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COLUMN - Unfortunate that Pakistan minister announces bounty on maker of anti-Islam film
A federal minister in Pakistan has promised $100,000 for the head of the maker of an obnoxious anti-Islam film, according to media reports from Peshawar.
Ghulam Ahmed Bilour, minister for railways, told reporters on Saturday that he knows it is a crime to instigate people to murder, but he was going to do it anyway. The rationale: there is no other way to instil fear among blasphemers.
This is an unfortunate development when Pakistan, among many other Islamic states, is failing to moderate the venom that has been unleashed after learning about the film, "Innocence of Muslims".
Friday was a bloody day across Pakistan, especially in light of the government's declaration that it was to be a "day of love for the Prophet". More than 20 people died in a spasm of anti-U.S. violence in Karachi, Peshawar and Islamabad. Whether the Prophet would have been pleased with such expression of "love" seems to be irrelevant.
Tehran and Islamabad are following different trajectories. Iran, with an ayatollah at the helm since 1979, exudes a deeply ingrained Shia fervour and visible ecclesiastical severity. The precedent of Salman Rushdie and "The Satanic Verses" in 1989 is part of that experience. Given the religious nationalism and the anti-U.S. sentiment in Iran, it was unsurprising that a state-linked Iranian foundation last week raised the bounty on Rushdie to $3.3 million, even though the author had no links to the film.
Pakistan is a different story. The democratically elected civilian government in Islamabad is trying to complete its full term despite opposition in the army and the apex judiciary. It depends heavily on aid from its traditional donor nations, namely the United States. The support of religious extremism and related terror groups that advance the Pakistani national interest, as per the certitude that prevails in army headquarters Rawalpindi, is a Lady Macbeth stain; it will not go away.
Pakistan is an on-the-record ally in the United States' "war against terror", yet on the streets, Pakistan exudes the highest index of anti-U.S. sentiment in South Asia. In a 2012 Pew Research survey, three out of four Pakistanis consider the United States to be an enemy. Unlike Iran, Pakistan is a de facto nuclear weapon state whose fissile material inventory is increasing. Under such circumstances, announcing a $100,000 bounty for someone's head is very, very dangerous.
The remarks in Peshawar attributed to Bilour also indicated that he sought the support of Taliban and al Qaeda members to defend the faith. He said he knows that the organisations are banned in Pakistan, but he promised them money anyway in the event of a kill.
Stoking religious indignation and playing to the gallery can generate short-term political benefits in South Asia but the long-term implications are disastrous. Respect for law and prevailing diplomatic protocols -- meaning that you cannot attack embassies and kill diplomats -- should be made non-negotiable and universal.
Pakistan has a small, but courageous liberal spectrum that is often cowed in the face of reckless religious grandstanding by politicians. They need support and a voice in the media.
The assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer serves as a grim reminder of what ensues when misplaced religious sentiment and a supra-national agenda trump law, professional integrity and civility.
The world will be watching to see how the Pakistani political system responds to this initiative by a federal minister. And maybe later he'll say he was misquoted.
(The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not represent those of Reuters)
(C. Uday Bhaskar is the former director of the New Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation)
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