Songs of Pakistan - My Conversation with Shahbaz Bhatti

Yesterday morning, four masked gunmen surrounded a car carrying Shahbaz Bhatti and shot it over thirty times. With no security protection, the gunmen had the time to finish the job. And they made sure they did. Bhatti was dead by the time he reached the hospital. Pamphlets left in the car by the killers stated, “anyone who criticizes the blasphemy law has no right to live”. As the Minister of Minority Affairs, Bhatti had a very public position. He used his position to confront the national blasphemy laws that are routinely used to harass, threaten, and even attack religious minorities or those who hold differences of opinion.

A few weeks ago I had a chance to meet Shahbaz Bhatti in Washington, DC. We talked about his vision and life-work for Pakistan. He wanted to create a society that supported the fundamental human rights to freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and freedom of conscience. As President Obama said, “Minister Bhatti fought for and sacrificed his life for the universal values that Pakistanis, Americans and people around the world hold dear – the right to speak one’s mind, to practice one’s religion as one chooses, and to be free from discrimination based on one’s background or beliefs.” He and I specifically explored the use of culture in the shaping of popular opinion.Pakistan not only has a legal problem with the blasphemy laws but it also has a social problem where violence against religious minorities and dissenting opinions is often celebrated. While most of Bhatti’s work took place amidst policy makers, lawyers, and politicians, he understood the power of popular culture in shaping values. I shared with him the famous quote from Plato, “Give me the songs of a nation and it matters not who writes its laws”.Bhatti wanted the ‘songs of Pakistan’ to proclaim freedom. The sting of his violent murder has hit every human rights, religious liberty, and free-speech organization. There is a collective mourning across government, NGO, and faith-based groups. Bhatti wanted beautiful songs for his country that he will never hear.

"Give me the songs of a nation and it matters not who writes its laws."- Plato

Many organizations will continue to carry on Bhatti’s legacy. The White House, Congress, the US State Department, the US Commission on International Religious Liberty, and many others will continue to advocate for laws and policies that promote these basic human freedoms. Non-profits will continue to provide on-the-ground support to religious minorities shut out of educational and labor opportunities because of their beliefs. But there is a gap in this effort and it’s a gap that Bhatti recognized.

Culture (film, television, music, literature, theatre, interactive media, etc) must play a larger role in the promotion of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of conscience. A society’s artists contribute greatly to the shaping of values. Every major social movement has been significantly aided by artists. Books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Animal Farm, The Jungle, The Feminine Mystique were major contributors in shaping public opinion. Sociologists continue to report that the culture a society consumes has dramatic effects on the values it celebrates. This is true for every society.Saddened by his death, I reflect back on his beautiful vision for his people. He longed for a society that celebrated the dignity of each person. But his work at the legal level needs to be met by a growing chorus of Pakistan's culture shapers. We need Pakistani musicians, writers, directors, and artists to promote these freedoms through their work. The Pakistani society itself needs to find these human rights of value. Public policy, refined laws, international pressure, and local support are absolutely critical but will only go so far in shaping a society’s values. We need songs and stories. Songs and stories that promote what Bhatti gave his life for. Songs and stories that will shape a nation to love freedom and build a symphony of justice.