Over the past several years, the jurisprudence emanating from the honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan has not provided much cause for celebration. During this time, public confidence in the ability of our judiciary to render dispassionate judgments, to hold accountable those who wield political power, and to convict terrorist suspects, has eroded to a dismal degree. And, consequently, the citizenry has started to wonder whether civilian judiciary can even deliver the fullest promise of the Constitution (culminating in the creation of military courts through the 21st Constitutional Amendment).

However, as a breath of fresh air, this week the honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan – in upholding Mumtaz Qadri’s conviction, as well as the applicability of anti-terrorism charges in his case – has revived faith in the ability of our superior courts to interpret and implement the law in a way that results in cultural correction as well as national rehabilitation.

The cold-blooded murder of Salman Taseer, on January 4th, 2011, at the corner of a bustling commercial center of Islamabad, by his (governmental) security personnel, marked a new low in Pakistan’s ideological battle against religious intolerance.

Almost instantaneously, with the assassination of Salman Taseer, three important and palpable shifts took place in the societal ethos of our country: 1) not only was blasphemy an offence punishable by death, but talking about blasphemy law itself was a ‘crime’ that would be met with an assassins bullet; 2) each individual, as a religious duty, was transformed into a court of conscience, which could try, convict and execute the alleged blaspheme; and 3) those who alleged blasphemy onto another citizens, and those who subsequently became vigilantes to extract Gods revenge on this earth, became national heroes, celebrated with rose petals, garlands, and sloppy kisses on the forehead.

In the months that followed, especially after the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti in March of 2011, all debate concerning reform of blasphemy law was snuffed out from our societal discourse. Those who supported Salman Taseer’s stance on the issue, and that of Shahbaz Bhatti, were forced into shackles of unbearable silence. The daring few who whispered such concerns behind closed doors were quickly advised by their friends to stay mum. Religious clerics and scholars who doubted the actions of Mumtaz Qadri had to flee into exile.

And a swarm of bearded fanatics, including several lawyers and (sadly) former judges of our superior courts, took to the streets in an attempt to immortalise Mumtaz Qadri as the ‘saviour’ of hurmat-e-Rasool (SAWW).

From the very first day, Mumtaz Qadri (proudly?) confessed the murder. In the circumstances, despite horrific threats, the trial court convicted him to the maximum sentence, in addition to holding that his actions fell within the definition of ‘terrorism’, per Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997. In appeal, the honorable Islamabad High Court (IHC), while upholding the conviction, ignominiously declared that his actions did not fall within the purview of terrorism (thus opening the possibility for all sectarian and religious violence to plead this ‘Qadri-defence’ in the future). As Mumtaz Qadri’s lawyers filed an appeal against his sentence, the prosecution filed an appeal against the striking off of the terrorism charges against Mumtaz Qadri. The honourable Supreme Court, while upholding Mumtaz Qadri’s conviction and sentence, overturned IHC’s Judgment to the extent of striking down terrorism charges, and thus held that Mumtaz Qadri is a terrorist who should be sentenced to the maximum extent, under the law.

While so doing, Justice Asif Khosa observed that questioning and debating the blasphemy law does not, in itself, constitute an act of blasphemy. And this categorical observation, from the highest court in our land, comes as a deafening roar against the noise created by religious fanatics. It also opens the gates for much overdue debate about the structure, substance, and applicability of the blasphemy law in Pakistan.

The truth is that all countries, even the most liberal of them, have an anti-blasphemy law. However, such laws are not geared towards the protection of religion, or that of God and His Messenger. (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 those who follow and practice the religion. 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. In Pakistan, from Asia Bibi to Rimsha Masih, from Shahzad and Shama to Joseph Colony, 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 for galvanising 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; a charge which, in itself, is synonymous to 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 realisation that strikes at the heart of reforming the blasphemy laws: we, the people of Pakistan, living in a 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 the 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 (SAWW), who was a prophet at the time when Adam (AS) was between clay and water, does not need us to spill blood in order to celebrate his dominion over the path of truth. That our piety to Islam, our love for the Prophet (SAWW), 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 honourable Supreme Court’s observations, which allows (maybe even encourage?) such a debate is a good start. It is now up to us, the people, to carry the torch from hereon.