This week, I happened to meet a man whose story represents a deep rupture in the soul of our “Muslim” nation. This young man, barely in his early thirties, is a bookseller in one of the densely populated urban centers of Lahore. I had been told by a friend that his shop carried commentaries by Shiite Ulema. In search of a few books, I decided to visit his shop in a locality that boasted dozens of religious bookstores. Unlike the glitter and pomp of the surrounding competitors, his particular shop was housed in a dungy basement alley, with nothing but a solitary light bulb outside the main door. Suspicious of my black and white lawyer’s uniform, he plainly denied that he carried any such literature. I looked around his shop for a while, making small talk for a few minutes, before he began to warm up to the idea that I had no hidden or nefarious agenda for visiting his establishment.

After a while, in a slow and tentative tone, he mustered the courage to ask me if I was a lawyer, and whether I had any experience litigating criminal cases. I asked him why, and he proceeded to disclose that he had just come out of incarceration, on bail, having spent a week in jail, on charges of blasphemy!

He shared with me an FIR, lodged by an individual who called himself a “hubul-watan” and “Islam-parast” man, serving as a Mullah in the local Masjid. As it transpired, this complainant had come to the shop I was standing in, and bought a copy of Nahj-ul-Balaghah – the most famous collection of sermons, letters, tafsir and narrations, attributed to Hazrat Ali (R.A.) himself. The FIR stated that, having read a few pages of the book, the complainant had come to the (incontestable) conclusion that Nahj-ul-Balagha (authored by one of Khulifa-e-Rashideen) contained passages that were derogatory towards other companions of the Prophet (P.B.U.H.). As a result, the FIR alleged that selling of this book was a crime punishable under section 295-C (blasphemy) of the Pakistan Penal Code, punishable by death.

In the follow-up discussion, the shopkeeper told me that, in Lahore, carrying, importing or selling Quranic translations or collections of Ahadees, authored by Shiite Ulema, was “banned” (through the barrel of a gun, rather than by law). And he “requested” that I not tell anyone where his bookstore was.

How have we come to this place? How have we become a people who purposefully and deliberately discriminate against and kill (with impunity) other Muslims, who disagree with us, not entirely on the tenants of faith, but instead on the version of history? How has hatred become the language of the religion of peace? How has violence become its expression? How has bigotry become its diction? Where does a local Moulvi – barely literate in the ways of the world and the religion – find the audacity to call the words of one of the Rightly Guided, to be blasphemy? And perhaps more importantly, how has our law, and the surrounding system of dispensation of justice, become a tool to entrench and propagate the agenda of intolerance? Why was an FIR, even registered against the shopkeeper for an act that was most certainly not a crime? Why did the court allow the same to go for trial? Are the law enforcement agencies, as well as the courts, powerless in the face of fifty, or a hundred, baton yielding Moulvis? Is the State, as well as the judiciary, simply impotent to come to the defense of this shopkeeper? Or, much more disturbingly, is the State, including the judiciary, a party to the systematic bias against Shias in our country?

The truth is, that despite our rhetoric to the contrary, we are a society of intolerant hypocrites. We have a Constitution that guarantees equality and non-discrimination, but a Penal Code that encourages a mass exodus of anyone who is not a Sunni, Deobandi or Baralevi, Muslim. We have a political government whose rhetoric promises to bring peace in our land, whilst sharing a table with murderers, and implicitly supporting organizations that propagate violence in the name of religion. We have a civil bureaucracy that, according to law, is selected on the basis of provincial quota, all the while ignoring any efforts of including plurality of religious beliefs. We have an army that has sworn to defend each and every citizen of Pakistan, whilst having a character that is palpably in favor of a particular brand of Islam.

While such individual and institutional bias is abhorrent and detestable, all of it could be countered if our judicial personality was truly pluralistic and dispassionate. Sadly, however, we have a district judiciary that – either out of fear, or reverence – continues to register countless cases against Shiite individuals, on even the most peripheral allegations of blasphemy. Among the superior judiciary, certain Shiite members have been viewed with suspicion by their peers for supporting or favoring Shiite litigants. Irrespective of whether such allegations are true, the very fact that these are part of the discourse among members of the bench in itself speaks volumes about the latent tension.

Bias is perhaps an inherent part of human personality. But it must not be allowed to become an entrenched part of our national character. Today, some thirty years past the first time “Shia kaafir hai” was graffitied onto a wall in Jhang, we have been all but swallowed by this monster of religious sectarianism. Aided by the provisions of our law, a feeble law enforcement structure, and a complicit judiciary, we as a nation, have successfully silenced an entire branch of religious ideology. We have banned books, ransacked Imam Bargahs, murdered scholars, and turned ‘being Shia’ into a religious crime, punishable by death on the streets of Quetta, Peshawar, Lahore, and Karachi.

No one knows how much blood would be required to satiate this beast of religious sectarianism. No one knows when, or if, we will be able to wash these stains off of our children’s hands. But if our national character, by its very definition, is a summation of our individual personalities, then reaffirmation must start within each one of us.

It is time that those of us who are guilty of believing in a free society, stand trial with the bookseller!

n    The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has

    a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard

    Law School.