PEOPLE want to live in a society where they enjoy freedom of thought and action and can exercise their right to speak out. Unfortunately, there is now an attempt to roll back these fundamental rights. We are witnessing an alarming rise of bigotry in society that is undermining democratic values. The strengthening of religious extremism not only weakens democratic institutions but also divides the country. One such example is the recent suspension of the release of an international award-winning Pakistani film under the pressure of a radical cleric.
The government’s retraction of the permission to screen Zindagi Tamasha gave certain religious elements a greater sense of empowerment. The move was yet another blow to the already shrinking freedom of expression. The assertion of authority by religious extremist groups is also manifested in the attempt by a radical cleric to seize control of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid. It brings back memories of the 2007 incident that led to the bloody military operation. The policy of appeasement shows that the government has not learnt any lesson from the past. It is yet another reminder that the state is being held hostage by bigots.
Meanwhile, the demand by some religious groups to ban the Aurat March that has become a symbol of struggle for women rights in this country is also an attempt to undermine fundamental rights. Accusing women activists of spreading ‘obscenity’ and ‘vulgarity’, the self-appointed guardians of so-called morality have threatened to stop women’s rights rallies on International Women’s Day to be observed on March 8.
Growing religious extremism presents the biggest threat to freedom of expression.
Leading the pack is Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of the JUI-F, who has called upon his followers to use whatever means at their disposal against the participants. Ironically, the crafty maulana had recently led a march on Islamabad for the ‘restoration of democracy’. Sadly, many liberals had jumped onto his bandwagon declaring him a ‘champion of democracy’.
Going back to the film produced by Sarmad Khoosat, one of Pakistan’s most acclaimed filmmakers, Zindagi Tamasha premiered internationally last year and had been cleared by the federal and provincial censor boards for release in the country. The film was awarded the top fiction prize at the Busan International Film Festival. But days before it was to hit Pakistani cinema screens, the government gave in to the threat issued by the head of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the notorious cleric who had recently faced terrorism charges. Its expected release was stopped and the film was sent to the Council of Islamic Ideology for review. It is the first time in the country’s history that a film already passed by the official censors now has to be cleared by a body that has no such authority.
A spokesman for the TLP described the film as being ‘blasphemous’ and threatened to launch a countrywide protest to stop it from being screened. Interestingly, the censor boards that reviewed it twice didn’t find any objectionable content in the film.
Blasphemy allegations are handy tools for bigots who want to silence rational voices. The film has simply depicted hypocrisy in the name of religion. It carries a strong message against the growing intolerance that is now so deeply entrenched in our society. The protest against an internationally acclaimed film is also a manifestation of a regressive mindset that the film itself has effectively portrayed.
These religious bigots are afraid of being exposed. It is alarming that violent extremist elements have gained strength largely because of the weakness of the state. It seems that we have learnt no lessons from the past. Growing religious extremism presents the biggest threat to freedom of expression and the democratic process. Most dangerous, however, is the impunity that some of the violent extremist groups enjoy.
The state’s policy of appeasement has further emboldened radical clerics like Rizvi who was released from detention. He had been arrested for provoking violent protests against the Supreme Court’s decision to free Aasia Bibi who suffered years in jail because of a concocted case of blasphemy against her.
It is intriguing how terrorism cases against him have been dropped. He has now returned to his vitriolic sermons. But the law does not swing into action against him — maybe because of the patronage of some strong elements within the establishment.
Sarmad Khoosat, his family and team have reportedly been subjected to threats and bullying by TLP goons. In an open letter to the prime minister, the renowned filmmaker who has been associated with the Pakistani film industry for over two decades described the torment he was going through.
Khoosat rightly pointed out that “like any other film, made in any other part of the world, Zindagi Tamasha is a reflection of its setting”. But there has been a deafening silence from the government over the ordeal of the brilliant artist who has won laurels for the country through his work.
The tacit ban on the screening of Zindagi Tamasha is hardly an isolated instance. It is a manifestation of a larger problem of shrinking space for rational and progressive voices. There is strong resistance from right-wing groups to any move that is intended to shake up the existing order. While there is unannounced censorship on progressive literature, the religious extremists have been given a free hand.
It’s such a pity that a film that has earned international acclaim cannot be watched at home. Banning films is a manifestation of a culture that is afraid to face the truth. We have a long history of suppressing dissenting views perceived as posing a threat to the prevailing order. The space for reason and freedom of expression is further shrinking thanks to growing authoritarianism and rising bigotry in society.
Democracy cannot exist without freedom of expression and equal rights for all segments of society. There is a need for a joint effort to deal with this rising menace that threatens the national fabric.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, March 4th, 2020