October 10, 2012

In May 2010, Pakistani authorities blocked access to the social networking site, Facebook — a knee-jerk response to the anger generated across the Muslim world over a crass and unarguably nonsensical competition depicting caricatures of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Additionally, more than 100 anti-Islamic websites were also blocked by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA). Earlier this year, users were denied access to twitter, albeit for a couple hours, when alleged blasphemous material surfaced on its site. In the current increasingly ideologically orthodox environment, these actions can perhaps be understood, even if not concurred with.  The problem is that restrictions on social networking sites have not been limited to only controversial sites perceived as being anti-Islam.

The government has used its own discretion to block — on behalf of the entire nation — all subject matter that it considers ‘unwarranted’ in terms of its political, social and even leisure component. Furthermore, Pakistan’s ‘on-off’ relationship with social media is not entirely restricted to the internet.

The BBC News Channel was famously taken off air after it showcased a controversial documentary about Taliban insurgents and their shadowy lineage, which hinted at the group’s links within Pakistan.

Thus it should be of no surprise that Pakistan has blocked YouTube, the video-sharing website, in protest against the Innocence of Muslims video that has provoked religious sentiment — and bloodshed — not just within the country, but across the globe.

I have not seen the ‘short-film’ itself, firstly, because of my own personal discomfort with what is clearly sacrilegious material.  Additionally, the video has been widely trashed because, apart from its offensive subject, it is said to be a poorly and haphazardly produced piece of work. In fact, it has been rubbished by officials and newspapers in the West alike. That should have put paid to this sordid affair. Instead, the film has just given people in the Muslim world one more reason to settle scores with each other. The video is being used to resolve personal vendettas simmering among civil, official and opposing religious factions in Muslim nations such as Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan.

Once again thus, more crime and sin, murder and mayhem are committed in the name of religion. And this against the backdrop of the Rimsha Masih case where a land-grabbing mafia used an intellectually challenged child from the minorities on a trumped-up blasphemy charge to further its own agenda.

In Pakistan, a country that has just witnessed the massacre of almost 300 people in a horrific fire, and continues to be bedevilled by economic and social corruption, a widespread abuse of human life and lack of governance, do we not have enough to deal with already?

In 2006, in response to a petition filed under article 184(3) of the Constitution of Pakistan, the Supreme Court ordered the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) to adopt necessary measures to block sites with blasphemous content. This was the direct outcome of the cartoons depicting the Prophet (PBUH) published in a Danish newspaper in 2005. In a floundering judicial system where human rights issues are often dismissed altogether or delayed ad nauseam, the only issues that seem to elicit speedy justice were related to wounded Islamic sentiments.

Invariably it is the poor who are at the receiving end, and under the guise of religion, political and personal scores and commercial agendas are settled.

But, with this new storm over the offending film, advocates of free speech in the western world have also been given some food for thought. Denial of the Holocaust — the claim that the widespread extermination of Jews by any ‘intent’ or ‘official’ German policy did not occur — is deemed illegal in many European countries, including Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France and Germany, among others. There is a prison sentence of between 1-3 years for this ‘crime’ in most of these countries.

And while this ‘offence’ is not deemed illegal in the US or Canada, it does engender protests and demonstrations, not to mention instant protests and condemnation in the corridors of North American power. Numerous arguments have been heard over the years on the pros and cons of terming the holocaust denial as a legal offence, including the outrage expressed by proponents of free speech and the contention that denying the holocaust cannot be considered a person-worthy offence since there is no direct threat to anyone’s life. One of the interesting points raised in support of this law is the charge that holocaust denial. Is ‘discriminatory’ and ‘damaging.’ Apart from being vague and generic, this premise directly opposes the very concept of freedom of speech and entitlement of personal opinion.

I support the peaceful protests across Pakistan to the film.  Each one of us is certainly entitled to express our opinion. But do we need the government to tell us how to feel? And is our faith so weak that something as horrendous and trash-worthy as this film can shake it? Did we really need yet another public holiday? And we all know now much love for our Prophet (PBUH) was witnessed that day in Pakistan. Or is the government’s pandering to the religious right just an another way for the government to appease them since elections are on the anvil?

Predictably, YouTube will soon be restored. Meanwhile, all our protects have succeeded in doing is having shut down the country for one more day, causing the loss of 26 precious lives and many times that number losses in revenue.

We want to hear no evil, see no evil, but evil we will do.

The writer is freelance journalist.