There is no way to walk around it. At this particular juncture in our national history, we live in the choking grip of religious intolerance, which transacts in the currency of violence. Slowly, but surely, we have cultivated, and are continuing to nurture, a society that has embraced the use of force and barbarianism as the only acceptable response to religious plurality. The most recent manifestation of this violent culture of intolerance was seen last week, on the day of Ashura, when a young Christian couple was mercilessly burnt alive, on fabricated charges of blasphemy.

As it turns out, Shahzad Masih and his pregnant wife Shama Bibi (both in their mid-twenties) had incurred the wrath of one Yousaf Gujjar – the owner of a brick kiln where the Christian couple worked to make a paltry living, in Kot Radha Kishn, outside of Lahore. Over a dispute of some outstanding debt, Yousaf Gujjar imprisoned the young couple in a small room for over two days, periodically subjecting them to physical abuse and torture. When these inhumane acts of cruelty did not satisfy the seething anger of their paymaster, he, along with seven hundred of the local villagers, concocted a story about this Christian couple having burnt certain pages of the Holy Quran. Assuming onto themselves the mantle of being the final defenders of the word of God, this mob, after announcing their desire to revenge over the loudspeaker of the local masjid, broke down the door where Shahzad and Shama had been imprisoned, dragged them out, stripped them of their clothes, subjected them to physical beating, and finally threw them into the burning furnace of Yousaf Gujjar’s brick kiln. All this while, the local police officials, who had been attracted on account of the mob frenzy, watched this unfolding horrific episode as complicit bystanders. The couple, whose bones and ashes were subsequently buried in their local village, are survived by three children – a 6 year old son, and two daughters, aged 4 and 2.

But we need not feel so terrible at the horrific death of this young couple, or the travesty of life that awaits their children. Because, at least, we, as a society, have fully discharged our religious responsibility of upholding the glory of Allah, and the sanctity of His written word!

We can try and hide behind excuses of this being an isolated event of barbarianism (just like all the other hundreds of such isolated events of the past). We can shrug our shoulders and nod our heads, in disgust, and pretend that somehow this was an act of a few villagers, and not a reflection of who we are as a people. We can continue to approach the reform of our blasphemy laws with tepidness and a lack of resolve. We can continue to make empty statements about how we condemn such activities, and order toothless investigations into how and why these murders were committed. We can continue to bounce off these walls of weakness and pretense. But at the end of this futile exercise, we will only find ourselves sitting this dark room of culpability. Waiting, once again, for the next such act of violence.

Or, alternatively, we can muster the courage to have a frank conversation about reforming our blasphemy laws, and perhaps much more importantly, our culture of religious intolerance.

In terms of the law, the argument of the extreme left – that we should have no blasphemy law at all – is just as faulty and nefarious as that of the extreme right, which believes that even the mildest questioning of religion falls within the perverse ambit of blasphemy. The truth is that all countries, even the most liberal of them, have an anti-blasphemy law. Such laws as not geared towards the protection of religion, or that of God. (Who are we, in any case, to lend God our protection?). The anti-blasphemy laws, across the world, are meant to protect the sentiments of the religious zealots, who might be offended by the blasphemous utterances. And this distinction, of protecting people, as opposed to protecting the religion or God, must find its way into the letter and spirit of a reformed blasphemy law in Pakistan.

But protecting the sentimentality of individuals, through the enactment of blasphemy laws, necessarily entails a corresponding reform of the culture of religious intolerance within the society. Let us face it: Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, as much as they are in the need of reform, are not the reason why Shahzad and Shama were thrown into the brick kiln. They are not the reason that Joseph colony was burnt to ashes. They are not the reason that an FIR was registered against a Shia bookseller in Lahore, on charges of selling a copy of Nahj-ul-Balagah. The real reason behind any of these inexplicable acts of violence and bigotry, is our culture of religious intolerance. Religion, and by extension the use of blasphemy charges, have become the most convenient of ways to settle personal disputes. In a culture where fiery religious rhetoric is the most enabling tool to galvanize mobs against other (defenseless) individuals, it is not the law of blasphemy that sentences people to the gallows, but instead the charge of blasphemy alone, which, in our society, is synonymous to a death sentence.

A reform of our intolerant religious culture is far more challenging a task than that of reforming any law. While reforming our overall religious culture might be a long and tedious job – spanning a rethinking of our madrassa structure, of its curriculum, of the khutbas in the hundreds of thousands of mosques that have mushroomed all across Pakistan, and of the fiefdom of mullahs in matters of religion – perhaps we can start with a simple realization that strikes at the heart of reforming the blasphemy laws: we, the people of Pakistan, living in small geographic area, during this brief moment of life, are not the final custodians of the respect and sanctity of God or His religion.

That most merciful, the all-powerful Allah, who feeds us when we are hungry, and protects us from things that we know not of, was God before we ever existed, and will be God forever after we are gone. His beloved Muhammad (P.B.U.H), who was a prophet at the time when Adam (A.S) was between clay and blood, does not need us to spill the blood of a young and impoverished Christian couple, to celebrate his dominion over the path of truth. That our piety to Islam, our love for the Prophet (P.B.U.H), and our surrender to the kingdom of the Almighty, does not need the seal of ‘infidel’ blood. That those before us, who have been blessed by His infinite grace – Ibne Arabi, Al Ghazali, Tabriz, Rumi, Bhitai, Ganj Buksh – killed no one to prove their station in the pedigree of saints. And we, the spiritual inheritors of this great progeny, need not pick up the sword to shield the ‘respect’ of Infinity.

It is only through embracing this ethos of humility and peace, that we can start the much needed journey towards a more tolerant culture of religious pluralism.

 The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.

saad@post.harvard.edu

@Ch_SaadRasool