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EDITORIAL: Punjab Assembly's passage of the Punjab Tahaffuz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam (protection of the foundation of Islam) Bill, 2020, has drawn widespread criticism. In a country where 97 percent of the population is Muslim, Islam's holiest personages command only the deepest veneration and devotion. Yet the movers of the bill decided to make any irreverent reference to the holy Prophet (PBUH), any of the four divine books, family and companions of the Prophet (PBUH) punishable with a maximum five-year jail term and fine up to Rs 500,000. Furthermore, use of the prefix Khatam-un-Nabiyyeen is to become a must whenever the name of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) is mentioned. This in spite of the fact that a fundamental part of the belief is that Muhammad (PBUH) is the last Messenger of God, and there would be no prophet after him. No Muslim, even a nominal one, can think of deviating from this belief. The proposed law (it is yet to be signed by the governor) also treads into a sensitive area involving intra-faith differences, indirectly acknowledging the inherent dangers where it says abetment or glorification of terrorists promoting sectarianism will be liable for the same punishment

Small wonder then that chief of Tehreek-e-Nifaz Fiqh Jafria, Agha Syed Hamid Ali Shah Moosavi, has reacted sharply to the proposed law, demanding withdrawal of "this vicious bill" failing which "we will not shy away from taking any big step to save the foundations of the religion and the motherland." The statement clearly alludes to the landmark speech of the Father of the Nation, Quaid-e-Azam, in which while laying out his vision for the new state he spoke of an impartial state in matters of religion. Other public opinion leaders, including Science and Technology Minister Fawad Chaudhry, have also slammed the bill as a recipe for fanning religious extremism. Many may have nodded at the minister's tweet that "an environment has been created in the Parliament, particularly in the Punjab Assembly, where every [other] member comes up with a motion on a daily basis warning that Islam will be in danger if it is not passed. This is a dangerous trend and it will plunge us deep into sectarianism and religious extremism." This country has already seen much bloodshed at the hands of sectarian terrorists. The last thing it needs is further fueling of sectarian passions.

Punjab Assembly Speaker Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, whose party introduced the bill, may want to act holier-than-thou to derive political mileage out of it by exploiting religious sentiments. But the motive behind the legislation is also to put a chokehold on enlightened debate and discussion. Handing the government the authority to sit on judgment on people's faith, it binds all publishers to submit at least five copies of each edition of a book they publish to the Directorate General of Public Relations (DGPR), which is empowered to inspect printing presses, book stores and publishing houses, and confiscate books containing 'objectionable' content. Moreover, the DGPR may also investigate, assess or ascertain any act of omission, check record and books of accounts of the publisher on the spot or at any designated office. This is a blatant attack on intellectual and religious freedoms in the fair name of Islam. Civil society members need to join hands to resist this fresh attempt at censorship and control.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020