By Asad Gokal
A legislative bill, passed on the pretext of protecting Islam, stoked controversy in almost all quarters of the country. The fundamental flaw lies in how it imposes the religious hue of one group on the entire population of Punjab. As the Shia community deems it to be a direct attack on their freedom of religious belief and practice it could do more harm than good to our shared social fabric.
The weeks in the wake of lockdown, installed due to Covid-19, saw a villainous attempt being made in Punjab Assembly against the beliefs of Shia Muslims. It was done in the name of ‘Tahaffuz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam (Protection of Foundation of Islam) Bill, 2020’. The controversial bill was unanimously passed by the Assembly on July 22, 2020, causing ripples of resentment in the Shia and liberal circles across the country. Multiple press conferences were also held by the Shia clerics as an instant response to the bill.
While replying to the critique that was immediately generated, few members of the Punjab Assembly showed repentance over supporting this Tahaffuz Bill earlier. The Governor of Punjab – Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar ensured that the bill would be returned to the parliament for consultation and amendment before it can be turned into an Act. On the other hand, clerics belonging to various Sunni schools of thought held a meeting on August 10, 2020, to support the bill in its entirety and insisted on immediate implementation.
As public gatherings were restricted during the smart lockdown in Pakistan Shia community could not carry out any protests, rallies, sit-ins or demonstrations. However, social media was used as a platform for digital activism against the bill. The timing of proposing this bill is also quite strangely strategic. How? We see that it was passed right before the month of Muharram when Shia Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain – grandson of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in an impassioned manner. It only served to deepen the sectarian divide and injure the sentiments of the Shia populace.
The Tahafuz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam Bill specifies the honorifics and makes it mandatory that they are applied to the names of the Holy Prophet, his daughter(s), his companions, his progeny, and the first four caliphs of Islam. The bill also prohibits the publishing of any book or literature that contains criticism for any of the Prophet (PBUH)’s companions. A book identified to be in violation of the law would not only be confiscated and banned but the publisher would also be imprisoned for a term that may extend up to five years and a fine of rupees five hundred thousand would be imposed.
Central Deputy Secretary General MWM (Majlis-e-Wahdat-e-Muslimeen) – Allama Ahmed Iqbal Rizvi, termed the bill as a conspiracy to destabilize the country and fuel the fire of sectarianism right before Muharram. “The bill is unacceptable, unnecessary, and futile. It is an attempt to usurp our religious freedom and an act of imposing religious values of the other sect on us”, said Allama Ahmed Iqbal. “How can the state force us to apply the honorific of ‘Raziullah Taalah’ in place of ‘Alaehas Salam’ to the names of the Prophet’s progeny? This goes against our basic beliefs, and not only Shia publications but also the famous Sunni Hadees Book – Sahih Bukhari. He pointed out that no proof can be found either from Quran or Hadees, that makes it compulsory to add any title with the names of the first four caliphs of Islam. “Who gave these officials the power to create these compulsions in the religion?”, he asked. Moreover, he clarified that the Shia sect is totally against the disrespect of any person and that the laws to curtail disrespect are already present.
While referring to another clause of the Bill, he mentioned that the history books contain events in which companions of The Holy Prophet faced each other off in battles. Having a bill that imposes a penalty on criticizing any companion is an attempt to constrain the viewpoint of Shia history. It is an act of obliteration. “This bill gives off the power to miscreants to label our religious activities as anti-constitution and get us booked for nothing. The bill is anti-constitutional and is a strike against one of the basic human rights – freedom of religion”, said Allama Rizvi. “It is a blatant move to incite sectarianism”, he added.
A Member of Punjab Assembly – Syeda Zehra Naqvi (also a Shia Muslim) held similar views about the bill and called it a sneaky conspiracy against the sect. “We were all kept in the dark about the bill. Instead of reading it out loud with all its clauses, the members were emotionally manipulated in the name of ‘Khatim al Nabiyyin’ and ‘Tahaffuz e Islam”, she mentioned. “As per the Constitution of Pakistan, any such bill (pertaining to regulations on religious matters) is a Federal affair and should not have been initiated from the floor of a Provincial Assembly”, she said.
When asked about the reaction of other members of the Assembly and their views about the bill, Syeda Naqvi mentioned that even the Sunni members were deeply shocked and saddened by the atmosphere that a particular group of extremist mindsets created. According to her, the progress on the bill had stopped for now but it will be brought to the assembly floor again for amendments. “If it does, it should be made sure that clerics of all sects and the Islami Nazaryati Council are taken in confidence”, she added.
A social activist from Islamabad – Abbas Ali termed the bill as yet another attempt to marginalize Shias and harm inter-sect harmony. “We have been pushed against the wall in this country. We were blamed for being a source of CoronaVirus entering Pakistan, we have been ridiculed for observing Youm-e-Ali and now the law-makers have silently passed the Bill, which is in direct conflict to our beliefs”, said Abbas. He mentioned that using the term ‘Tahaffuz’ is an attempt to shake the structure of Islam and has badly hurt the sentiments of all the Shias across the country. “We reject the bill and we will protest against it”, he added.
Human rights activists have termed the Bill as an onslaught on intellectual independence and freedom of speech. The characteristic imposing and skewed nature of the bill renders it unacceptable for many.