ISLAMABAD — There are still no signs of religious activists taking to the streets across Pakistan, but the country is once again in the grips of a new controversy over religious tenets and their application in daily life.

In the past few weeks, a decision by the country’s military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to tighten the procedures surrounding the application of the blasphemy law, won him protests from Islamic activists.

They argued that any change would weaken the law, including the general’s proposal that people should no longer be charged on the basis of a report given at a police station. In the end, the general was forced to retract his proposed change. It was just another reminder of the explosive nature of the debate surrounding an Islamic tenet in a predominantly Muslim country.

Years ago, the protests by thousands of Pakistanis against the novel “Satanic Verses,” by Indian-born British writer Salman Rushdie, must have been viewed as an unusual event by the outside world.

The protests were unusual not only because their scale but also because many of the demonstrators had never read the novel. Years later, this is still probably the case.

The spontaneous reaction, however, came in response to reviews from Islamic scholars and intellectuals in other parts of the world, who found “Satanic Verses” deeply offensive to Muslims because it insulted the Islamic prophet.

In the relatively more secular parts of the world, especially the West, such violent protests may not be the norm. But in countries like Pakistan where religious sentiments burn bright, such demonstrations are hardly unique events.

It’s within this environmental context that Pakistan is once again faced with the difficult choice of how to balance its Islamic character with a more liberal social and political outlook. For weeks, the country has struggled to come to terms with the controversy unleashed by the issue of how to punish blasphemers.

Under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, an individual found guilty can be sentenced to death. Although such a sentence has never been carried out, the issue has divided Pakistan’s Islamic activists and liberal intellectuals.

Many liberals even accept that the country needs a blasphemy law to protect some of its basic tenets. But their main concern is how the law is applied. One of the basic flaws in the application of the blasphemy law, say critics, is the extent to which it can cause harm to those who are subsequently found innocent.

According to human-rights activists, members of Pakistan’s non-Muslim minorities have been targeted by the blasphemy law in recent years. Some victims have been charged on the basis of a report from a neighbor, and subsequent investigations have found that personal disputes led the accusers to level unfounded charges.

Musharraf had hoped that if the issue remained untouched it would become less consequential for mainstream Pakistan, and perhaps some day, an elected government with a strong public mandate could make the application of the blasphemy law more just.

But the future of the blasphemy law has become a prestige point for Pakistan’s community of Islamists, who hope they will be able to use it to increase their influence.

Can Musharraf control the force he has unleashed? There are no easy answers to that question, but the general should take new measures to minimize the possibility of future abuse.

First, the blasphemy issue has led the international community to repeatedly criticize the Pakistan’s government and judiciary. Musharraf should launch a series of campaigns to reassure critics that his government will closely monitor such cases and prevent abuse to the maximum extent possible. While such “blasphemy diplomacy” may sound ridiculous to some, it could pre-empt criticism.

Second, he should launch a campaign to build a national consensus within Pakistan on the issue. Perhaps now more than ever before, Pakistanis need to understand the fallout that comes with the growing view abroad that their country is becoming more intolerant and heading toward fanaticism.

For Pakistan’s ruling general, the lessons from the recent blasphemy episode must present a sobering moment. It’s easy to open old wounds but difficult to stitch them together again.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.