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My jihad versus your jihad

The use of religious language by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to condemn the killing of  Salman Taseer, and those who praised the act, raises a number of interesting questions.

Last modified: 11 Jan 2011 18:26
Photo by EPA

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of the slain Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto, knew his words needed to count.
 
He was speaking at a memorial service for Salman Taseer, the murdered Governor of the Punjab, in London.

Dressed in simple Pakistani clothes, his words were far from simple: "To the Christian and other minority communities in Pakistan, we will defend you ...those who wish to harm you need to go through me first."

Using words like "jihad" to describe what must be done to combat extremism in Pakistan, he went on condemn those who praised the assassination of the governor.

He is a student not known for his religious views, or speech making skills, and yet he went to to use even tougher language.

"Allah has promised them hell, and we shall send them there," he said.

That they are strong words is beyond doubt. He spoke in the UK capital, in English and it was clear his audience were the West and English-speaking Pakistanis.

But there are two points to be made here. Bhutto Zardari's words have not been used by any politician in Pakistan.

His party has condemned the shooting and his supporters are in uproar over what happened. However, the kind of language used in his speech has not been repeated elsewhere.

Secondly, what was surprising was his use of religious language to condemn the killing of Taseer and those who praised the act.

Bhutto Zardari, on the face of it at least, has decided to fight fire with fire.

By using the same terms, the same language as those who praised the killing of the governor he is clearly saying enough is enough.

In some ways his speech is a reclamation of Islam from those radical groups who he, and many other Pakistanis, view  as being extreme.

In the English language press of Pakistan, the speech provoked much reaction. Editorials and subsequent comments on them have veered from praise to dark warnings that his language was "not welcome".

Why would Bhutto Zardari cloak himself in Islam to combat what he sees as extremism? 

There is anger among many Pakistanis that Islam is being subverted, Bhutto Zardari's words may well be the opening salvos of a liberal fight back against so-called extremism.

He declares himself to be of the faith, and that is enough for him. But many others say mere proclamation of faith is not enough - you must act in accordance with that faith.

But those beliefs are polarising, particularly within Pakistan. It depends on who you are.

Taseer's assassin shouted "Allah O akbar" at his court hearing. Nearly 200 lawyers by some accounts rushed to defend his actions.

In contrast, a handful of people gathered in London to hear Bhutto Zardari's words. Very few non-English speaking Pakistanis even knew he had given a speech. 

Mosharaff Zaidi, a political analyst and writer, suggests that it's a blessing in disguise that Bhutto Zardari's comments did not recieve wider coverage given the current climate.

"That would have threatened his security and that of many others because his words would have easily been manipulated by the radical right," says Zaidi.

I go on to question Zaidi whether those who use Islam to praise Taseer's killer have won out?
 
"Fear has the upper hand but it hasn't won,"  says Zaidi.

"Salman Taseer's assassination is fuelling a crisis of conscience. And with Bilawal's speech I'm optimistic that more and more Pakistanis will call a killer a killer, and courageous man a courageous man".

Pakistan finds itself at the heart of a debate that is running throughout Islam: Who speaks for Muslims? 

But in Pakistan, it's a question that has deadly consequences.

By using Islam to condemn the acts of other Muslims are you opening the floodgates to a religious war of words?

A war of words that has already claimed the life of Taseer.