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Enforcing respect of Ramadan by ordinance

As the Islamic holy month of Ramadan is underway, Pakistan has been enforcing even non-Muslims to comply with its restrictions on eating, drinking, and smoking. A Pakistani Christian journalist explains the historical roots of this enforcement and observes that “no article of [Pakistan’s] constitution empowers the state to force people to pray, fast or live according to the injunctions of Islam.”

By Shamim Masih

7/17/2014 Pakistan (PCP) – Islamic Republic of Pakistan, a sovereign country in South Asia with a population exceeding 180 million people, came into being as a result of the Pakistan movement led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. It is the second most populous Muslim majority country and has the second largest Shia population in the world. After Islam, Christianity and Hinduism are the largest religious minorities in the country. Religious minorities are around 5% of the total population. Pakistan is a democratic country but a common man remains deprived of the basic human rights, which is sheer violation of the constitution.

During the General Zia’s regime “Ehtram-e-Ramzan ordinance 1981” was introduced and with the rise to power of PML-N, they brought back to some extent, the same straitjacket religiosity of dark years. This ordinance is one of the many incomprehensible laws that General Zia ul haq’s unconstitutional and illegal regime inflicted upon Pakistan. It is perhaps very similar to the Sabbath laws of Jews and Christians, which at one point enjoyed state sanction in many secular western nations including the US. But most of these states have since then repealed these laws or have made them redundant [sic]. But this ordinance is there and the government reminds the public that it is unlawful to eat, drink or smoke publicly during the month of Ramazan. The law states that any person who is under obligation to fast is not allowed to eat drink or smoke in public.

Now this in itself creates two exceptions: the first would be a person who is not under obligation i.e. a person who is either a non-Muslim, sick, elderly or is a woman who may be menstruating. However, the application of this law has more often than not targeted non-Muslims because, in practical terms, it is impossible to tell whether a person is ‘under obligation’ to ‘fast’ just by looking at the person. The second exception is for those people under obligation to not eat, drink or smoke in public. So, in other words, it is okay for a person under obligation to fast to eat, drink and smoke so long as he or she does it privately. Now the logical extension of this would be that a person not under obligation can eat, drink or smoke as he or she pleases. It goes without saying that this legal freedom is not honored by the police who target the poorest of the poor in enforcing this law. It is quite the sightseeing laborers being hauled into jail for a mere drink of water during these extremely hot months of June and July. Then there is the obvious question of whether or not the state has any right, constitutionally, legally or morally to determine who is under an obligation to fast or not. Pakistan’s constitution, in terms of its relationship with Islam, is an enabling and not an enforcing constitution. The state is required to enable Muslims to live Islamic lives but not to force them to do so. No article of the constitution empowers the state to force people to pray, fast or live according to the injunctions of Islam. Hence the question of whether a person is under any obligation to fast or not be a matter between him and God, and not between the state and the citizen.

Surely time has come for the people of Pakistan plus the government to realize that religious observance is usually personal matter but not insurance plan one. It really is time for you to bury Zia’s legacy along with his remains in Faisal mosque. The 1st step would become to scrap his illegal ordinance given cover from the eighth amendment.


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