PEMRA’s decision to ban Hamza Ali Abbasi’s Ramazan show on Aaj News was both predictable and unfortunate. Over the past few years, it has become increasingly clear that the state has little stomach for even the slightest criticism of religious orthodoxy and its purveyors, consistently and repeatedly engaging in craven capitulation to the forces of obscurantism and extremism that have come to dominate the public discourse in Pakistan. Whether it is out of fear of some kind of backlash, or a desire to reinforce an ever narrowing conception of the ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ rooted in a parochial interpretation of Islam, the state has demonstrated that it will not take any real action against individuals and organisations that threaten their opponents with violence and death as long as they cloak their murderous intentions in the garb of religion.

Several months ago, Hamza Ali Abbasi took to social media to decry ‘liberals’ in Pakistan, accusing them of intolerance and extremism on issues ranging from gay marriage to acceptance of him as an actor and performer interested in religion. While Abbasi’s public pronouncements and actions indicate shifting, often contradictory positions on a variety of issues – take, for example, his participation in, and subsequent disavowal of, so-called ‘item’ numbers in films – he is to be commended and unconditionally supported for his decision to use his platform as a celebrity and media personality to highlight the persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan. It is an issue that many fear to discuss, given the rabid and virulent response any mention of it often incites from the Religious Right, and it takes courage to talk about it in as candid a manner as Hamza Ali Abbasi did.

However, like many of the liberals he excoriated in the past, Abbasi is now discovering that the space for articulating opinions contrary to the dogmatic status quo, even if such opinions have the force of truth and logic behind them, is progressively shrinking in Pakistan. Furthermore, as was demonstrated by the threats he received in response to his opinion on the persecution of Ahmadis, as well as the rape threats hurled at Marvi Sirmed by Hafiz Hamdullah last week, it is not ‘liberals’ who are promising to visit terrible violence upon their opponents and yet, it is they who continue to be silenced and sidelined.

Here, it is pertinent to also pay attention to the justification PEMRA provided for taking Hamza Ali Abbasi off the air. In addition to the usual jargon about offending the sensibilities of the citizens of Pakistan, PEMRA also declared that Abbasi had gone to the, ‘extent of challenging unanimous decisions of parliament’. Presumably, this is a reference to the 2nd Amendment, the passage of which resulted in the government of Pakistan declaring all Ahmadis to be non-Muslims.

This is a dangerous precedent to set, providing yet another avenue through which the state can engage in the censorship of dissent and opinion that comes into conflict with its own interests. While PEMRA already has considerable, largely unquestioned leeway when it comes to banning material it deems to be objectionable, clamping down on speech that questions acts of parliament is nothing more than an act aimed at stifling the kinds of debate and discussion that are an intrinsic part of any democracy. After all, laws should always be subject to scrutiny and analysis, and it is not beyond reason to assume that decisions taken by parliament at particular points in time can be called into question at later points in time due to shifts in political opinion, broader changes in society, or even to correct errors and omissions made when the laws under consideration were first passed. Indeed, if this were not the case, parliament would not have the power to amend laws (including the constitution), courts would not have the ability to strike them down, and the public would not have the right to have its views channeled into the political process through parties, the media, and other institutions. To suggest otherwise is completely and utterly nonsensical within a democratic framework.

The argument could be made that the 5th National Assembly’s unanimous decision to pass the 2nd Amendment renders this law unique and exceptional, thereby precluding the possibility of debate. While this line of reasoning would not be sufficient to justify why changing circumstances might not merit revisiting the law, the fact of the matter is that the 2nd Amendment, like all laws, was passed in a particular context by a government responding to, and attempting to manage, a variety of different factors and pressures. Historians working on the 2nd Amendment have, for example, pointed out how the PPP government at the time eventually had the law passed in the wake of protests from the Religious Right and other opposition parties, at a time when there was a perceived need to deflect attention away from India’s first nuclear test and cultivate the support of orthodox Sunni states like Saudi Arabia. Rather than being a response to some kind of popular, democratic demand to resolve a thorny theological issue, the PPP government’s passage of the 2nd Amendment was simply the cynical and opportunistic use of religion to acquire legitimacy, stave off the threat posed by the opposition parties, and appease potential foreign patrons. Pointing out how a law was produced by political pressures and factors, thereby creating the possibility of bias and error, should not be forbidden, not should it be assumed that the passage of a ‘religious’ law automatically imbues that law with some kind of divine infallibility.

Critics of Pakistan’s state-sanctioned discrimination against Ahmadis have long pointed towards the Report of the Court of Inquiry (also known as the Munir Commission) set up to investigate the anti-Ahmadi riots that swept across Punjab in 1953. Published in 1954, one of the issues the Report attempted to settle was the question of whether or not it was possible to decide who was or was not a Muslim. After interviewing dozens of religious scholars, the Commission came to the following conclusion:

‘Keeping in view the several definitions [of a Muslim] given by the ulama, need we make any comment except that no two learned divines are agreed on this fundamental? If we attempt our own definition, as each learned divine has done, and that definition differs from that given by all others, we unanimously go out of the fold of Islam. And if we adopt the definition given by any one of the ulama, we remain Muslims according to the view of that alim, but kafirs according to the definition of everyone else.’

The point made by the report was simple; given the difficulty in arriving at a unanimous definition of what it meant to be a Muslim, it was not possible for any earthly authority to declare anyone a non-Muslim, and that all such judgments would have to be left to the Almighty. Given the very real persecution Ahmadis and other minorities in Pakistan face, largely as a result of laws like the 2nd Amendment, we would all do well to remember that ‘divine’ law has always been subject to multiple interpretations, that it is ultimately flawed, fallible people who pass religious laws, and that there is nothing wrong with asking why it is therefore considered legitimate to discriminate against our fellow citizens.