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Why Is Islam Always ‘Under Threat’ In Pakistan?

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China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have taken technical and institutional steps to censor the internet that go beyond law and now extend to societal norms, business practices and other areas. Similarly in Pakistan, censorship may extend beyond the government’s desire to control information to negatively impact the society.

Free speech is one of our most important rights, but one that is widely misinterpreted. You have the right to say what you think, share information and demand a better world. You also have the right to agree or disagree with those in power, and to express these opinions by holding peaceful protests. The right to freedom of expression is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sets out in broad terms the human rights that each of us enjoys. It was later protected legally by a raft of international and regional treaties.

 

Freedom of expression, choice and opinion has always been threatened by government and the establishment. Many clauses in the Constitution are vague and subject to interpretation and, unfortunately, the most discriminatory interpretations are used by the government to restrict the free flow of information. It’s the powerless who suffer when free speech is jeopardized.

On July 21, renowned journalist Matiullah Jan was abducted in Islamabad by unidentified individuals. He was released around 12 hours later about 46 km away from Islamabad. Six days before his abduction, the Supreme Court of Pakistan had initiated legal proceedings against him for contempt of court over a tweet against the same courtroom and its judges.  Jan criticised seven of the country’s ten Supreme Court judges after they dismissed the presidential petition accusing their colleague, Justice Qazi Faez, of misconduct and living beyond his means.

On July 22, the Supreme Court of Pakistan hinted at a YouTube ban last week. The court objected to unregulated content on social media, particularly comments regarding the judiciary, armed forces and the government on this video streeming platform.

The National Assembly, in June, unanimously passed a resolution making it mandatory to write Khatam-an-Nabiyyin after the name of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in textbooks. The Punjab Assembly on July 22 passed the Punjab Tahaffuz e Bunyad e Islam (Protection of Foundation of Islam) Bill 2020 under which the printing and publication of objectionable material are prohibited.

The new law made it mandatory that the sanctified name of Prophet Muhammad shall be preceded by the title Khatam-an-Nabiyyin followed by sallallahu alaihi wasallam. Anyone found desecrating any prophet, any of the four divine books, family and companions of Islam’s Prophet, as well as abetting or glorification of terrorists and promoting sectarianism is punishable with a maximum of a five-year jail term, and up to Rs. 500,000 fine.

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On July 23, the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board banned 100 textbooks including globally renowned Oxford and Cambridge, Paragon Books and Link International Pakistan. Managing Director of the board Rai Manzoor Husain said that the PCTB had formed 30 committees to inspect all the textbooks currently being taught in the province and criticized previous regimes for not checking what books were being taught to children private schools. Providing examples of some of the ‘offending’ content, the PCTB managing director claimed some of the books had distorted facts about Pakistan and its foundation. Instead of citing sayings of the Quaid-e-Azam or other Pakistani historical figures, one of the books had carried sayings of Mahatma Gandhi. He also questioned why a book of Mathematics taught counting concepts using pictures of pigs, and accused Cambridge of trying to promote crime and violence among students by linking it to unemployment.

Religion plays a really significant role in Pakistani society. In February 2011, Senator Sherry Rehman was forced to remove a bill tabled in the national assembly, proposing amendments in the blasphemy law. In a sermon, Imam of Karachi’s Sultan Mosque said Sherry Rehman deserved to be killed for her role in introducing the blasphemy bill in the National Assembly. The Tanzeem e Islami also distributed pamphlets accusing Rehman of having provoked the religious sentiments of Pakistan’s Muslims.

In February 2013, a two-member bench of the Supreme Court had admitted for hearing the petition of a citizen against Sherry Rehman for allegedly making blasphemous remarks during a television program in 2010. This despite the fact that the petition had earlier been refused by the session court as well as the Multan bench of the Lahore High Court.

On August 11, 2016, the National Assembly, passed a controversial cybercrime law called the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016. The Senate had unanimously passed the law, with a number of amendments, in July. For a year, digital rights defenders like Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation, as well as civil society experts and stakeholders tried to bring the bill amended from its current oppressive form. They were circumvented at every round. Senators Sherry Rehman, Aitzaz Ahsan and Dr Arif Alvi attempted to make significant amendments to the bill, adding over fifty amendments, but this still didn’t dilute the bill’s dangerous powers.

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Under the guise of national protection, religious sentiments and morality, there have been massive infringements on the fundamental rights of citizens. Restrictions on newspapers, TV stations, can affect everyone’s right to freedom of expression.

The ‘draconian’ bill was heavily criticised by the IT industry, civil society organisations and rights activists for curbing human rights and giving overreaching powers to law enforcement authorities. It also allows authorized officers to call for anyone to unlock any computer, mobile phone or other device during an investigation. The law also carries a punishment of three years for spoofing.

Governments have a responsibility to prohibit hateful, insightful speech but many abuse their authority to silence peaceful dissent by passing laws criminalising freedom of expression. This is oftentimes done in the name of counter-terrorism, national security or religion.

Freedom of speech is the right to say whatever you like about whatever you wish, whenever you like, right? Wrong. Governments have a responsibility to prohibit hate speech and incitement. And restrictions can likewise be justified if they protect specific public interest or the rights and reputations of others. In international law, access to information and free expression are two sides of the same coin, and both have found tremendous accelerators in the Internet and other kinds of digital communication.  At the same time, attempts to control speech and information are also accelerating, by both governments and private actors in the form of censorship, restrictions on access.

One may disagree with the Minister of Science and technology, Chaudhry Fawad Husain but he always registers his reservations if he doesn’t agree with his own regime. He said at present, Parliament, especially in Punjab, has created such an atmosphere wherein every member introduces a new law every other day by claiming that failure to pass it would put Islam in danger. This is a dangerous attitude and would propel the country into a vicious circle of sectarian and religious extremism. Islam was under no threat from either video sharing mobile app or books. Instead, we are threatened by sectarian divisions and extremism. The Punjab Assembly has nurtured a dangerous attitude by encouraging lawmakers to introduce new motions daily over perceived threats to Islam.

We need to preserve the possibility of good faith disagreement without drastic consequences.

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Naya Daur