Sunday, December 25, 2016

The louder, the better?

Loudspeakers have been a part of our daily lives for many decades now. Their usefulness for
Azaan or call for prayers only increases with the passage of time as the cities grow in size and population.

Yet like every other technology, they can be misused. That is why, the Punjab Regulation and Control of Loudspeakers and Sound Amplifiers Ordinance was passed in 1965. The purpose of this act was to "prevent public nuisance and voicing of utterances of a controversial nature likely to cause public disorder." The law forbids the use of loudspeakers in proximity of hospitals, educational institutes, courts, public institutions, offices or residential area. Neither should the sound cause disturbance, nor should it be heard outside the immediate premises of the mosque except for Azaan and Khutba. The government can confiscate the instruments in a mosque and arrest the concerned people, if the law is violated.

All of us know law is often flouted. Other than the allowed purposes, the mosques tend to use loudspeakers to collect funds, recite prayers etc, sometimes too late in the night or too early in the morning. On auspicious days and months, this defiance is even more common. It is ironic that initially the loudspeaker was declared unIslamic and now it is used too loudly.

Muhammad Khan has the honour of sharing a wall with a local mosque in Model Town. "The loudspeaker isn’t misused," he states. "The sound disturbs us because the mosque is next door! It is located in a residential area, on a land meant for housing. A family nearby has vacated their home. No one wants to buy or rent a house in our immediate neighbourhood."

"Many local mosques have a gathering of four people, but sound for the whole town," complains Wajih uz Zaman Khan, a former lawyer and minister from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. "In my constituency, I have got such people arrested." On being asked if he faces any social backlash, he admits he wants the violators to think rationally and discuss it with him.

"The Punjab Loudspeaker Act is not an Islamic Law," explains Salman Akram Raja an Islamic Law expert. "Implementation problems exist for every law and not just this one."

"Most mosques come under Auqaf – the district administration which is always short of funds and can’t afford proper speakers," says SP Sajid Kiyani. "In Islamabad alone we arrested some 20 Imams in the last few months. We take action when an FIR is registered but our priority is terrorism and security."

"Much of the violation is curbed by the peace committees," says Rana Ayyaz Salim, SP Model Town, Lahore. "These committees are based on representatives of different sects but despite these, in the last 14 months, we have made several arrests."

"There are significant rights of neighbours in Islam. Imposing yourself on the people is not Islamic," says Dr. Arif Rasheed, a religious scholar. "Therefore, we use only the internal speakers for a Khutba."

Other than the use of loudspeakers, the law also includes "prevention of incitement". This is a clear call for monitoring the content as well. Although people have been arrested on the misuse of loudspeakers, no one has ever been arrested on the use of hate speech, controversial or indecent content during a Khutba. In an age when we are all terror struck, the loudspeaker is a dangerous weapon. Many Friday khutbas contain subject matter which shows the Imam’s soft corner for freedom fighting or jihad; without even realising that the political reality of this situation is very different. For example, last Friday, some Khateebs approved the killing of a minority people they considered non-Muslim. Hate speech against a community of a few thousands can rob the whole society of its peace.

"An Islamic government can give directions to prevent sectarian violence or hatred," says Arif Hameed, the media director at the Quran Academy.

But Dr. Arif Rasheed from the same academy has a different take. "Hundred percent monitoring is impossible. However, it is the need of the time that some supervision be done. We need positive preaching directed from Quran rather than declare other people kafir."

"A law to monitor the Khutba has never been passed in South Asia," says lawyer Salman Akram Raja. "However, in other countries like Saudi Arabia and Middle East, such laws are present. Usually they are to prevent provocation against the monarchy but obviously sectarian violence is also controlled. He added that monitoring the Khutba might underestimate the freedom of speech and is dangerous like a "slippery slope".

"Strict action can cause sectarian violence," cautions SP Kiyani. "Minority or weaker sects can be targeted and sidelined, since complaints are registered against their activity more often. This creates ill will. Also, a common justification for a violation is that the rival sect’s mosque is doing it, so why can’t we?"

There are, of course, several challenges on ground. The war on terror has soaked up most of the police activity. Furthermore, there are hundreds of mosques operating around Lahore, most of them in the small mohallah or town level. Monitoring all the mosques with a police force of 35,000 and a terrorist insurgency is impossible. Most people are unaware of the Loudspeakers Act. The mosques that obey the law can post this fact on one of their walls to create more awareness. Perhaps the most viable option is that the neighbourhood adjoining the mosque draw consensus on what they want to hear and how loud. If they are unable to persuade the maulvis, the law is always there to protect them.

Published in The News International in 2010.

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