Friday sermons

Updated 20 Jan 2016

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IN any Muslim society, the Friday sermon is a powerful platform from which to disseminate views. Most mosques are filled to capacity and preachers use the pulpit to communicate various concerns.

Sadly, in Pakistan, as well as other Muslim states, some clerics have used the pulpit — particularly during Friday prayers — to promote obscurantism and militancy.

There are cases on record in Pakistan where the mosque loudspeaker has been misused to stir up sectarian hatred, demonise other religions and communities, and promote extremism. In view of these concerns, the Sindh government has reportedly decided to table a bill in the provincial assembly designed to regulate Friday sermons.

Also read: Sindh plans to regulate Friday sermon

On Monday, the adviser to the Sindh chief minister on religious affairs said the move was aimed at promoting “sectarian harmony” and bringing an “end to hatred and extremism”.

There can be little argument with the need to counter the poison of sectarianism and extremism in society. However, we must ask if government-issued sermons are the best way to approach the problem.

First, this method has been tried in other Muslim countries, with less than commendable results. For example, in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the state gives ‘themes’ and ‘guidelines’ to preachers to incorporate in Friday sermons.

This is primarily designed to exercise political control and ensure clerics toe the official line. Further, for the military in Egypt and the royal family in Saudi Arabia, these measures are designed to stamp out criticism.

Yet despite the strict controls over religious activity in these states, they have failed to snuff out militancy. Second, we must ask whether the action suggested by Sindh would not breach the principle of freedom of expression — although the state must ensure that preachers do not egg on the people to break the law.

Monitoring what preachers have to say in these tense times and punishing them for attempting to incite violence may be acceptable, but to assume that all of them will actually do so is unreasonable.

Finally, there is the issue of practicality. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of mosques in Sindh where the Friday sermon is delivered. Does the state have the wherewithal to bring all these under its control and issue them uniform sermons?

Rather than dictating the content of sermons, the state needs to keep an eye on what is being said by preachers. There must be simple guidelines: promotion of militancy and hate speech, rebellion against the state etc must be strictly off limits.

The state has a relatively effective intelligence apparatus at its disposal. This — together with the involvement of communities and ulema — must be employed to keep an eye on rabble-rousing clerics who misuse the pulpit to encourage militancy and fan hatred.

Citizens also have a responsibility to stop frequenting mosques which host hate-mongering clerics.

Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2016