x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Moderates need a voice in Pakistan

In the aftermath of Salman Taseer's murder, the worried chatter in Pakistan was deafening, as was the failure of politicians to squarely confront extremists and the unjust blasphemy law. Finally on Monday, that silence was broken by the 22-year-old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

On Tuesday, an imam and his 20-year-old son were sentenced to life in jail under Pakistan's blasphemy laws. Their alleged crime was tearing down a poster that advertised a religious event from the front of their grocery store. The imam's lawyer said that the charges against his client stemmed not from any act of blasphemy, but from rivalries between the Barelvi and Deobandi schools of Islam.

The case shows how Pakistan's blasphemy law has distorted Islamic law to settle scores. As tens of thousands celebrated the shooting of the Punjabi governor Salman Taseer this past week, and lawyers feted his murderer, an extremist agenda appears to be gaining ground.

The question is whether that bereft ideology has already won. It has not. But as The National's columnist Shaukat Qadir wrote two days ago, where is the "silent majority" that opposes this hijacking of Islam?

The failure of politicians to squarely confront extremists in the aftermath of Taseer's murder makes it more difficult for others to do so. The silence was finally broken on Monday by the 22-year-old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of the president and heir of the Bhutto political legacy.

"To those who are praising or justifying these crimes, I say: you, along with the killers of shaheed Salman Taseer are the real blasphemers," Mr Bhutto said, affirming his support for Pakistan's religious minorities.

Mr Bhutto's ruling Pakistan People's Party may be a controversial force in politics, but it now stands as the champion for many whose voices are not being heard. And though he spoke from a memorial service in London, Mr Bhutto delivered a brave message.

Monday's rallies in favour of the blasphemy law drew 50,000; Mr Bhutto's mother Benazir Bhutto drew crowds of more than 200,000 upon her return to the country in 2007. Her murder two months later showed that the minority of extremists hold the trump card of wanton violence.

Even in the best of times, Pakistan's educated elite often live walled off from the rest of society but they can also rise to a challenge. The massive flood relief efforts organised by young, educated Pakistanis last year showed a deep commitment to the country.

As the extremists gain momentum, Pakistan needs to fight back. A 22-year-old such as Mr Bhutto cannot shoulder this burden alone. When an imam and his son are sentenced to life in prison for taking down a poster, it shows where the extremists would take the country.