Pakistan has had a long, sordid history of laws that have been used and abused to silence those disagreeing with the state or mainstream beliefs. This trend, starting with Zia ul-Haq’s retrogressive policies, has appeared to continue with the Punjab Tahaffuz-i-Bunyad-i-Islam Bill 2020. The new piece of legislation forbids the printing and publication of objectionable material and also bars the publisher, editor or translator from printing or publishing any material that contains of photographs or pictures of suicide bombers, terrorists, except as required by law enforcing agencies for purposes of investigation. Additionally, it has been mandated that “the blessed name of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) shall be preceded by the title Khatam-an-Nabiyyin or Khatam-un-Nabiyyin followed by ‘Sallallahu alaihi wasallam’ (darood) in Arabic text”.
Introduced under the guise of protecting religion, this bill threatens to censor literature of all kinds produced or imported inside Pakistan, stifling already strained intellectual freedom and voices disagreeing with mainstream narratives. This bill also has dire consequences for religious freedom, as argued by the Women Democratic Front, a reputed civil rights organization.
It is Pakistan’s worst-kept secret that intellectual and academic freedom has consistently been under threat, both from the state and right-wing extremist organizations. In a country where people have been lynched due to later disproven blasphemy allegations, this bill bears the potential of galvanizing such radical elements and encouraging them in making the lives of minorities more difficult. Such laws may be lethal, considering existing misconceptions and misgivings in the populist narratives about religious strands other than Sunni Islam. Already, The Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board (PCTB) has banned 100 textbooks that were deemed ‘blasphemous’ or ‘anti-Pakistan,’ Managing Director Rai Manzoor Hussain Nasir has announced, without specifying what exactly constitutes the categories of blasphemous or anti-Pakistani material and what are the limits of this approach. Books by reputed publishers like Oxford and Cambridge are amongst the books being banned, some for reasons as superficial as having pictures of pigs in them. This begs the question: if books can be banned for reasons as superfluous as this, what is the state of academic freedom in Pakistan? What is the point of laws granting freedom of expression if in practice they will be repeatedly trampled upon according to the whims of the ruling party? Banning books begs the analogy of Nazi Germany burning books that opposed the narrative of the ruling party: is this a legacy that Pakistan wishes to emulate?
Freedom of expression and thought is a right granted on paper by the Constitution, yet appears only to be of shrinking relevance in practice in Pakistan. Pakistan’s vaguely worded cybercrime laws already have been abused to stifle freedom of expression online; this new bill appears ready to follow in its footsteps. Many figures from religious minorities have spoken out against this bill for supporting populist narratives, including Kashif Aslam, program coordinator for the Pakistan Catholic bishops’ National Commission for Justice and Peace, who has accused this bill of ‘pushing religious minorities against the wall as the fancy concept of turning Pakistan into Riyasat-e-Madina, the Islamic version of a welfare state, gains strength’. The Majlis-e-Wahdat Muslimeen (MWM) leadership, a Pakistani Shiite political organization, has expressed a complete rejection of the bill and conveyed severe reservations. A press conference of the MWM accused the bill of being passed when the House had not even met the quorum and majority of members were not even present in the sessions wherein the Punjab Tahaffuz Bunyad-e-Islam Bill was being debated. Allama Nasir Abbas Jaffary, the Central Secretary General of MWM Pakistan, has gone on the record stating that the bill was against the Constitution of Pakistan and essential human rights.
Habib Jalib’s poetry seems all the more relevant in these tumultuous times. He rightly stated that it is never Islam that is in danger, it is the powerful in society who bring forward these draconian measures to prevent threats to their own powers. In a world where intellectual dissent is perhaps the only thing stopping us from a slow descent into fascism, such legislative measures run the risk of removing the only obstacles in the way of Pakistan plunging into sectarianism.