There exists a very thin balance between ‘state’ and ‘society’; while they remain mutually inclusive, it is only when one intrudes into the domain of the other that conflict arises. The government, for all intents and purposes, governs its society through elaborate mechanisms that are sometimes not just difficult to understand but also harder to follow. The same way, a society that is overly dependent on the state to give credence to laws, customs, traditions and rituals is one that is less evolved than it ever should be. The balance lies in a harmonious symbiotic relationship between the two: where the state responds to the needs of the citizens in an organic manner rather than contriving laws that are half-hearted. The Pakistani state, then, dons the role of a nurturer and a tyrant in the same vein.
Recently the Senate Standing Committee on Religious Affairs unanimously adopted Ehtram-e-Ramzan (Amendment) Bill, 2017 under which monetary penalty has been hiked from Rs500 to Rs25000 for hotel owners who violate Ehtram-E-Ramzan Ordinance 1981. Under the amended bill, anyone who will eat openly in public places during Ramzan hours would be imprisoned for three months and pay a fine of Rs500 or more. Essentially the ordinance makes it illegal for any person to eat or drink in a public place whether he may be fasting or not or even if he is a Muslim or not; in addition, according to the bill the word ‘public’ has been defined as any hotel, restaurant, canteen, house, room, tent, enclosure, road lane, bridge, or another place the public has access to. Not only that, cinema houses and theaters will not be seeing any action either, from the time of sunset to the expiration of three hours thereafter. The Ehtram-e-Ramzan ordinance was first introduced in 1981 with the official purpose of providing measures to observe the sanctity of the month of Ramzan.
By stepping into the territory of ‘personal’ religion, the state has whitewashed individual relationship to God and society’s relationship to religion. By drawing on this dichotomy the state attempts to ‘save’ Islam from social oblivion. But by dictating religious sentiment and thought, the state has not only undermined the very foundation of the Islamic faith (through forceful adherence) but has also legalized aggressive and extremist attitudes in society (allowing vigilantism). The state has no jurisdiction on morality; and if it has to be forcefully perpetuated in a month that is known for its acceptance, tolerance, and forgiveness- then it would be better to starve rather than embody the true spirit of the ‘self-control’.
More importantly, by policing public spaces and shutting off public entertainment the state wants to trigger a more pious and religiously focused atmosphere; not withstanding the many talks shows, game shows, and cooking shows that suck the public into mindless euphoria- dictating people’s lives during their fast can very well be equated to strict and rigid censorship.
But what is even more disconcerting is how the ban on public eating and smoking was really needed in the first place. Its as if by seeing someone else eat or drink will somehow make you lose ‘faith’ and break your fast, a childish notion considering the very meaning of fasting is to not only learn self discipline but to develop trust in God through your own volition. The state has not done anything to ‘invite’ people to Ramzan’s blessing and has done everything in its power to ‘bless’ Ramzan! If such practices were needed, why then has our religion not created unequivocal ‘punishment’ for violating the spirit of Islam?
But to hit the point home, recently the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) started its “text message“ campaign. The messages being sent to people aimed at discouraging them from sharing blasphemous content. The text message further implores the public to alert the PTA if and when any disrespectful content is shared. Sending text messages to 120 million people? Why to warn off the 2-3 in any given year that might do that? But what are the actual consequences of such a text. It encourages the people – especially the ignorant and the personally motivated – to do exactly what the text says. Increasing number of people over the past couple of years have taken the law into their own hands and delivered vigilante justice. Does the government want to encourage citizens to conduct mob justice? Not only that, this is also a sure shot way of intimidating minorities, perpetuating power, and pressurizing the state.
Islamisation campaigns started under Zia’s regime seem to have permeated modern thought and action. Such policies 1) treat the population as ignorant savages who have to be willfully controlled, and 2) provide a platform for mob mentality to manipulate socio political issues into religious ones. What had started back then as a way to ‘cleanse society’ has now become a noose in the necks of those who want to understand their religion in light of its modern context through critical engagement, a steadfast faith, and an enduring love for God and his religion.
But by putting a ban on public eating and drinking, encouraging citizens to report what they might think is blasphemous, administering social justice, and creating mechanisms of control, the state has shown the world that Pakistan is a place where you will not be respected for your views, beliefs, and opinions. Instead, you will be singled out, criminalized, and then perhaps lynched.
Mashal Khan was murdered for his views. Maybe there is another waiting to be murdered for his hunger.