Several weeks ago, after Pakistan’s official Love for the Prophet Day degenerated into deadly riots, railways minister Ghulam Ahmed Bilour held a press conference in Peshawar announcing that he would give $100,000 of his own money to anyone who kills Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the filmmaker behind the tawdry YouTube video Innocence of Muslims. The Pakistani government and Bilour’s own party distanced themselves from the railways minister after his comments. And the United States government issued a note of disapproval. Yet Bilour’s gamble paid off. The Pakistani Taliban quickly embraced the 72-year-old member of a secular party, who had previously been on their kill list. “Bilour is a true Muslim,” said Taliban spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan. “He has won our hearts.” Striking while the iron is hot, at least one other politician has sought to emulate Bilour’s example and doubled the amount of money put on Basseley Nakoula’s head. Bilour then followed by announcing that he would personally kill anyone who blasphemes against the prophet Muhammad. “I am a true, practicing Muslim and believe in God,” he told Newsweek. “I am not scared of the Taliban.” He said his announcement had helped quell further violence and condemned the “shameful” destruction of public property during the Sept. 21 riots. “They acted like women,” he said of the protesters. “I acted as a gentleman.”
Incitement is illegal under Pakistani law—punishable by up to seven years in prison and a fine. But that hasn’t stopped Bilour and others from using it as a political tool. In fact, the lax implementation of the law has allowed many to flout it with impunity. “Laws exist against any incitement to murder, but we have a very weak history of enforcing these laws,” said Asma Jahangir, a human-rights activist, in an interview with CBS News. These lapses in enforcement—blatantly ignored by an otherwise aggressive judiciary that has even attempted to police the circulation of text messages criticizing its chief justice—may not gain fans abroad, but they’ve certainly paid dividends. One cleric and right-wing supporter, Mohammed Qureshi, has practically made a career out of offering bounties on any and all persons deemed offensive to Islam. Qureshi has been quiet recently due to health concerns. But in the past, he’s offered bounties for the Danish cartoonists who drew the blasphemous drawing in 2006 ($1 million and a car); Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses ($1 million); and American pastor Terry Jones ($47,000). The result: Qureshi’s bombastic statements have made headlines the world over, and made him a permanent fixture on the protest rally circuit, which has bolstered donations to his mosque in Peshawar.
For Bilour, however, the bounty isn’t only about fame or fortune or even Taliban protection. His announcement also helpfully distracts from his rueful performance as the country’s railways minister. Pakistan Railways has clocked up a debt of some $555 million during the past four years and its state of disrepair has generated a bevy of protests of its own. During one May demonstration, for eight hours, railway employees blocked the tracks and prevented any trains from leaving the station in Lahore. “Yes, I know the declining situation of railways,” he said brusquely in an interview with Newsweek. “I am holding a detailed press conference in a couple of months and everything will be clear as to who actually is responsible for bringing the railway system to the point of collapse.” Maybe he should blame Basseley Nakoula.