Dissent is not blasphemy

Last week, a bizarre public notice issued by the federal investigation agency (FIA) appealed to the general public to provide evidence about social media users who were committing blasphemy and were ‘enemies of Islam.’ In a country where the blasphemy laws have been widely abused to settle personal disputes, threaten the weaker sections of society, such a move is utterly dangerous. That this happens under an ostensibly democratic government is even more worrisome.

For the past few days, Islamabad High Court has been a venue for reigniting the blasphemy debate. Last week, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, a judge of Islamabad High Court, while hearing a petition seeking the blockade of blasphemous content on the social media, observed that those involved in blasphemy are committing terrorism. He also warned that if action wasn’t taken to check such pages immediately, then “patience of the followers of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) may run out” and more Mumtaz Qadri’s will emerge.

The bench instructed the government to open an investigation into online ‘blasphemy’ and vowed to ban social media networks if they failed to censor content deemed objectionable by the majority of Pakistanis. Later on, FIA after investigating complaints of character assassination of a judge, reported to Interior minister that Facebook administration had refused to share information related to those orchestrating such a campaign. The minister directed formulation of a strategy and talks with management of popular social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp to introduce local versions of these websites in Pakistan, after implementation of due cross-checks to ensure fake, hate and blasphemous materials is not circulated on these websites.

As if the executive actions were not enough, the Parliament also passed a resolution calling for stringent implementation of laws to curb content deemed blasphemous on social media. The executive and the parliament, have now, aligned directly with the extremist mindset to muzzle moderate voices and dissent in the country.

Historically, Pakistan’s relationship with its dissenting citizens has been troubled, to say the least. The state has, time and again, taken legal action and intimidated those who criticize its policies. During past decade, the state went an extra mile to not only crush dissent, but also, set an example for others. This has happened, with the concurrent rise and expansion of digital and electronic media in the country. State and militant groups have systemically targeted those who speak against deepening religious extremism, the ambivalent relationship between state and clergy, the role of military in politics and its national security policies.

In January of this year, at least five bloggers were picked up from three cities of Punjab in a coordinated action. They were simply termed ‘disappeared’. They returned after three weeks of detention. Meanwhile, the public opinion was influenced through a coordinated campaign on television and social media labeling the missing bloggers as ‘blasphemers’, enemies of Islam and therefore Pakistan. And anyone speaking for their release was also a blasphemer, a traitor and needed to be fixed.

The truth is most of these bloggers had committed the cardinal sins of criticizing the military policies and misuse of organized religion that has been taking place with abandon for the past few decades. No was held accountable for the disappearances. Weeks after his release, one blogger Waqas Goraya made serious allegations in a BBC interview as to who may have picked him. And the state has not even bothered to deny that. The most worrying part was how the Red Mosque — a place where military officials were killed in 2007 — joined the chorus of punishing the blasphemers. For years we have heard how the civil-military establishment has changed its position on jihadism. If so, why is the Red Mosque still being patronized?

Digital media are here to stay. It’s difficult to ‘ban’ it like you can crack down on a newspaper or a television channel. Globally, digital media work as avenues for citizen journalists and highlight issues that mainstream media ignores. In any case, why can’t we allow multiple voices to flourish? If state is worried about the content it can deny, rebut or challenge it. The extremists in Pakistan seem to enjoy full freedom of expression in cyber space and through their sympathizers on television. Anyone challenging them is a threat.

It is ironic that despite rhetoric that Facebook has refused to act, in fact, Facebook has been blocking objectionable content on its pages. During first six months of 2016, in response to the request of Pakistan Telecom Authority, Facebook restricted access to at least 25 pages for allegedly violating Pakistani laws prohibiting blasphemy, desecration of national flag, and criticizing national independence. Meanwhile, Facebook reportedly is sending a delegation to Pakistan to discuss new measures.

Instead of stopping the abuse of blasphemy laws, the state is becoming a party to their misuse. Are these spurious blasphemy charges a means to induce a state of fear? Leading journalist, Hamid Mir has testified that after facing charges of blasphemy, he has not been commenting on human rights issues. In 2014, GEO TV was also booked under blasphemy law as after it accused the top intelligence agency of involvement in attack on Mir.

The state is not doing the public a favour. Beating the ‘blasphemy’ drum further radicalizes the public especially young men and women who have been kept unaware of our troubled history. On the one hand, the civil and military leaders endlessly issue statements to fight extremism and on the other they are contributing to the extremism quagmire.

For Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif time has come to address the issue of blasphemy head on. PM Sharif must not pander to right-wing clergy. He has already been declared as Modikayar and a ‘security risk’ and we all know why. Blasphemy charges invite mobs and zealots to take the law into their own hands.

Pakistan needs to become a territorial nation state, not a hostage ground for one sect or the other. Sadly, that’s what the term ‘Islamic’ denotes once imagined in the political sphere. No one cleric agrees with another on the definition of ‘Muslim’. Pakistani citizens should have the right to criticize or question the state.


Published in Daily Times, March 18, 2017: Dissent is not blasphemy ( Daily Times)

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