Remembering Shahbaz Bhatti: Stand Up in Peace

Today marks the second death anniversary of Shahbaz Bhatti. In his memory and as a tribute to his work for minorities, I am republishing an article I wrote hours after he was murdered. It’s painful to acknowledge that things have only worsened since.

AP Photo/B.K. Bangash

“There is no hope for Pakistan”

“RIP Pakistan”

“The Country has gone to the dogs”

Rest in peace Pakistan. It was the first message I read on my twitter feed this afternoon. It didn’t take much time to scroll down, and read the tragic news. Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minority minister and the only Christian member of the cabinet, had been shot dead. Shock, horror, fear — it’s difficult to pinpoint what came first.

“I am tired of false optimism”

Images of Bhatti’s car splattered all over the screen. It’s a picture we have seen far too many times. Cars riddled with bullet marks, shattered glass, blood-stained seats. All the while an avid reporter speaks away, gripping his branded microphone, looking straight into the camera, informing the audience of yet another assassination.

“… unknown gun men opened fire… succumbed to injuries.. killed in broad daylight..”

Same words. A different place. A different man.

There is no doubt that it becomes increasingly difficult to remain hopeful when the future appears bleak.  It’s only been eight weeks since Governor Salmaan Taseer was gunned downby his own guard.

“…gun men opened fire… succumbed to injuries.. killed in broad daylight..”

In Taseer’s case we know who the gunman is. We remember his face, smug, that smirk on his face and in his eyes. They were filled with contentment as he smiled into the camera. But his own admission, not just in his words but also in his face, his eyes, his smile — none of it has made a difference.

“Anyone who opposes the sacred law will face a fate similar to Taseer”

These words have been repeated over and over again by overzealous men standing at the backs of Shehzore trucks with megaphones in their hands, reinforcing their message loud and strong. They have been going around the city, issuing warnings, further silencing what they call the ‘silent majority.’

They have done it again. Another one of us has been gunned down. It is true that Bhatti’s assassination is a huge setback for the minorities in Pakistan. But it is not just that. Governor Taseer was a dangerous precedent for the democratic government, currently in power, while this is a reinforcement. It shines a glaring spotlight on the failure of governance that has prevented the state from upholding the rule of law.

Taseer’s assassination and the events after have made it clear that the extremist powers will do their best to silence every single voice that stands against them.

There are  striking similarities between the assassination of  both Taseer and Bhatti. A pattern that is obvious. Like Taseer, Bhatti was shot over 20 times. They were both killed in the federal capital of Islamabad.

It takes only one bullet to kill a man.

The fact that their assassins riddled their bodies is reflective of the intensity of compounded hatred. It is also to create a spectacle. It is to make a mark, not just one but many. Literally.

Despite being under threat, Bhatti was provided with inadequate security. Taseer was gunned down by his own guard. More importantly, their assassins called out for their murder in broad daylight, burned effigies, circulated pamphlets carrying extremist messages, and marched in the streets, calling out for their deaths.

It is then appalling that the authorities offered another sacrifice to the voracious and insatiable appetites of extremism.  Bhatti’s murder is a firm reminder that a meek response to violence will only appease the militant groups.

In the aftermath of the assassination of Governor Taseer, the tone of many of this Government’s spokespersons lacked the kind of condemnation the situation demanded. Instead, official statements and even media coverage reeked of apologies. Fueling the conservative vs liberal fire that has shrouded this country in a cloud of smoke has led to a polarized environment.

It’s only been a few hours since the assassination of the minister, and I see the same ritual. TV anchors have resorted to hinting that the assassination may be a tactic to shift focus from the Davis controversy, thereby undermining the heinous crime.

“…why was he traveling without security…he was assassinated because”

But before someone points out that Bhatti’s death is the death of liberalism in Pakistan and blames the victim for having an opinion, I want to disagree. Saying that Bhatti or Taseer’s death is the death of liberalism in Pakistan is undermining their stature and their cause. Their voice is the voice of every humanist. Theirs is a humanitarian cause. A cause that is not exclusive to the liberal or conservative ideologies. Their stance should appeal to all, and the state should not allow religious bigotry to distort their message.

The assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti is a result of an ongoing campaign concerted to silence every single voice that stands for justice and equality.  Those 40,000 men that took to the streets after Taseer’s was assassinated were mobilized as a result of months of campaigning.

The writings on the wall are clear. The extremist forces have been using all mediums to spread intolerance and bigotry. The calls for murder in weekly sermons  at mosques have gone unchecked. Religious decrees are being passed by those who are not even qualified Muftis. All this has been been unhindered because the state appears to kowtow to these demands. It is time for the authorities to reclaim public spheres, and speak out against these assassinations. It is time to put these criminals on trial, and uphold the rule of law. Only then can we expect inter-faith harmony and tolerance.

Perhaps the one message that we all must keep reading to ourselves is by Shehrbano Taseer. I quote her tweet:

I don’t knw abt the rest of you but this makes me more determined to keep fighting for a progressive Pak, not more scared [sic]

Let us learn strength from those who have lost.  If the sane and powerful voices don’t speak out now, they may be silenced forever.

About The Author

Sana Saleem

Sana Saleem is an activist working on minority rights and internet freedom. Sana was listed in Foreign Policy's 100 Global Thinker's list in 2012, for her work on free speech in Pakistan with Bolo Bhi. She serves on the advisory board of Courage Foundation, which is Edward Snowden's Legal Defense Fund. She blogs at Global Voices, Asian Correspondent, The Guardian, Dawn and her personal blog Mystified Justice. She also won Best Activist Blogger award by CIO & Google at the Pakistan Blogger Awards in the same year. In 2014, she was listed on BBC's 100 Women list. She can be found Twitter: @sanasaleem and contacted via email:

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