Hamza Abbasi’s questions to the ‘ulema’ about whether it is a state’s business to declare any group of persons as non-Muslim in a television show he hosted, were perfectly logical and probably meant to start rational discourse on the subject. His reference was to Ahmedis, who were declared non-Muslim by an act of parliament on 7 September 1974. Nadeem F. Paracha aptly writes, ‘Many observers correctly point out that by surrendering to the demands of the religious parties in this context (especially after they had resorted to violence), Bhutto unwittingly restored their confidence and status that was badly battered during the 1970 election.’

Almost within a day of Abbasi’s show on Aaj TV, two things happened: first, in a rival show on News One, the show host, Shabir Abu Talib, instigated and prodded his guest Allama Kaukab Noorani into giving a fatwa to shoot Hamza Abbasi to death for posing this question. The second was a story in the extreme right and conservative Urdu daily Ummat, quoting Chaudhry Mohd. Ashraf Gujjar, the president of Muslim League lawyer forum, ex-member PEMRA, Justice Wajih-uddin Ahmed, a former judge of the Supreme Court, President Shohada Foundation Pakistan (of Laal Masjid) and advocate Tariq Asad, Majlis-e-Ahrar Islam leader Maulana Syed Kafeel Shah Bukhari, leader of Alami Majlis-e-Tahafuz-e-Khatm-e-Nabuat, Allah Wasaya, and Secretary General JUI(S), Maulana Abdul Rauf Farooqi.

The Ummat story was a lengthy rant where the above mentioned gents said the following: that Hamza Abbasi had attacked Pakistan, Pakistan’s constitution, and the ideology of Pakistan, and made his faith in Islam questionable with his questions; that while Sufi Mohammed’s sharia campaign in Swat was crushed even though it was not against sharia or the Constitution, no action was being taken against Hamza though his words were both anti-sharia and unconstitutional; that chairman PEMRA Absar Alam’s silence on the issue had made him guilty of association with defenders of Ahmadis; that Absar Alam had served in the past as country director of OSF (Open Society Foundation) that works for sexual freedom and a ‘sex-free society’ (sic) all over the world including in Pakistan, hence no expectation could be had from him to preserve Islamic values. That Absar’s appointment as chairman PEMRA as part of the conspiracy to impose a ‘sex-free society’ (sic – he probably meant ‘free sex society) on Pakistan; that Qadianis were working against Islam and Pakistan; that those questioning a unanimously passed law by the assembly of Pakistan were criminals; that Hamza Abbasi had committed a crime under Article 5 (sic – he probably meant Article 6) of the Constitution; that PEMRA could be taken to court over not taking action against Hamza Abbasi and Aaj News; that Hamza and Aaj channel should offer an apology for criticising the state and constitution of Pakistan; that the government should institute a case of treason against them and the channel be banned and its license cancelled; that the state could declare anyone kafir and it had declared the Qadianis kafir; whether jahil (ignorant) anchors and channels would decide these questions; that all of Europe was conspiring to bring under debate Pakistan’s declaration of qadianis as kafirs and make the blasphemy laws controversial – and that these channels, anchors and PEMRA chairman were part of the conspiracy; that questioning decided matters of this nature was terrorism, that the channel and anchor be proceeded against under the National Action Plan (NAP); and that sympathising with Ahmadis is akin to sympathising with terrorists.

This rant, together with Allama Kaukab Noorani’s fatwa, were clearly aimed at crushing any attempt at using the citizens’ right to question state policies that are oppressive and persecute sections of society. Insisting that questioning a unanimously passed law that persecutes a group of people and has been responsible for Ahmadi fatalities in hundreds is treasonous, is dishonest at best. Constitutions and laws are amended and repealed all over the world and all the time, including in Pakistan. But the hard right is an organised element that wants to nip debate in the bud. Tragically, their attack on the PEMRA chairman worked, and the next day PEMRA banned both programs and anchors till a further hearing, treating Hamza’s honest attempt at starting an important debate and the incitement to violence of Shabir Abu Talib, Allama Kaukab Noorani and Channel One’s irresponsible and criminal transmission with an even hand.

There is no comparison between the two: asking whether the state should go around declaring people kafir and becoming the cause of their persecution is neither anti-constitutional, nor an attack on Pakistan, nor a crime, nor undemocratic; conversely, inciting Hamza’s murder is criminal; terrorising and silencing debate with threats to life and encouraging vigilante action against persons and organisations is criminal and anti-democratic.

Yet, the state is looking askance once again: no government body or official has intervened to put a stop to this madness, but only added insult to injury by allowing PEMRA to take this completely ridiculous step of banning the News One program and Hamza for the questions he posed.

It is tragic that chairman PEMRA has acted either out of fear or of his own personal leanings, or both. Be that as it may, it may be successful in muting one person on television, but it will never be able to silence the rest of the intelligentsia from debating important issues and questioning government policies, including those the religious lobby continues to attempt to make their sole preserve.

Here is the question then: is it the state’s business to declare and decide people’s religion for them? The debate must go on.

A side exhortation to the learned Ashraf Gujjar: read, learn, research; look up the work of OSF the world over; distinguish between ‘sex free’ and ‘free sex’ also.