There is no greater formal – and legal – act of disrespecting the month of Ramzan than the Ehtram-e-Ramazan Ordinance. Originally passed in 1981, under Gen Zia-ul-Haq, it states that “no person who according to the tenets of Islam is under obligation to fast shall eat, drink or smoke in a public place during fasting hours in the month of Ramzan,” breaching which would result in three-month imprisonment and Rs 500 fine.

So basically the simple act of eating or drinking, in a month touted as that of holiness and blessings, could send you in jail, because certain trigger happy sections – who may or may not be fasting, but will pull out the holier than thou garbs at the drop of a hat – deem it offensive.

But of course since it was the ‘Zia’ era, with the ante being upped on Islamisation, which many of the current legislators denounce as ‘draconian’ – except when it comes to Islamic laws – it could’ve been binned as one of the many ‘crazy’ legislations in place, which the government disowns but doesn’t bother to amend – case in point: the ‘Sadiq and Ameen’ Articles 62/63 which have already taken down a former prime minister and foreign minister of the ruling party in the past 12 months.

Not quite, since the government hasn’t just refused to not amend the ‘draconian’ laws, it wholeheartedly endorsed them when the recommendation of Cabinet Committee for Disposal of Legislative Cases (CCLC) in respect of the Ehtram-e-Ramzan (Amendment) Bill, 2017, was ratified.

What this meant was that not only were the penalties upheld, they were made harsher. The Rs 500 fine for individual breaches has become Rs 25,000, with fines for cinema houses and TV channels increased from Rs 5,000 to Rs 500,000.

All this to uphold the sanctity of Ramzan and Islam.

Indeed there is nothing that is the slightest bit of shocking in all of this. In a country, where capital punishment for a thought ‘crime’ – and a victimless ‘crime’ – of blasphemy still carries death penalty, three months in jail for drinking a glass of water seems pretty moderate.

Although, of course, the religious minorities do risk harsh penalties for drinking water – if it is from the wrong glass – regardless of the month, with Asia Bibi being on death row for precisely that, for all intents and purposes.

The Ehtaram-e-Ramzan Ordinance, with all its disrespecting glory, isn’t really about the religious minorities, who in a decent part of the world – which our neck of the woods quite evidently isn’t – wouldn’t have to comply with the religious majority’s sensibilities.

In addition to being a blatant mockery of Ramzan, the Ehtaram-e-Ramzan Ordinance targets Muslims as well – and not just the moderate, cultural or the ‘non-devout’ kind, even the believing and practicing Muslims.

Whatever the theological position on fasting – or any Islamic tenet for that matter – not every Muslims acts – or should act – is a coerced ‘true Muslim’ template.

No authority – state, non-state, global, extraterrestrial – has the right, as per the universal declarations of human rights and the very basic concept of freedom of conscience and religion – which, incidentally, our constitution upholds – to force citizens to believe a certain way, and in turn act on those rigid beliefs.

There might be over 14 centuries of certain beliefs and actions being an inalienable parts of Islam, but that unfortunately is neither workable nor practical in the 21st century world, where ‘respect’ is more synonymous with tolerating differences than it is with hammered into fixed ideological positions, through thought policing and antediluvian legislations.

True respect for Ramzan would mean the state and country functioning exactly as it does the rest of the year, with its citizens being allowed to decide for themselves how they want to practice their individual beliefs – if any.

This would mean that pompous and overt shows of religiosity would deservedly be the butt of ridicule, and not the month of Ramzan itself.

 

The writer is a Lahore-based journalist.