Beyond censorship

The youth of Pakistan give one hope that they will not accept the formulas crafted by the ancien regime

Pakistan is a captive country. Since the Partition, its ruling elites have used a self-serving version of ‘Islam’ to control a secular and pluralistic society. In particular, the ghost of General Ziaul Haq thrives in the polity and fashions institutional behaviour. Since the 1980s, discriminatory laws against women, minorities and ‘blasphemy’ – have further fractured the society. General Musharraf tried to reverse the tide of Islamism after a decade of ineffectual civilian governments, but it was perhaps too late by then. In the twenty-first century, when democracy has been restored, many Pakistanis had hoped that the dark shadows of authoritarianism and its bedfellow, the militant Islamism, would recede. It seems that there is a long way to go before such hopes come true.

Censorship is nothing new either. We are a country that banned Fatima Jinnah’s speech on radio when she criticised the military takeover by Ayub Khan. The rest is history – Ayub Khan banned newspapers and Ziaul Haq punished errant journalists and publications. Even Bhutto could not resist censoring portions of Fatima Jinnah’s memoir entitled, My Brother where Jinnah’s critical remarks on Liaqat Ali Khan’s intentions and other stalwarts of Pakistan movement could not be published, always in the name of Islam and national interest.

Half a decade after Danish cartoons representing Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) led to widespread protests across the country, a silly Facebook page announcing a drawing competition led to an uproar in Pakistan where minority groups used a conservative judiciary to impose a ban on Facebook and over 800 websites that ostensibly contain blasphemous materials. These included YouTube and Wikipedia among others.

A group of right wing activists and lawyers created uproar in the Lahore High Court on May 19th and the court gave in to the articulate minority who is now well known for influencing the state and civic institutions. Millions of Pakistani origin Facebook users were shell-shocked at this decision, most notably the youth.

Interestingly, Article 2-A (which declares Islam as the supreme law) of the Constitution inserted by General Zia was employed by the lawyers to ban the boundless internet. In 2008 Pakistan signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which it soon forgot about. Article 19 of the ICCPR says that all individuals have a fundamental human right to “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers … through any other media of his choice.” The one-sided take on communication and expression shows that our institutions do not understand that speech and information in new media are equally protected under the right pertaining to freedom of expression. But such arguments hold little value when you live in a country in which state is driven by urges to control rather than let a rational and educated society to evolve.

Pakistan is a young country. Half of its 180 million citizens are under twenty, two thirds below thirty and by 2030 there will be another 85 million young people. This ‘youth bulge’, as decreed by the social scientists is also a major user of the internet.

There have been articulate voices but the danger of being labeled as ‘blasphemous’ kept many dissenting notes silent. The day the ban was imposed, a young comrade; Rab Nawaz – wrote to me that banning Facebook “should be hailed as the continuity of maniac actions.” He called a little later and said, “Did the people actually want to block Facebook? They might emphatically answer ‘yes’ but that is what religious rhetoric is all about. Very few of them can be expected to boycott Facebook if the government does not do it? After the ban, the demand for lifting the ban itself becomes blasphemous.”

The following day when I tried to access my emails on my Blackberry, there was a calculated indifference shown by the gadget. After a flurry of frantic calls, I discovered that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority had blocked all handset services and internet browsing. Minutes later, I blogged on my e-zine calling this ‘absolute madness’, such was my rage. The Internet no longer is a pastime but a professional necessity and a tool that keeps life going. Over the past few days, I have received hundreds of messages and comments on my blogs, some of which had to be blocked for the fear of being construed as a non-believer in an Islamic Republic. Many comments are from a few gleeful Indians who thought this was another imagined victory of the ‘secular’ over the religious state. But that’s another debate.

Rumaisa Mohani complained: “Do we respect ourselves, as mentioned in the words of Iqbal”? … Because if we don’t, then we will have to accept what others say about us and do to us. The pictures, cartoons and insulting remarks are increasing day by day, only because we are getting used to them.” Another fervent ban-supporter Sardar Mohkim Khan noted, “I think Mark Zuckerburg should take notice and give his social network’s Terms of Use a good read.”

But my young friends and colleagues were outraged in Lahore. Ziyad Faisal, a graduate echoed my own view that this ban had little to do with insults to the Prophet (PBUH); and it was just another excuse for “authorities with a conservative-populist mindset to clamp down on communications.” Faisal, ruefully added, “General Ziaul Haq would be a happy man in his grave today.”

Amongst the younger generations, there is a new consciousness on resistance against arbitrary state-action. Since the lawyers’ movement and an evolving tradition of civic action, the reactions are promising. Ammar Rashid, a young researcher at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, complained that the “the ban by the Pakistani state is ludicrous”. Rashid added that the ban sent largely “vacuous messages of aggressive (and impotent) intent to the Western world” and did little to check the spread of hate-speech against Islam.

A final-year law student who did not want to be named, complained, that the ban “demonstrated the reactionary and incompetent nature of our senior judiciary. Whereas cases that involve the lives and livelihoods of a sizeable number of the population languish in the courts for decades, it took less than a week for the esteemed Justices to issue an edict in this case.”

Saadia Gardezi, a young academic at the Lahore School of Economics, made me laugh when she mentioned how, “after the recent ‘ban’ policies of our government, I think it’s time to move to China. I hear people are free there.” I liked her statement that drawing caricatures of someone “I respect so much is hurtful, but we live in a nasty world. This sort of ‘counter terrorism’ is only going to grow, the more we protest. Will we ban the internet then?”

Babar Mirza, a student from a small town in the Punjab and on his way to US for higher education, made a rather profound observation: “Both sides in this debate suffer from an unreasonable reliance on reason. They both have their laws on their sides, but there is not even a hint of magnanimity. The cartoonists wanted to provoke the ‘Muslims’ and the ‘Muslims’, in their turn, seemed to love nothing more than getting provoked!”

Perhaps this is the essential dilemma in an age of Islamophobia, I wondered.

Facebook blocked the page with the caricatures from being accessed in Pakistan and the ban was lifted on May 31; but not until after zealots in Pakistan had tested their power over the society by blackmailing the state in the name of the religion. Pakistan needs an untrammeled democratic phase to get this corrected. The chances of democracy’s survival however remain uncertain. But the youth of Pakistan give one hope that they will not accept the formulas crafted by the ancient regime.

Raza Rumi is a policy analyst. He blogs at and is the author of a forthcoming book, Dilli Nama to be published by Harper-Collins India.

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