Writing about death is a heart-wrenching experience. To do it week after week is absolutely debilitating for the mind and spirit.

In a story that is typically Pakistani – at least in the embrace of these turbulent times – 43 Ismaili Shias were shot and killed at point blank range for the mere crime of existing.

As reported widely across the media waves, a group of gunmen shot at a bus carrying almost five dozen people near Safoora Chowk in Karachi, just as they were going to their offices and places of work. The initial bout of firing from outside stopped the bus, after which the gunmen boarded and shot most people in the head or neck, causing 43 fatalities and leaving 13 injured. It has also been reported that the gunmen were wearing some form a security agency uniform, and used weapons that had been captured by the militant outfit in an earlier encounter with members of the provincial police. Survivors narrate that the gunmen all spoke fluent Urdu (were thus indigenous), and that the incident was targeted to massacre members of the Ismaili Shia community alone.

In the aftermath, customary condolences have started to pour in from political and international leaders, a few junior police officers have been suspended, and empty promises of a speedy investigation along with arrests have been ordered. In the days to come, this incident will, most likely, be reduced to another data-point in the ongoing and systematic killings of religious minorities in the state of Pakistan. The pain will continue to exist, may be even deepen, among the immediate family members of those who were martyred, and amongst the minority communities in general. The rest of us will soon move on to the next episode of political drama, and forget the memory of these 43 martyred souls, while vociferously debating Saad Rafique’s election or the impending report of the Judicial Commission.

This is nothing unfamiliar. It is life as usual in Pakistan. We already seem to have forgotten the 61 shias who were killed in an Imambargah in Shikarpur on January 30, this year. We have no real recollection of the fact that in February 2014, TTP released a 50-minute long video on its media wing website that focused entirely on ‘exterminating’ Ismailis from their small traditional community in Kalash, Chitral Valley. We no longer remember how this video, in its alleged ‘charge-sheet’ against the Ismailis of Chitral, had specifically pointed out how Agha Khan Foundation was running 16 schools and 16 colleges where young men and women were being provided free education, and were thus being “brain-washed against Islam”. We can barely recall how over a hundred Hazaras were killed by extremist groups in Balochistan in 2013, or how Shias are routinely killed on the bus routes to Iran. What to talk of Christian bastis, and young couples being burnt alive in brick kilns.

Despite this damning scroll of sins, for those who harbor a glimmer of hope that peace, harmony and progress will once again return to the lives of the hapless people of our nation, it is important to ask, and then answer, certain fundamental questions about who we are, how did we get to this age of abysmal darkness, and what must we do to return to light.

Do we believe in a philosophy of religion that can be used as an excuse for executions? Can the religion of peace, in practice, be used as an instrument of violence? Are small differentials in faith a justification to extinguish human souls? Do the Shias, the Ismailis, and other factions within the umbrella of Islam — all of whom believe in the unity of God (Wahdat) and prophethood of Muhammad (PBUH) (Nabuvat) — not prescribe to the command of the Kalima that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad (PBUH) is His Messenger? And if so, do these groups not fulfill the basic tenets of Islam? Is it not for God, and Him alone, to judge the conscience of His creation? Is the beard the only testament to piety? Is the gun the only instrument of conversion? Is a bullet the only sentence of refusal?

Even in our constitutional jurisprudence, which has been written under the shadow of canonical Islamic thought, there are two fundamental rights that are absolute and inherent in nature: the right to Dignity and the right to Conscience (belief). Unlike every other fundamental right (speech, movement, assembly, property, etc.), which are subject to “reasonable restrictions”, in public or State interest, the right to dignity or conscience have no fetters. Under our religious as well as constitutional framework, each individual is free to ‘believe’ what he or she wishes. To practice what you believe (right to practice religion) can still be subject to restrictions, but the belief itself, which is part of conscience, is absolute in nature.

Viewed through this prism, it becomes clear that the Ismailis in the bus, who were going to work and were not involved in any sort of religious practice at the moment, were targeted and killed, not for any particular act that they had performed, but simply on account of their internal (silent) conscience. And thus, in our society, an internal belief system, even without practice, even as it is not infringing on any other individual’s fundamental rights, is a crime punishable by death. The religious vigilantes of these outlawed militant organizations are taking upon themselves the role of playing God, by looking into a man’s soul, judging his beliefs, holding an invisible trial, and then sentencing him to death.

We can all continue to be silent about these recurring episodes of violence. We can all evade the tough questions, speak in symbols, and shy away from calling TTP, Jundullah, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and their cohorts, by the name that they deserve: murderers! We can act as if the massacre in Karachi, or the one in Shikarpur earlier, or in Joseph colony before that, or in Quetta, is someone else’s problem. We can double the security at our houses, and travel with guards on our sides, as a measure of isolating ourselves from the stench of this burning hole in our national fabric.

But one day, in fulfillment of that primordial promise, we will all find ourselves before the throne of His Majesty. We will all be asked unmistakably, as to what we did to stem the rot of our nation and the perverted (religious) philosophy. And that day, no measure of excuses will amount to an answer. We will have to accept that, in our silence and inaction, we are all culprits in the murder of humanity.