On March 10, a week after the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister for religious minorities, a bipartisan group of U.S. congressmen called on U.S. and international officials to formally oppose the draconian blasphemy laws that cost Bhatti his life by introducing a “Taseer-Bhatti resolution” in the U.N. Human Rights Council. The proposed resolution, named after Bhatti and Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who was also murdered recently for his efforts at repealing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, advocates for “the repeal of blasphemy laws and condemn]s] their adverse effects on freedom of religion and thought.”
On March 2, Bhatti, Pakistan’s only Christian government official, was murdered for his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Bhatti’s car was riddled with at least 25 bullets as he was leaving his mother’s home in Islamabad, the country’s capitol. In a note left next to his slain body, Al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban Movement boasted responsibility for the assassination.
Bhatti was well aware that he risked his life by fighting for the rights of religious minorities. In a video that he requested be released in the event of his murder, he courageously stated that he was willing to die for their rights.
Bhatti is not the first Pakistani government official to be murdered for his unflinching support of religious freedom. On January 4, Governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by his own bodyguard for the same. Both Bhatti and Taseer spoke out against the death sentence that was issued in November to Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blaspheming the prophet Mohammed.
While Bhatti’s Roman Catholic faith was certainly on the mind of his assassins, the primary motivation behind his murder was not his religious beliefs, but his belief in religious liberty. Governor Taseer was Muslim, and he lost his life in the very same way that Bhatti did. Both brave men who ascribed to two different religions were assassinated because of their political view that the government does not have the power to determine religious truth and punish those who disagree. Indeed, this is not a tale of strife between two religions; the clash is really between those who desire liberty and democracy, and powerful, oppressive extremists who seek to squelch this desire in their people.
In their fight for liberty, Bhatti and Taseer recognized the dark reality behind blasphemy laws. In addition to stifling the speech of religious minorities, these laws are often used for personal gain or revenge, regardless of the accused person’s religious beliefs. Threats of blasphemy accusation are often used to settle property disputes, for example. So rather than protecting religion—the touted purpose of blasphemy laws—these laws abuse religion by allowing it to be wielded as a weapon to destroy a person’s life—all for another’s personal or economic gain.
Far from creating religious harmony, the laws also engender mob violence. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, even after being acquitted on blasphemy charges, the life of the accused is never really secure. Those who are released invariably live under the shadow of fear, being harassed, and often having no alternative but to move. It is not uncommon for vigilante mobs to take the law into their own hands and kill a person even after he or she is acquitted. In fact, there have already been reports of rewards offered to anyone who kills Asia Bibi if her life is spared by the government. More than 30 people have been killed by lynch mobs since the modern revival of the blasphemy law in 1979.
The tragic deaths of these two martyrs for freedom show a genuine need for reform in Pakistan and other countries with such draconian blasphemy laws. The United Nations, which currently provides justification for such laws through its “defamation resolution,” needs to take action.
The defamation resolution, which was originally introduced by Pakistan, protects religions from being criticized, but what it amounts to in reality is a cover to hide under for nations like Pakistan who use blasphemy laws to punish dissenters. Support for the provision has waned significantly over the past few years, and it will likely be defeated, but the U.N. can and should do more than merely let the cover fade: they should oppose blasphemy laws altogether. A Taseer-Bhatti Resolution seeks to do precisely that.
When Bhatti was killed, religious minorities in Pakistan mourned the loss of their staunchest defender and leader. The United Nations should do their part in defending these people and the cause that both Bhatti and Taseer died for.
An attorney, Uddin works on international religious freedom matters with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. She is also a legal fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding