Killing Moderate Pakistan, One Advocate for Tolerance at a Time
Updated: Mar 16
Two gruesome anniversaries show that the country’s democratic founding ideals are dead—with potentially devastating consequences.
Pakistan can be a dangerous place: Violent extremism runs rampant, and there is little trust that the perpetrators will be held accountable. But for religious minorities in the Sunni-majority country, life is especially precarious. For good reason, the U.S. State Department has repeatedly designated Pakistan as one of the worst places in the world for religious freedom. All groups suffer: Shiites, Hindus, Christians, Ahmadis, nonbelievers—and any Sunnis standing up to the extremists of their own faith.
Pakistanis who protest abuses and advocate for a more tolerant society risk their lives. This year has seen the 10th anniversaries of the assassinations of two such risk-takers: Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti. These grim anniversaries shine a bright light on the question that continues to linger over the future of Pakistan: Will the country continue its slide away from the democratic ideals of its founding in 1947 toward religious intolerance and extremism? The stakes are high for Pakistan’s diverse citizenry of over 200 million people. A Pakistan riled by sectarian hatreds and cowering in fear of religious extremists cannot modernize—and will continue to fall further behind its South Asian neighbors. And the consequences for both the region and the world could be grave if the nuclear-armed nation becomes even more radicalized.
Taseer and Bhatti were both officials who came into the crosshairs of Sunni extremists. Taseer was the governor of Punjab province, while Bhatti was the federal minister for minority affairs. One had a high profile, the other was quiet; one was a Muslim, the other a Christian. The two men forged an unlikely alliance, speaking up for members of religious minorities. One they helped was Asia Bibi, a Catholic mother of five children, after she was sentenced to death in November 2010 for allegedly blasphemous comments during a fight with co-workers. Despite Pakistan’s intolerant and threatening climate, Taseer and Bhatti publicly and loudly advocated for her release and called for a reform of Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law. Sunni extremists hated them for their boldness and wanted them dead.
In a tony neighborhood of Islamabad on Jan. 4, 2011, Taseer’s own bodyguard shot him multiple times in the back. But even more shocking than the murder was the public response: Taseer’s assassin became a hero to many Pakistanis, and the victim’s family had difficulty finding an imam to officiate at the funeral.
I spoke to Bhatti soon after. He felt hunted—but regardless of the danger, he was determined to forge ahead. Then, almost exactly two months after Taseer’s murder, members of the Pakistani Taliban brazenly ambushed Bhatti’s unarmored sedan in Islamabad on March 2, 2011, shooting him right outside his mother’s home. World leaders, including then-U.S. President Barack Obama, condemned the killing. But such public condemnations were hard to find in Pakistan. Officials feared for their lives, and most skipped Bhatti’s funeral. The killers went free.
After the loss of these two brave men, it was clear no one could safely touch blasphemy issues in Pakistan. In my conversations with officials and legislators in the years since, they are literally frightened to death to touch the law. And with good reason—all the more today.
Arrests of journalists, often involving blasphemy charges, chill honest debate.
Pakistan is arguably worse off now. Even more so than 10 years ago, extremism is embedded in the country’s political culture—and the moderate middle that carried Pakistan’s political, social, and economic development since independence is rapidly shrinking. It took almost a decade to overturn Bibi’s death sentence, even as more blasphemy cases accumulate. (She has since fled the country for an undisclosed location in Canada.) Minorities are a regular target, but studies indicate a new trend: at least 75 percent of the 200 blasphemy cases in 2020 were against Muslims who allegedly blasphemed Islam. The law urgently needs to be significantly reformed or removed entirely. But instead, Pakistan’s special representative on religious harmony said the government wanted the United Nations to enforce a global blasphemy ban.
While the extrajudicial killing spree that took the lives of Taseer, Bhatti, and others has slowed, violence hangs over all communities. And murders of members of minorities and human rights advocates persist, such as the assassination of blasphemy-case lawyer Rashid Rehman and human rights advocate Khurram Zaki, as well as the mysterious death in Canada of Baluchistan rights activist Karima Baloch. The forced conversion of Hindu and Christian girls, including by forced marriage to Muslim men, is commonplace in Pakistan. Ahmadi Muslims are regularly charged with the alleged crime of being Ahmadi, whom Pakistan legally defines as heretics that can be prosecuted. The government now even targets American Ahmadis in the United States.
Along with the military’s outsized role in politics, extremist attacks on minorities moved Freedom House to label Pakistan as only “partly free” in each of its recent Freedom in the World reports. Arrests of journalists—also often involving blasphemy charges—chill honest debate, and the internet is highly regulated. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan ignores these trends at home while lecturing Europe on anti-Muslim discrimination and turning a blind eye to China’s genocide of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
It did not have to be this way. Pakistan’s founder and first governor-general, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, held a different vision. In 1947 he declared, “You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques, or to any other place or worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” Contrasting 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 are starting with this fundamental principle: that we are all citizens, and equal citizens, of one state.”
From past diplomatic work during my time in the U.S. government, I know the challenge of moving Pakistan to meet its founder’s vision. It will take sticks and carrots to incentivize the country’s establishment to confront these issues. The Trump administration was the first to designate Pakistan a country of particular concern for its severe violations of religious freedom, a move every previous Republican and Democratic administration avoided. It was the right decision, and I led the U.S. State Department’s negotiations for potentially taking Pakistan off that list again.
During meetings in Washington and Islamabad, Pakistani government interlocutors expressed a mix of anger and resignation: anger at the blacklisting and resignation that the forces of deadly intolerance were beyond government control. But while Pakistani officials claim impotence, it’s clear that the military and security services can act when they want. For instance, the Pakistani state rounded up extremists protesting Bibi’s acquittal by the Pakistani Supreme Court in 2018 after they called for the death of Supreme Court justices and the overthrow of the government.
Pressing for reform helps brave Pakistanis who continue to fight for a more tolerant version of their country.
Outside pressure is needed to motivate Pakistan’s leadership to make tough but necessary decisions. The United States and its international partners should incorporate human rights into every engagement with Pakistan on terrorism, regional security, and violent extremism. Diplomatic consequences can spur reforms—which will be difficult but not impossible.
One example of what works: The Financial Action Task Force on terrorism financing has certainly gotten Islamabad’s attention. The Biden administration can employ the Magnitsky Act as well as sanctions related to the designation of Pakistan as a country of particular concern. The European Union can attach human rights conditionalities to trade using its own established mechanisms. The United States, Britain, Canada, and the EU can deny visas to those espousing hate toward minorities, while proactively supporting human rights defenders. The U.S. Congress can call for prisoner releases and limit military support.
Some will argue Pakistan’s geostrategic importance outweighs human rights concerns. Or that the issue is too complicated or sensitive. But we ignore the continuing slide of nuclear-armed Pakistan toward violent extremism at our peril. The abhorrent blasphemy law gives strength to extremists who threaten the Pakistani state, the region, and the world. Unchecked, the vicious and vengefully applied law may eventually consume the entire country.
Pressing for reform advances both U.S. values and U.S. interests. It helps brave Pakistanis—today’s Taseers and Bhattis—who continue to fight for a more tolerant version of their country. And prioritizing U.S. support for a Pakistani reform agenda can help stem growing radicalization and violent extremism, with consequences far beyond the country’s borders.
Knox Thames is a former special advisor on religious minorities at the U.S. State Department during the Obama and Trump administrations. Twitter: @KnoxThames