Digging our way out of the cave
The outcome of a debate often depends on how the question is framed and who is asking it. In a perfect world, we would get to choose how to frame the question, and who poses the question. The real world is not perfect. The issue of blasphemy in Pakistan is an interesting case of a public debate. Let's call one side supporters of the status quo, and the other side, opponents of the status quo. Supporters of the status quo do not want any changes made to the sections of the Pakistan Penal Code that address blasphemy, while opponents of the status quo want changes to parts of the Pakistan Penal Code that deal with blasphemy. It is important to note that while the range of opposition to the status quo is diverse (amendment, repeal etc), the range of support is single file (nobody touches the "blasphemy law").
What makes the debate fascinating is that it is effectively not a debate at all. It is a case of two separate arguments, each pretending to be engaged with the other. Both sides of the argument whip themselves into a frenzy and both arguments claim moral superiority. The only problem is that one side keeps winning, and the other side keeps losing.
This isn't like losing a debate on the pros and cons of regressive taxation like the RGST. Opponents of the status quo themselves rightly argue that losing the debate on how the law treats blasphemy costs lives. The sections of the Pakistan Penal Code (Act XLV of 1860) that pertain to blasphemy egregiously and unnecessarily inflate the incentive to register false cases of blasphemy, and then egregiously and unnecessarily cause unchecked threats to the lives of people accused (almost always falsely) of blasphemy. Losing the debate on the issue of how blasphemy should be treated by the law in Pakistan has real consequences. It sustains the status quo. Since the status quo involves the incentivisation of false legal suits, and since those legal suits then create demonstrable threats to the lives of Pakistani citizens, the status quo has to be unacceptable to reasonable people.
Of course, supporters of the status quo don't frame their argument by expressing a desire to increase the quantum of false cases, or the victimisation of minorities. Supporters and defenders of the status quo are winning the debate not on the basis of a good argument, or normative superiority, or even street power. They are winning the debate because they have framed the question on blasphemy in the public domain in Pakistan. That question is quite simple, and it is very, very potent. No matter what their lips are saying, the question they are asking Pakistanis is this: "Do you want to live in a Pakistan where offensive speech against religious personalities and symbols is a legally protected right?"
Of course, opponents of the status quo are not advocating offensive speech or blasphemy. But that doesn't matter because the question has already been framed. It's a trick question. It is meant to locate opponents of the status quo outside the field of play. Simply put, if your answer to that question is yes, and you are in Pakistan, supporters of the status quo will successfully argue that you are in the wrong place. Supporters and defenders of the status quo do not advertise themselves as advocates of the status quo, they advertise themselves as defenders of the faith, and the honour of the faithful. No matter what argument is employed, opponents of the status quo cannot win this specific debate.
The fight to alter the status quo is a fight to protect innocent Pakistanis from being victimised by a social structure, a set of laws, and a state machinery that are to varying degrees, basically broken. Changing the status quo is about the safety, security of all Pakistanis, particularly disadvantaged Pakistanis such as religious minorities. The PPC's blasphemy provisions represent a law that allows influential locals to demonstrate their muscularity and achieve fame, by egregiously and unnecessarily registering false cases of blasphemy, and then egregiously and unnecessarily threatening (and taking) the lives of those accused. To want to change the current situation is an absolutely reasonable, non-ideological and non-partisan public policy proposition. To win this critical fight, opponents of the status quo need to step away from instruments that have failed them, and the cause of a safe, secure and reasonable Pakistan. These instruments include moral outrage, ideological rabble rousing, the use of the word "liberal" and a complete lack of engagement with the Pakistani Main Street, the Pakistani gulley, and the Pakistani mosque. Passion and moral outrage have little place in the fight for change and for a safe, secure and reasonable Pakistan.
In the range of efforts to affect change to how the state deals with blasphemy, there are problems not just at the strategic level, but also the tactical level. Let's take the issue of timing. Immediately after a blasphemy conviction represents the worst possible time to begin or step up a debate about the PPC blasphemy provisions. Arguing against these provisions right after a fresh conviction, or even registration of a case, can easily be painted by mischievous partisans as being an attempt to de-Islamise Pakistan's 170-plus Muslims. Meanwhile, standing up for the honour of the symbols of Islam, at a time when opponents of the status quo seem to be "in concert" with "blasphemers" is a brilliant opportunity to press home the advantage for defenders of the status quo. It is a great time to be a beneficiary of the Pakistani state's dysfunction.