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Pakistan Plans to Regulate Weekly Sermons to Prevent Extremism


Pakistani Muslims offer Friday prayers at Badshahi Mosque during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, in Lahore, Pakistan, Friday, June 2, 2017.

As pressure is mounting on Pakistan to do more to curb militancy emanating from parts of its territory, the country is planning to regulate Friday's sermons at local mosques where mullahs will preach on pre-approved religious topics.

The new effort is being touted as a means to tackle the growing problem of extremism that threatens the security of Pakistan and its neighbors. Some preachers, using Friday's sermons, try to persuade people to embrace jihad in other countries.

The initiative is in the form of a 13-point proposal under the National Action Plan, a policy adopted in 2015 to combat terrorism, sectarianism and intolerance in the country.

Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan's interior minister, announced the plan to regulate sermons last week after leading a meeting on the growing challenge of youth radicalization in the country. The meeting reportedly was attended by the vice chancellors of major national universities.

A 'duty' to act

"It is our duty to undertake collective efforts to prevent our youth from accessing the material based on extremist ideologies. We have to ensure that our youth use social media only for education and healthy activities," Iqbal said, according to local Pakistani media.

Officials are optimistic that the new initiative will contribute to building a society based on coexistence, tolerance and peace.

"The government has been working to form the plan for quite some time now, and we really need it as a society," Sardar Yousaf, Pakistan's federal minister for religious affairs and interfaith harmony, told VOA.

Pakistani Muslims take part in Friday prayers at Data Darbar Mosque during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, in Lahore, Pakistan, on June 16, 2017.
Pakistani Muslims take part in Friday prayers at Data Darbar Mosque during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, in Lahore, Pakistan, on June 16, 2017.

"Renowned religious scholars from different sects ... have agreed on a 13-point policy to regulate the Friday sermons in accordance to the [religious scripts]," Yousaf added.

A Muslim-majority country, Pakistan also is home to smaller faith communities, including Christians, which at times have decried intolerance and discrimination directed toward them because of their religious beliefs.

Vetting sermons

Most Muslims attend Friday prayers at their local mosques. With the prayer comes what is known as a khutba, or sermon, in which the preacher discusses a religious topic of his choice before the worshippers.

Men attend an evening mass prayer session called tarawih along a road to mark the fasting month of Ramadan in Karachi, Pakistan, May 27, 2017.
Men attend an evening mass prayer session called tarawih along a road to mark the fasting month of Ramadan in Karachi, Pakistan, May 27, 2017.

The freedom of choice allows the preacher to discuss any topic he deems important and with whatever interpretation he may have of that issue. The government's move apparently is aimed at vetting and regulating that selection process to ensure issues are properly preached about without indoctrinating or brainwashing followers.

"It's unfortunate that many local religious clerics promote extremist views from the pulpit, either on purpose or because they have inadequate knowledge of the religion," Yousaf said.

Numerous videos circulating on social media show some preachers motivating worshippers for jihad inside Pakistan, and in places like Afghanistan and Indian controlled-Kashmir.

"Friday prayer holds a special importance in our society. Unfortunately, there had been instances in the past where some of the mosques have used Friday sermons as a way to promote their hard stance, which has impacted the mindset of the population, especially the youth, and we need to counter it," said A.Z. Hilali, a political scientist from Pakistan.

Potential backlash

While the initiative to regulate Friday's sermons has been welcomed by different sects in Pakistan, the government seems to be wary of the potential backlash it could trigger from different religious parties and local clerics with huge followings.

But Yousaf told VOA the government was committed to implementation of the initiative.

"Once the plan takes its final form, it will be implemented without any hesitation," he said.

Recently, the government also has barred a number of religious clerics from entering the capital, Islamabad, for two months, accusing them of promoting sectarianism ahead of the Islamic month of Muharram, which coincides with the death anniversary of the Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Shi'ite Muslims around the world mourn his death every year.

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    Madeeha Anwar

    Madeeha Anwar is a multimedia journalist with Voice of America's Extremism Watch Desk in Washington where she primarily focuses on extremism in the South Asia region.

    Follow Madeeha on Twitter at @MadeehaAnwar

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