Wrong approach

Published January 23, 2023

PAKISTAN has for the past several decades been battling sectarianism. While targeted killings and sectarian acts of terrorism may currently be down, in the past the nation has witnessed grotesque massacres of innocent people carried out by sectarian death squads. Amongst the key reasons behind the rise of communal violence in the country has been the increase in extremist tendencies since the Zia era, and the related activity of anti-Shia terrorist outfits. However, instead of looking at progressive ways to address this existential threat to the national fabric, the state has often resorted to muddled methods that end up stoking the flames of sectarianism. In this context, the recent passage of the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act, 2023, by the National Assembly appears to have worried observers. Sponsored by a Jamaat-i-Islami member, the law, amongst other things, proposes to increase the punishment for those who use derogatory remarks against members of the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) family, his wives, companions and caliphs to life imprisonment “for a period not less than 10 years”.

It is hard to understand why such a sensitive law was passed ‘unanimously’ without quorum. Such legislation needs the maximum input of elected representatives, and should not be bulldozed through the House. Moreover, there is concern that this law will be open to misuse, much as the blasphemy laws are. As the HRCP has noted, instead of curbing sectarianism, the law will likely be “weaponised disproportionately against religious minorities and sects”. For example, by passing such legislation, even an informed discussion on Islamic history — fully within the bounds of respect — may be misinterpreted by some as an affront to revered personalities. While derogatory remarks against the Holy Prophet and his wives are unacceptable, expanding the ambit through vaguely worded laws can lead to misuse of such legislation. The fact is that confessional differences have existed in the Muslim world for 14 centuries, and the views of any one group cannot be imposed on all. In order to eliminate sectarianism, it should be the responsibility of Shia and Sunni ulema to preach tolerance and advise their flocks not to indulge in toxic polemics. Instead of passing debatable laws, the state needs to crack down on violent hatemongers. Indeed, it is hoped that better sense in the Senate prompts the legislators to rethink the law in view of its implications.

Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2023

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