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Confronting atrocities in Pakistan

01 April 2016

The West must keep up the pressure over blasphemy laws, says Paul Vallely

I HAVE just had an email from a friend who is a missionary in Pakistan. The Christian community there, he says, is in a state of shock in the wake of the Easter Day bombing, which killed 72 people and injured 300 more.

“Trying to come to terms with the mass murder of innocent Christians in Lahore has been very difficult,” he writes. “The bomb exploded so as to maximise child victims.” Most of those murdered next to the children’s swings were Muslims, but the fanatics responsible have openly announced plans for further atrocities.

The voice of moderate Islam, my friend writes, has been “silenced through fear”, as religious leaders refuse to speak out, knowing that extremists will accuse them “of compromising the honour of their Prophet”.

How should Christians respond? “Readiness to forgive, certainly,” my friend writes. “But it leads to an extremely painful vulnerability, interpreted by militants as an expression of weakness and granting licence to act with impunity. . . So much hatred, and mindless, wanton violence.”

And, yet, is it mindless or wanton? In truth, it seems calculated and targeted — and that, perhaps, calls for a different response. President Obama’s prime strategic rejoinder, one White House insider reports, is to seek to behead the snake.

One of the main goals of his final year in office is to assassinate the self-styled caliph of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. President Obama privately speaks of the killing of Osama bin Laden as one of his top foreign-policy triumphs. Some might endorse killing individuals as the lesser of evils; but there are practical as well as theological objections to this.

It is far from clear that decapitation is an effective strategy for terrorism that is rooted in a network rather than a hierarchical structure. A new “caliph” will step forward, as happened with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, when Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar were taken out. Instead, action must be taken in the water in which the terrorists swim. “It takes a network to defeat a network,” General Stanley McChrystal once said, which suggests that the world’s intelligence and security forces need to get networked as never before.

Pope Francis, whose Good Friday message criticised what he called “cowardly silence” over the persecution of Christians, has appealed to the government of Pakistan to ensure the safety of the country’s minorities. On Monday, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, vowed to hunt down and defeat the militants. “This is the resolve of the 200 million people of Pakistan,” he said.

Yet the truth is that the elite in Pakistan is divided and conflicted. The army takes some action, my missionary friend reported, “while all the time retaining links with preferred terrorist groups for their dirty work”. The recurring promises of a government that continues to refuse to overthrow the law that requires the death sentence for blasphemy “sound risibly hollow”. The West must keep up its pressure on the government of Pakistan. But it is hard to be optimistic about the outcome.


Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester.


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