Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- Last week, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., was awakened by a 2:20 a.m. call. His first response was to fear bad news about his children or grandchildren. But when the American ambassador to Pakistan came on the line, Wolf immediately knew that his friend Shahbaz Bhatti had been killed. Bhatti was Pakistan's federal minister of minority affairs, the only Christian in the Cabinet and an advocate for the rights of religious minorities.

Wolf had sent letter after letter to the State Department, warning that Bhatti's life was "in grave danger." In December, along with then-Sen. Sam Brownback, he wrote Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "to ask that Ambassador Cameron Munter be immediately instructed to communicate to the most senior officials of the government of Pakistan that Minister Bhatti's security is a matter of high importance to the United States."

The recriminations are now thick in Islamabad, but for whatever reason the Pakistani government did not protect Bhatti. On March 2, as he left his mother's house for a Cabinet meeting, his black Corolla was ambushed. Bhatti was shot at least 20 times. The killers left behind a pamphlet claiming credit for the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda.

A few months previously, Bhatti had given a video interview that eerily, though not unreasonably, anticipated his own murder. "I'm ready to die for a cause," he said, "I'm living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights. So these threats and these warnings cannot change my opinion and principles." The most admirable and risky of those principles was Bhatti's opposition to Pakistan's blasphemy law, used to harass and intimidate religious minorities, including unpopular Muslim sects. Two months before Bhatti's death, the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, had been murdered for criticizing the law.

Other Pakistani politicians, according to Wolf, now live in "absolute fear." Pakistan's government has no interest in reforming the blasphemy law. Following Bhatti's murder, the two minutes of silence in the parliament to honor him was a political compromise, because no member dared to offer a public prayer on his behalf.

If Bhatti's murder is the last word, it will be a significant victory for extremism. America depends on cooperation with Pakistan to gain intelligence on tribal areas near Afghanistan. The United States is spending considerable amounts on aid to Pakistan, hoping to bring stability to lawless regions. But the political case for billions in civilian and military assistance becomes complicated if the Pakistani government seems helpless amid chaos, intimidated by radicalism and desperate to appease the unappeasable.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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