Every now and then from some dark corner of the country comes news about a prosecution under the blasphemy law. And every now and then an obliging district judge finding the person so charged guilty hands out a sentence of death. When this happens, the collective image of Pakistan takes another blow on the chin.
Blasphemy is serious business but what exactly is it? Preferring form over substance we have turned it into a technical offence while leaving the larger context in which it might be seen unexplored.
Setting aside the possibility of malicious prosecution - something, incidentally, which happens all the time - for argument's sake let us take the worst case scenario: that some benighted soul has actually burnt a page or two of the Quran or uttered sacrilegious words against God or his Prophet, (peace be upon him). Clearly, no man in his right senses would do such a thing, certainly not in Pakistan where religious sensitivities run high.
But still if something of the sort is done, what does the perpetrator deserve? Our compassion and a psychiatric examination or a death sentence?
Suppose in my street someone were to lay claim to godhead or divine revelation. I would be curious and perhaps a bit bemused. I certainly wouldn't go rushing to the police station to lodge a criminal complaint. Even if I was foolish enough to do so I would expect the SHO to tell me to cool it. But if valour prevailed over discretion and a case was indeed registered I would expect the judge concerned to throw out the case for lack of evidence.
The trouble is that over the years bigotry and intolerance have made such deep inroads into our society that all three parties in the blasphemy cycle - complainant, police officer,