Tag Archives: Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq

ramzan

Policing Ramadan undermines its principles


First published in the Guardian – Comment is Free Belief Section.

Pakistan’s Ehtram-e-Ramzan (respecting Ramadan) law makes eating, drinking and smoking in public places during the fasting hours of the holy month illegal. The punishment for any infringement can be three months in prison and a possible fine. It is a legacy of the Islamificaton policy pursued during the dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s. His notorious regime was also responsible for the blasphemy laws.

In only the first week of Ramadan, 25 people were arrested and jailedfor eating in public in the city of Faisalabad alone. In another incident in Sargodha, two people were arrested for eating and three for serving food.

The law extends to all “public places” prohibiting business in restaurants, canteens, hotels and even cinemas during fasting hours. In fact, the definition of “public place” includes: “any hotel, restaurant, canteen, house, room, tent, enclosures, road lane, bridge or other place to which the public have access”. The fact that even a “house” or a “room” are defined as public places is absurd but it also makes conviction far easier, legitimising moral policing even inside the confined boundaries of one’s house.

The only exemptions – as mentioned in clause five of the ordinance – include a kitchen or canteen at a hospital serving food to patients; railway stations; and primary schools. Children under the age of 12, patients and travellers are exempted from fasting according to the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

Most supporters of the law believe the law is necessary to maintain the sanctity of the holy month and argue that the sight of people eating in public may hurt those who are observing fast. But if fasting is believed to be a practice to promote tolerance, humility, compassion and self-control, the law is seemingly unnecessary and against the very principle of Ramadan.

Dr Khalid Zaheer, religious scholar and dean of the faculty of arts and social sciences of the University of Central Punjab, believes that the ordinance is a bit harsh and could have been avoided. “There are no clear instructions for such laws in the Qur’an. There are only a few instances where a state has the authority to question believers over a certain obligation; payment of zakaat (tax paid by Muslims) or jizya (tax paid by non-Muslims living in a Muslim country) being a primary example. I am certain that if we dealt with such matters more reasonably, people would respect the sanctity of Islam – in fact most do so and were doing it before the law was carried out. But forcing people to do it or, worse, punishing them if they fail to oblige, is only going to discourage people from taking Islamic teachings more seriously.”

Even though the law states that it is only applicable to Muslims, in 2009two Christians were arrested under it. The very existence of the law leads to a presumption that a person indulging their appetite during fasting hours is purposely disrespecting the holy month and therefore should be punished.

“The idea behind the law was not to force people to fast, but to make them refrain from eating in public whether Muslim or non-Muslim. If that is the kind of logic the law derives, in the name of Islam, than what about Muslims living in non-Muslim countries or in places where they are a minority?” Zaheer said.

Vigilant moralism makes a society inherently oppressive, forced to believe in the notion of enforcing sanctimony rather than truly believing in it. But Islam lays great emphasis on intent – even the five obligationsare based on the intent of the believer – and laws of this kind make for effective moral policing but hold very little religious or spiritual significance.