and human rights activists, such as the murder of blasphemy lawyer Rashid Rehman and human rights lawyer Khurram Zaki and the mysterious death of Balochistan rights activist Karima Baloch in Canada. The forced conversion of Hindu and Christian girls, including through forced marriages to Muslim men, is the order of the day in Pakistan. Ahmadi Muslims are regularly charged with the alleged crime of being Ahmadi, which Pakistan legally defines as heretics who can be prosecuted. The government is now even targeting American Ahmadis in the United States.
Coupled with the military’s oversized role in politics, extremist attacks on minorities prompted Freedom House to label Pakistan as only “partially free” in each of its most recent Freedom in the World reports. Journalists’ arrests – often accompanied by blasphemy charges – keep the debate open, and the internet is heavily regulated. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is ignoring these trends at home while teaching Europe about anti-Muslim discrimination and ignoring China’s genocide of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.
It didn’t have to be like that. The founder and first Governor General of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had a different vision. In 1947 he stated, “You are free to go to your temples, you can go to your mosques or any other place or worship in this state of Pakistan. They can be of any religion, caste, or creed – it has nothing to do with the business of the state. “Contrasting the newly created Pakistan with the history of intra-Christian violence of its former colonial master Britain, Jinnah added,” There is no discrimination … between one caste or creed and another. We start with this basic principle: we are all citizens and citizens of a state with equal rights. “
From my previous diplomatic work during my time in the US government, I know the challenge of moving Pakistan to realize its founder’s vision. It will take whips and carrots to motivate the country’s establishment to face these problems. The Trump administration was the first to identify Pakistan as a country particularly concerned about its grave violations of religious freedom. This has been avoided by every previous Republican and Democratic government. It was the right decision, and I led State Department negotiations to possibly remove Pakistan from that list.
During the meetings in Washington and Islamabad, the Pakistani government interlocutors expressed a mixture of anger and resignation: anger at the blacklist and resignation that the forces of deadly intolerance were beyond the control of the government. But while Pakistani officials claim impotence, it is clear that the military and security services can act when they want. For example, the Pakistani state rounded up extremists who protested Bibi’s acquittal by the Pakistani Supreme Court in 2018 after calling for the death of Supreme Court judges and the overthrow of the government.
External pressure is needed to motivate the Pakistani leadership to make difficult but necessary decisions. The United States and its international partners should mainstream human rights in any engagement with Pakistan relating to terrorism, regional security and violent extremism. Diplomatic consequences can drive reforms – which will be difficult, but not impossible.
An example of what works: The Financial Action Task Force on Terrorist Financing has caught the attention of Islamabad. The Biden government can apply Magnitsky Law as well as sanctions related to the designation of Pakistan as a country of very high concern. The European Union can impose human rights conditionalities on trade using its own established mechanisms. The United States, Britain, Canada and the EU can refuse visas for those who campaign for hatred against minorities while proactively supporting human rights defenders. The US Congress can demand the release of prisoners and limit military support.
Some will argue that Pakistan’s geostrategic importance outweighs human rights concerns. Or that the problem is too complicated or delicate. But we ignore the continuing decline in nuclear armed Pakistan towards violent extremism at our risk. The hideous blasphemy law empowers extremists who threaten the Pakistani state, region and world. Unchecked, the vicious and vengefully applied law can potentially consume the whole country.
Pushing for reform promotes both US values and US interests. It helps courageous Pakistanis – today’s Taseers and Bhattis – who continue to fight for a more tolerant version of their country. Prioritizing US support for a Pakistani reform agenda can help curb growing radicalization and violent extremism, with consequences far beyond national borders.