In stark juxtaposition to the funeral ceremony of Salmaan Taseer (which was attended by a handful of the then ruling party elites, under strict security arrangements) Mumtaz Qadri, a cold blooded murderer according to our laws, was interred into the earth amidst fan-following that is befitting a ‘hero’ of trans-historical stature. And sadly, in death, Mumtaz Qadri stands to be glorified as a galvanizing symbol for the religious right, who view his actions not only as a manifestation of fervent love for Islam, but also as a battle-cry against the fast-extinguishing moderate ideologies in our land.

Before delving into the twisted psychosis of a nation that idolizes an individual who confessed to murdering another, and was subsequently sentenced to death, in accordance with law, it is important to first take a deeper look at the precise nature of the case against Mumtaz Qadri, as well as the judgment rendered by the honorable Supreme Court in regards to the same.

By way of background, Mumtaz Qadri was sentenced to death by the Anti-Terrorism Court, under Section 302 read with Section 109 of the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860 (PPC), and Section 7 of Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997 (ATA). (It is noteworthy to mention that the learned trial Judge who convicted Qadri had to flee the country, out of fear for his own and his family’s lives). The Islamabad High Court upheld Qadri’s sentence, but declared that his actions did not fall within the ambit of ‘terrorism’ as defined by the ATA. Appeals were filed before the honorable Supreme Court; on behalf of Qadri for reduction in sentence, and by the Federation for inclusion of terrorism offences. And in October of 2015, a three-member bench of the honorable Supreme Court, through an erudite judgment authored by Mr. Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, upheld Qadri’s sentence, including the terrorism charges.

The said judgment of the apex Court, penned in the scholarly tenor that is characteristic of Justice Khosa, parses out the relevant questions involved in Qadri’s case, before exhaustively deciding each in accordance with law. But the legal forte is only a fraction of the story; the real genius of the judgment rests in the careful manner in which Justice Khosa walks the precarious line between upholding the law and our Constitution on the one hand, while not offending the entrenched religious sentimentalities of even the Qadri supporters.

The judgment starts with a recounting of verses from the Holy Quran that emphasize each Muslim’s obligation to ascertain the ‘truth’ before acting on any information; in so doing, at the very outset, the court advances a ‘Quranic’ argument against Qadri’s contention that he (erroneously) believed that Salmaan Taseer had committed blasphemy – an argument that the religious right cannot disagree or cavil with.

Despite confession, Qadri contended, per his statement under Section 342 of Cr.P.C., that “To criticize such [blasphemy] law and to challenge it as it was man made law tantamount to directly defiling the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him)”.

As a result, the judgment points out, Qadri’s defense emanates from a belief that “being a devout Muslim [he] was under a religious and moral, and hence legal, obligation to kill [Taseer] who had committed the offence of blasphemy, particularly when the State had failed to take any legal action against the offender.”

The honorable Court’s judgment, combing through the myriad of religious and legal complexities, succinctly states that “the real question involved in the present case is as to whether or not a person can be said to be justified in killing another person on his own on the basis of an unverified impression or an unestablished perception that such other person has committed blasphemy.” And this question, for all intents and purposes, lies at the heart of the ongoing Qadri frenzy across our nation. Do we as individuals, have a religious obligation (over and above the restraints placed by ‘man-made’ law) to subjectively decide as to the guilt of another, convict such individuals in our courts of conscience, and sentence them in the name of religion? Can self-assumed religious duties trump the empire of our Constitution? Does Islam empower all those who disagree with statutory provisions of the law (e.g. Section 295-C of PPC) to take on the mantle of a judge, jury and executioner, without any recourse to the established tenets of natural and religious justice?

In Qadri’s case, the honorable Court answers these fundamental question by categorically declaring that “It goes without saying that seeking improvement of a manmade law in respect of a religious matter for better or proper enforcement of such law does not ipso facto amount to criticizing the religious aspect of such law.” Interestingly, this was also the contention of Salmaan Taseer. And this, precisely, is the argument presented by reformists in support of a fresh debate about the blasphemy law and other such statutory provisions.
It must be pointed out and recognised that rendering such a judgment must have required a tremendous deal of courage and conviction on part of the bench. For better or worse, members of the bench, who live and breathe in our society, must have been cognizant of the risks associated with upholding Qadri’s conviction, and declaring that a critique of blasphemy law (for the purposes of reform), does not constitute blasphemy in itself. And for this, we all owe the honorable Court a debt of gratitude.

Thankfully, we are here now. The law has been settled, and a murderer convicted. But this was the lesser goal. The honorable Court’s judgment must be followed through to its logical end: each of us, and in particular our elected representatives, under the protection of judicial dicta, must now participate in a national discourse for reform of blasphemy law. We must enact a new legal provisions that achieve three important objects: 1) guard against blasphemy and punish the blaspheme; 2) protect against the abuse of blasphemy law; and 3) discourage individual vigilantism in the name of avenging alleged blasphemy instances.

At this critical juncture of our national history – when the robes and the khakis are all in favor of reforming religious extremism – it would be a tragedy if the people and polity shirked away from participating in this reform of our law and our culture of intolerance.

Postscript: Qadri’s symbolism and popularity among the masses – demonstrated by the throngs of people who came to bury him – is a tragic shift in our cultural construct. It reminds me of a comment that Yasir Arafat made about the Palestinian youth, at the turn of the century; he said that young boys in Ramallah no longer want to grow up to be doctors, engineers and lawyers. They all want to grow up to be martyrs.

The real genius of the judgment rests in the careful manner in which Justice Khosa walks the precarious line between upholding the law and our Constitution, while not offending the entrenched religious sentimentalities of even the Qadri supporters.