Respecting Ramzan

Islamists in Pakistan, a section which voluntarily or inadvertently includes the majority of the populace, have a twisted understanding of ‘respect’. Nothing epitomises this better, or more gruesomely, as the blasphemy law, where murder is touted as an insurance of ‘respect’ without any hint of dark sarcasm, or irony.

The belief that killing someone guilty of ‘insulting’ an ideology or a figure would actually ensure sanctity for the religion in question would be laughable had so many people not been murdered over it.

In saner parts of the world, it would be an idea upheld by a fringe minority. Not only is it the mainstream narrative in Pakistan, it has been codified in the Penal Code as well. Of course, questioning the rationale behind this law, which singlehandedly defames Islam more than any number of caricatures, videos, or words could, is also deemed punishable by death.

Quite often those who shout the waajib-ul-qatl fatwas the loudest would say Islam is the religion of peace in the same breath. If they’re even less self-aware, they might even throw in the fact that there is no compulsion in Islam. It is these Muslims, unfortunately a massive chunk of the overall population, that cause mockery of Islam more than any ‘Islamophobe’, anti-Muslim bigot or apostate.

In what is an annual self-flagellation ritual ahead of Ramzan, the pious are out there endeavouring to ensure respect for the Holy month in their usual denialist ways. But this year we specially took out time to beef up the legal stranglehold.

On May 11, the Senate Standing Committee on Religious Affairs unanimously adopted the Ehtram-e-Ramzan (Amendment) Bill, 2017. It has hiked up the fine from Rs500 to Rs25,000 for hotel owners who violate the original ordinance from 1981. Following the amendment anyone eating publically during fasting house would be imprisoned for three months as well.

The amendment does not even factor the original Ehtram-e-Ramazan Ordinance, 1981 where the fine(s) and punishment(s) were limited to only those “who according to the tenets of Islam, is under an obligation to fast shall eat, drink or smoke in a public place during fasting hours in the month of Ramzan.”

Notwithstanding the fact that even such a person who according to Islamic theology is “under an obligation” to fast should have the freedom to do as they please in a country that is yet to formally establish itself as a theocracy, that the law now applies to everyone without any asterisks only substantiates its intrinsic totalitarian nature.

What this also aggravates is the supremacism inherent to any Islamist, by reaffirming their belief that all those adhering to other ideologies – including moderate, pluralist interpretations of Islam – are inferior by default and hence should abide by the way of life that Islamism dictates, whereby there’s an obligation to act such that upholders of the most bigoted version of Islam aren’t offended.

In simple words, just like any other Islamist injunction – and our Penal Code is brimming over with those – the Ehtram-e-Ramzan Ordinance, and its amended version, say that the remainder of the populace should maintain their lifestyle in a way so as to not offend the hardliners, who clearly aren’t satisfied with only dictating their own lives according to their beliefs.

What further adds to the ‘respect’ of the amendment bill that was passed into law on May 11 is the fact that it was presented by Hamdullah Saboor in the Senate, after it had been introduced by Tanveer Khan on January 16 and forwarded to the standing Committee on Religious Affairs.

For those who might not be aware, Hamdullah is the cleric who abused political analyst Marvi Sirmed on live television and threatened her with physical assault. He now heads the Senate Committee of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony and gives presentations on ‘respect’. It’s safe to say that Pakistan won’t be contributing much in interfaith harmony, or respect for Islam, in the foreseeable future.

If the Pakistani government really wants to contribute to adding respect for Islam, especially at a time when it has come under scrutiny owing to the rise of jihadist terror, the state absolutely needs to do away with Islamist hardliners and replace them with upholders of a pluralist brand of Islam.

This could’ve started with a different kind of amendment to the Ehtram-e-Ramzan Ordinance, 1981, whereby people are free to choose whether or not they eat in public, and encouraging those that fast to be true to the ideas patience and perseverance, which form the raison d’etre of the ritual of fasting. More importantly, this idea that some beliefs are worthier and hence need to be imposed should be done away with.

With the summer heatwave set to strike the country once again, this continued indifference to human life, under the pitiable garb of ‘respect’ will only push people towards disrespecting Ramzan and Islam, even if you might have the guillotine of the blasphemy law to violently silence the resulting dissent.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a former member of staffHe can be reached at Follow him on Twitter

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