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Monday, October 10, 2011

If I Speak Out, 'They Will Kill Me'

Pakistan's Shiite founder wanted it to be a home to all creeds. Now criticizing its blasphemy laws could cost you your life.

By STEVE INSKEEP

Karachi, Pakistan

On Feb. 5, 2010, a bomb exploded in Karachi, killing members of a Shiite Muslim religious procession. Extremists often target Shiites, a minority in Pakistan. Ambulances rushed survivors to the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center, and the victims' families followed. Many were outside the entrance to this hospital when a second bomb exploded there.

The carnage changed the life of Bisharat Rehmat, who had nothing to do with the Shiite procession. His daughter was giving birth to a baby that day, and he was inside the hospital visiting the mother and newborn child. His relatives, however, were on the hospital grounds. The bomb killed six of them, including Mr. Rehmat's wife and 7-year-old daughter.

AFP/Getty Images
Two Pakistani Shiite Muslims mourn the day after the Karachi bombings in February 2010.

Mr. Rehmat, like his family, is Christian. I visited him earlier this month while many Pakistanis were thinking about intolerance and religious minorities—though not talking much about them. People spoke carefully after a judge ordered the death sentence for a bodyguard who murdered his charge, Salman Taseer, governor of the vast province of Punjab.

Taseer, a Muslim, had criticized Pakistan's blasphemy law, which he said was being used to persecute a Christian woman. For this he was shot in the back. Conservative lawyers showered the killer with rose petals. Just as the discovery of Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan raised questions about Pakistan's military, the public celebration of a murderer raised questions about where Pakistani society is drifting.

"It made me sick," Taseer's daughter, Shehrbano Taseer, told me in June. "If you have your lawyers, who are your supposed vanguards of justice, taking these kinds of stands, then it means your justice system is a sham."

Yet the justice system delivered. On Oct. 1 the judge in Rawalpindi declared that "no one can be given a license to kill." As if to say that even the death penalty was too lenient, the judge added a $2,300 fine.

Pakistan's moderate and liberal voices approved but spoke cautiously. Their muted reaction was partly out of skepticism that the sentence will be carried out, and partly out of prudence: The governor's son was kidnapped during the trial, and supporters worried that the wrong words could harm his chances of survival.

There is also fear. When I asked one elected official to comment, he said that if he spoke out, "they will kill me."

Bisharat Rehmat didn't talk about the sentence either. And he stays clear of the blasphemy law. "If I have an argument with anyone, I walk away," he said. He fears that someone might invent a claim that he insulted Islam.

The struggles of people like Mr. Rehmat can seem like a sideshow in a country where so much else has gone wrong. It is not a sideshow. While Pakistan is believed to be 95% Muslim, religious minorities are woven into the country. Moreover, the Muslim majority includes its own minority sects, like the 20% of Pakistanis who are Shiites. Just last week gunmen in Quetta shot up a busload of ethnic Hazaras, who are predominantly Shiite, killing 14. People who follow Sufi Muslim beliefs are also frequent targets of violence

Mr. Rehmat, a laborer in a textile mill, lives off a narrow dirt lane in a simple white house with a Christmas wreath painted on an interior wall. His family has lived in Karachi for generations, a reminder of the city's diversity. When Pakistan became independent in 1947, Karachi was majority Hindu. Most Hindus were soon driven away, though some still worship at temples in the heart of the metropolis.

Zoroastrians, followers of an ancient Persian faith, have been merchants in the city for generations. And the departing British colonial rulers left behind Christian institutions that remain part of the local culture. At the heart of the city is the white-domed tomb of Pakistan's founder, Karachi native Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who was Shiite. Jinnah gave a famous speech in Karachi in 1947, calling on his people to live as equal citizens, without regard to "color, caste or creed." Jinnah died a year later, however, and intolerance has intensified since the 1980s.

Despite the bombing that slaughtered so much of his family—an attack blamed on an al Qaeda-linked group called Jundallah—Mr. Rehmat told me he loves Karachi. "We are Pakistanis," Mr. Rehmat explained simply.

Karachi's minorities could be a tremendous asset to Pakistan. This city is a seaport and financial center, enjoying wide contact with the outside world. If minorities were fully welcomed into civic and business life as Pakistan's founder proposed, they would effectively become ambassadors. Their mere presence in places of greater prominence would compel people in Pakistan's arch-rival India, or in the West, to think differently of Pakistan.

But that is hard to imagine when it's dangerous even to talk about Pakistan's blasphemy law.

Even so, many minorities find quiet ways to contribute. When the bomb struck the Jinnah hospital in 2010, some of Bisharat Rehmat's children survived. His 13-year-old daughter Maralyn recovered from her wounds.

She had been attending a school where, she told me, teachers treated her differently than Muslim students. But after the bombing, sympathetic relatives found her a slot at St. Patrick's High School, an elite Catholic institution that has operated since 1861 and taught students of all faiths. St. Patrick's has produced Muslim politicians such as current President Asif Ali Zardari, former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, and even Pervez Musharraf, the most recent military ruler.

"I want to be a doctor," Maralyn Rehmat told me in English, smiling as she made the announcement. Becoming a doctor was her late mother's dream for Maralyn. If she makes it, she could end up treating patients at the hospital where her mother was killed.

Mr. Inskeep is co-host of NPR's "Morning Edition" and author of "Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi," published by Penguin this week.

THE WALLSTREET JOURNAL

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