RAFIA ZAKARIA — It has been nearly 10 years since an angry mob raged through the streets of Gojra in the early morning hours of Aug 1, 2009. The trouble had begun the day before, Friday, when certain xenophobic clerics had incited Muslim villagers, citing rumors about the desecration of religious verses. On that grim day, around 10 Christians were burned alive.
The television news footage showed houses on fire, burnt furniture scattered on the streets. Gunshots still rang out through the air; it appeared that people were shooting at each other from the rooftops.
Later on, when the dead and injured were counted, when the politicians woke up and began to offer their thoughts and prayers, the tragic toll, besides the number of dead and injured, would become apparent: a community devastated by the anger of a mob motivated by hate.
There have been other incidents of hate and of sectarian violence since Gojra. And like Gojra, some have begun on Friday afternoons, after a preacher harbouring extremist views has riled up the fervour and sensitivities of the crowd before him. There have been times when such angry mobs have killed; or, if they have not, they have demanded murder or defended murderers.
Those who use freedom to abridge and destroy the freedom of others must not be permitted to do so.
For a very long time, there has been no accountability, no real means of connecting the men who are accused of preaching hate to a congregation of faithfuls to the incensed mobs that then march out into the streets. It has been assumed that the men standing at the pulpit, delivering the sermons, can do no wrong, can say no wrong, are disconnected from the rising levels of animosity and hatred that is, tragically, on the increase in many parts of the country.
Until this March, it did seem that little would change when it came to sermons inciting hatred and delivered by a section of clerics. On March 2 this year, the government, specifically the interior ministry, announced that it was considering 44 subjects that would be considered permissible topics for Friday sermons. The plan would be disseminated among the 1003 mosques in the Islamabad area as a pilot project.
According to officials of the National Counter Terrorism Authority, or Nacta, which collaborated to create the project, the plan has been developed after looking at similar plans implemented in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In all of those countries, appropriate themes have been given to clerics who prepare their Friday sermons in accordance with the directives.
On March 25, the committee overseeing the plan announced that it would be implemented and that the government would, in fact, be issuing a list of permissible themes to be addressed at the Friday sermon.
While many clerics in Islamabad have expectedly opposed the plan, insisting that the religious institutions and mosques in the city are controlled by the Auqaf department and not the capital’s administration, the committee that has decided to implement the plan contains representatives from both the Auqaf department and the administration.
The monitoring of the sermons (to ensure that clerics are complying with the approved themes) will be carried out by the Auqaf department, the capital administration and the Special Branch of the Islamabad Police.
In the days and weeks to come there are likely to be many obstacles to this sort of directive.
Over the years, while many other facets of Pakistani life have been circumscribed — made subject to diktats and directives, just laws and sometimes unjust laws, the whims of military rulers, the eccentricities of democratic rulers — the clergy has faced none. Some clerics who purport to represent the majority of Pakistanis have taken it upon themselves to issue directives and incite extremism.
The involvement of Nacta illustrates this — in hundreds, possibly even thousands, of mosques, clerics urge support for extremist thought, even violence, whilst ignoring the reality that thousands of Pakistanis have died as a result of violent tactics.
For too long, hate-filled clerics have remained above the law, able to operate with impunity.
Freedom is a great thing, particularly in relation to faith. However, in this case, the freedom accorded to clerics has been used to abridge the freedom of so many Pakistanis to practise their own faith and in their own way. Those who use freedom to abridge and destroy the freedom of others must not be permitted to do so; they can only be seen as the enemies of freedom itself, and they must not be allowed to misuse their authority in religious matters.
This monitoring and theme-implementation project will, at its inception, only be operative in Islamabad. The Special Branch has the capacity to implement the plan and monitor it. Close monitoring is essential to ensure that mosque leaders see that this is not a symbolic move.
In terms of the programme’s implementation in the rest of the country, there will be a need to enhance the monitoring abilities of the police. In this age of closed-circuit television, however, actual people may not be necessary to identify those who are not complying with the interior ministry’s approved themes. The directive could simply require that all mosques submit a text of the Friday sermon in written form prior to delivery and a recording following it.
The regulation of Friday sermons and the development of a code of conduct that ensures that our religious institutions are not abused or made into hotbeds of inciting hatred is crucial to the welfare of Pakistan. A mosque is a place for prayer and reverence, and the monitoring and regulation of Friday sermons will ensure that it can continue to be sacred and respected.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.