In the thick of it: Pakistan’s media stands to become a battleground for Islamisation

Friday the 13th of November has been a dark day for the world. Between the global acts of terror, the media has largely ignored a key development in Pakistan. Maulana Abdul Aziz, of the Lal Masjid famed for hardline religious teachings and its open opposition of democratic structure, took to the streets on Friday, alongside his wife, vowing to restart the Sharia Law campaign in Pakistan. Not only were his actions in direct violation of the much-hyped National Action Plan, NAP, but his response to a warning sent by Deputy High Commissioner Islamabad is proof that he is confident that his actions will not lead to serious consequences. Which means that the ‘demands’ put forth by the infamous cleric cannot be completely ignored.

His main demand has been the Islamisation of Pakistan, the adoption of Sharia Law. Now, according to a news report quoting a close aide of Maulana Aziz, the Pakistani media has captured his attention. According to the aide, this time, Maulana Aziz’s demands include Islamisation the media to clear Pakistan of obscenity. According to the aide “What we find on TV screens and in print form is not what Islam teaches. The media need to be told the role and responsibilities Islam demands from them.”

To say that this is alarming would be an understatement.

Independent journalism in Pakistan is already suffocating under the endless lines being drawn in the name of national security and public interest. The attacks on media personnel and the prevailing impunity have resulted in a growing trend of self-censorship. In an environment where journalists are threatened, attacked and killed without consequence, this declaration by Maulana Aziz can have serious implications for the industry and journalists community at large. Islamabad, the hub of the Lal Masjid clan also houses the most active bureaus of the news industry. Over 70% of the news fodder is generated from and within Islamabad. It is very clear that neither the government nor the civil military establishment cares much for a strong and independent media. Maulana Aziz on the other hand, despite being actively involved in actions against the state has enjoyed direct state protection. 

So, the implication that media is working beyond Islamic boundaries appears to be an attempt to create more boundaries. How will this demand translate into action remains to be seen. But, the statement that ‘the media needs to be told’ is telling. Ideally, the ‘demands’ put forth by someone who is defying the conditions of his bail even by publicly putting forth these demands would be fought and rejected through competent authorities. However, the reality is grim and dark.

Maulana Aziz’s sudden reappearance, his confidence and his outright rejection of law enforcement and Pakistan’s democratic government is no coincidence. The fact that this development has come so near the one-year anniversary of the Peshawar Attack is telling. Over the last one year, the media has been told overtly and covertly to refrain from making any negative commentary over the implementation of NAP. This new threat from a radical Islamist makes the media more vulnerable and dependent on security assurances from the powers that be. In addition, the threat from these quarters can actually have a direct impact on media content. Under the guise of ‘Islamisation’ we might see further strengthening of the political right.

It would be a mistake at this point to ignore and dismiss the demand of ‘Islamisation of media’ as yet another crazy call by a bygone radical. The demand for Islamisation has more to do with politics and less with ideology. Thus, this threat has to be taken seriously. It has to be seen as a threat to diverse political discourse and resisted as such.

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