While the caption of last week’s assassination of a Pakistani Cabinet minister may already be passing into the archives of world affairs, it deserves our reflection for more than the mere minutes it took to execute one human being in broad daylight. The terrorized streams of Shahbaz Bhatti’s blood running off a soaked console in the back seat of a black sedan cry out to proclaim the frightful vista of a world that will forever change should Pakistan succumb to extremism ideology.
The murder of this human rights activist, who became a Cabinet minister in the halls of the very Islamic country that censures his identity as a Christian minority is of no small magnitude. Mr. Bhatti was not part of the wealthy glitterati who make up Pakistan’s elite, nor among the 95 percent majority Muslims who usually roam the halls of legislative power. He was a courageous representative of the roughly 1.6-million-member Christian religious minority who are often marginalized and persecuted there. As he so poignantly stated in the video that he asked to be released in the event of his death, “I know the meaning of the cross. I am following the cross. I am living for my community and suffering people … and I will die to defend their rights.”
To be a minority in Pakistan, like Mr. Bhatti, is to wear a scarlet letter that sentences one to a subordinate and, in many cases, subservient life where discrimination and fear exist on all strata of your existence. Before you would have even reflected on the deeper nuances of who your “God” was, in Pakistan, your religious affiliation would have been marked on your identity card. It would have been put on every application and resume your parents may have submitted in the vain hope of securing a better job, home or education despite an awareness that their religious identity was continually vilified by the corner cleric. Since those who had converted to Christianity through early Catholic missionaries usually changed their names to reflect biblical characters, even your seemingly innocuous “John Doe” would identify your religion as easily as those in the Jim Crow South could identify your skin color.
Metaphorically speaking, Mr. Bhatti refused to be identified by his skin color or any other perceived handicap. He was one of those rare men who had a palpable awareness that the brevity of life and the conviction of his faith required him to live for a cause greater than himself and then actually did so. He knew that lending his ordinary voice to speak for those who were weakened, oppressed, raped into silence or condemned to die for believing in a different God than the majority would garner an extraordinary risk - a risk he was willing to take for himself but not for a wife or child, who might be subject to an unbearable fate as retaliation for his work, which sought a peaceful interfaith dialogue that would help love triumph over hate in the Muslim world. So he trod the lonely road of a man who lived for the rights of others.
During his time as a Cabinet minister for minority affairs, Mr. Bhatti fought valiantly for revisions to the Blasphemy Law, supported the repeal for discriminatory laws against minorities, created a 5 percent quota of government jobs for minorities, including Christians, instituted a prayer room for non-Muslims in the prison system, started a campaign to protect religious artifacts and sites belonging to minorities and created a 24-hour crisis hotline to report acts of violence against minorities.
Like the larger-than-life politician, Salman Taseer, who was assassinated two months before him, Shahbaz Bhatti stood up heroically in calling for justice and reason to prevail. Mr. Bhatti stood in place of every liberal Muslim, fearful Christian and others whom he knew were rightly afraid of dying and had no one left to stand in the face of a Goliath-like and increasingly fanatical enemy. To use the words of one of Mr. Bhatti’s heroes, Nelson Mandela, with “the nobility of spirit to stand in the path of tyranny and injustice … [recognizing] that an injury to one is an injury to all,” Mr. Bhatti took the 20 or more bullets that were intended to silence all of us into fear and appeasement of injustice.
In the car where Mr. Bhatti took his last breath, there lay a black leather portfolio, with pages of the work he had undertaken spilled out. One of those projects was defending an impoverished Christian woman named Asia Bibi who is sentenced to hang under the Blasphemy Law, falsely accused and subjected to gang-rape before she was handed over to authorities. Two brave men have already died trying to save her.
We must not let their voices die out in the cacophony of hatred and violence. If Pakistan - with its 130 million - falls, the malevolent clamor will spread like wildfire across the boundaries of the Middle East. Rather, we must collectively take on the work that Mr. Bhatti left behind and help work toward a more tolerant and liberal Pakistan - an outcome that is in everyone’s best interest.
A. Salam is a Pakistani-American.