There are two sides to every picture: the sentence is simple, declarative and apparently does not seem to have hidden meanings. The problem is that the devil is in the details. An examination of the affairs of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan leads us to two possibilities: either we have started believing that the practice of using religion for personal, financial and political gains is in fact the most sacred religious duty conferred upon us, or we believe that we are the only Islamic state in the world. People living in other Islamic states are just pretending. Though the government of Turkey, our brother Islamic country, seems to follow in our footsteps, it is miles away from being a ‘pure’ Islamic nation, like us.
Since 2012, the government of a nuclear Islamic nation is afraid of a website. Official reasons in Pakistan, we all know, are never the actual reasons. Our previous government told the nation that Youtube hosts blasphemous videos and proudly announced that the site is restricted in our pure country. Indeed, the government thought it was not the video rather Youtube itself that hurt the sacred feelings of pure Muslims. So it kicked the hornet’s nest and the PPP government became certain of its place in the VIP quarters of paradise. Once in opposition, however, it found another way to serve the nation as a humble student of reality. Shazia Marri, PPP parliamentarian, submitted a resolution to lift the ban on Youtube immediately saying that since the people were using the website through proxies there is no point in a ban. Here we see that her demand to remove the ban on Youtube was not based on principle, rather on the absurdity of the ban itself. Proxy websites are not an invention of today and information technology is developing at a faster rate than that of our politicians’ capacity to process the ongoing changes in internet life.
Had the PPP government realised this fact, it would not have banned the video sharing website but would have tried to find another solution to block access to the blasphemous video. Even if a ban was necessary, it should have been temporary, to cool down flared sentiments. The current government indeed could find other solutions to block access to the allegedly ‘blasphemous’ movie, but since taking power it has been operating on punishment mode. To make people believe that the government exists, something needed to be done, so it decided to continue the ban and establish its writ. The Taliban might issue a certificate saying that the PML-N leadership shall get the same VIP treatment in paradise as the PPP. Maybe the Sharif-led government thought that lifting the ban would make religious extremists furious and bring them out on the streets. They may have forgotten that once our pure Muslims brothers are on the roads and streets, they consider it their religious duty to loot shops. Any property that cannot be looted, they set on fire. It should have refused to be blackmailed and talked directly to their mysterious masters.
Banning Youtube in the name of Islam is no different from the practices of the Taliban, who mask their criminal activities with sharia. The ban on Youtube is, in fact, only to deprive people of their constitutional right to access information and express their opinion freely and independently. Mr Sharif has a proven tendency towards civil dictatorship and wishes to keep media and state institutions under his thumb. In his last tenure he unsuccessfully tried to crush a media group and the Supreme Court (SC) was attacked by his party’s hoodlums. After passing the so-called Protection of Pakistan bill in the National Assembly, he once again proves that everything changes except the nature of man. To keep the media on his side, he continues to reward journalists with offices and ambassadorships.
YouTube, on the other hand, is difficult to control but easy to block. Even if we believe just for a moment that the site is restricted due to a specific blasphemous video, if it was not in the interest of the government to chain Youtube, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) could block the video links. Now, assume again that the PTA technicians were not able to block the links and to completely chain the site was the only option. Even in this case, the government should have lifted the ban when Google removed the video under the orders of a US court. Or, at least when Shazia Marri submitted the resolution to lift the ban, the matter should not have been delayed. So we are left with nothing else to believe except that for some unknown reason our democratic governments feel threatened by the exercise of free expression in the country, as it is by the establishment of local government institutions.
The local government system plays a vital role in strengthening democratic norms among people. It allows people to set their agenda and decide how to distribute economic resources. It empowers the masses. However, it also means that in the presence of local government institutions, politicians in Lahore and Islamabad will not receive development funds and new leadership will emerge from these institutions. Hence there are unlimited hurdles in the way of local government.
The internet has given people a new level of freedom and a higher degree of access to information. YouTube is not just a video sharing website, it is a platform. In addition to entertainment, it also offers a great deal of knowledge. If you wish to enhance your computer knowledge, it is there to help. If you wish to listen to Islamic scholars, you can do so. It is not just a website but a multimedia library. It has a great number of videos about computer programming, software development, current affairs, technology and other topics. Therefore, the ban is as illogical as Ishaq Dar’s statement that the mysterious arrival of $ 1.5 billion in the national treasury was a gift with no strings attached.
Realistically speaking, it is nonsense to ban any website. There are proxy websites that are specially developed for people living in countries where the internet is censored. Smartphones are full of free applications that help unblock sites. Some are specially programmed for YouTube. Our government can learn from the example of Turkey where the government blocked Twitter and by the evening of the same day people found ways to continue tweeting. If a government cannot implement a decision, there is no point issuing the orders and becoming a laughing stock. However, even if our politicians and religious scholars are really concerned about the presence of blasphemous material in cyberspace, banning the sites and chaining the internet is illogical. Instead, with logic and argument, our scholars should talk and convince the global community, representatives of our government should raise the issue at the international forums like the United Nations and work with the world to discourage and control blasphemous material. However, since that requires lots of hard work and does not offer material gain neither our government nor our scholars will do anything in this regard. Let us hope that soon the day will come when the internet will truly be free and YouTube unchained.
( This column is published in Daily Times on April 13, 2014 )
( This article, published at Daily Times Pakistan on April 6, 2014, examines the state of freedom of expression and speech in Pakistan. )
The Death of Dialogue in Pakistan
Written by Qasir M. Chaudhry
Freedom of expression is as central to a democratic society as the Sharif family is to the PML-N. It is the essence of any democratic system and thus enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan. Practically, it seems to be the last thing our governments and leaders care about. This is the only item of the agenda where major political parties find themselves on the same page; the less the people have the opportunity to express their thoughts freely, the better.
But, the problem with the democratic system of the government is that it needs certain ingredients to prosper. It is the dialogue among horizontal and vertical layers of the society which brings different groups and classes in harmony to achieve common objectives. An effective dialogue can not occur if the participants do not have a chance to share views without any fear.
For an effective dialogue among various layers of the society, freedom of speech and expression is a primary requirement, among others. If we take into account continuous and repetitive attacks on media personalities and opinion makers, it is no secret that speaking the truth and expressing an opinion is becoming more and more difficult. During the PPP government, under the visionary leadership of Mr. Zardari, the fundamental human right of expression and speech was badly exposed to the Talibanized justice.
During the tenure of the last government, standards of cowardice reached new and record heights. Unlike the current government , it was very focused and clear headed. It had one point agenda, to complete its tenure for five years. The rest, country included, could go to hell. And it did.
Salman Taseer, former Governor of Punjab, had a personality quite opposite to most of his fellow politicians. He was bold, outspoken, visionary and brave. He had his own opinion and was never shy to share it. Like the majority of educated Pakistanis his understanding of Zia’s introduced laws, under Islamic labels, was different from those of extremist outfits. But, unlike most of the Pakistani intelligentsia, he said it loud and clear. In addition he went out of the way to support a Christian lady, who was charged with blasphemy, but in fact seemed innocent to him. When his own bodyguard showered bullets on him and took his life, the PPP leadership was completely lost. His killing in January 2011 was followed by the murder of Shehbaz Masih, Minister for Minority Affairs. Both these people could have been heroes for the party which would have steered the course of events in the right direction, but the party leadership threw these high profile sacrifices in the dust bin, completely surrendered before extremists and became focused on its single point agenda. Thus, at the end of the five year term, freedom of expression and speech was already in a critical stage and on a ventilator.
In the general election of 2013 the soul of the PPP took the body of the PML-N, which emerged as victorious. The first thing the Nawaz led government did was to renounce all promises made during the election campaign. Then, it shook hands with enemies of any sort of freedom and removed freedom of speech from the ventilator. The patient succumbed to death immediately. The authorities might have recorded the time of death, but it was not communicated to the general public which still believes it to be alive. This corpse now lies in some unknown morgue in Lahore. In the darkness of an unmarked night the coffin of freedom of speech will be interred deep in the soil. The nation is proud to be blessed with a free and awake media, but still no one knows who gave 1.5 billion dollars to Pakistan and why. Thus, in all likelihood, the nation will never know when the death of freedom of speech occurred, the time it was buried and where.
The incumbent family dictatorship, which insists on being considered a legitimate democratic government, came into power facing major challenges such as terrorism, religious extremism, power shortage, rising inflation and unemployment, all requiring immediate measures. To curb terrorism and improve the law and order situation in Karachi the government came up with its best policy of action, do nothing at all. Then, it started operations in Karachi. To this day, both the operations and killing of innocents is going hand in hand. To tackle extremism and the Talibans, it came up with another excellent policy; beg terrorists for talks. Now both sides are playing at negotiations to arrive at already obvious results. If the government does not want to live with such paradoxes, then the question it is facing is quite simple. Can we allow any person or group to use force to impose their so called Islam on a population of 180 million?
However, like its predecessors, either our political leadership lacks the guts to address ruthless challenges or it is pondering on how to benefit from a Talibanized state. Our religious leadership, on the other hand, is doing even worse. The nation is facing a direct threat to its existence of integrity, while our scholars of the Islamic Ideological Council are telling husbands that they do not need to seek permission from the first wife to re-marry. In addition, IIC also says that Islam does not put an age limit for the marriage of a girl. And, in the name of Islam, we are being forced to accept such interpretations as they are. Any question or difference of opinion can put us on the wrong side.
If our leadership is in a confused state then the Taliban and their sympathizers, quite clear about their objectives, are constantly moving forward to materialize the differences between civil and military relationships and to divide the nation further. Those scholars who differ with the Taliban’s interpretations of Islam and whose opinion mattered have either left the country or been killed. Those who still live in Pakistan are under threat, like writers, media and politicians. At this moment only those who express the same values and ideas as the Talibans remain safe.
At the start of this year, in January, the famous columnist and playwright Asghar Nadeem Syed was attacked. He received two wounds, but survived. Some days ago, unknowns fired on the car of a famous TV anchorman and senior analyst, Raza Rumi. His driver succumbed to injuries and his bodyguard, although injured, survived the attack. Very "active after incident" chief minister Punjab Shehbaz Sharif asked for the report of the event, but it is an open secret that the report will be lost under an unattended pile of waiting reports, and the murderers will never be caught. However, the message for other writers is loud and clear; if they revisit their views they could be the next target.
To ensure the free expression of opinion is a sacred duty of every democratic government. While interring the coffin of dialogue and freedom of speech deep in the ground our rulers today must not forget that sooner or later the fire will reach their bodies too. The government of the PPP refused to learn this. If they had then today the son of Yousuf Raza Gilani, former PM of Pakistan, would not be under arrest by extremists, and Bilawal Bhutto, chairperson of PPP, would not have had to cancel his visit to Lahore. Benazir Bhutto used to say that democracy is the best revenge. Our current rulers have the chance to learn from other's mistakes and respect the democratic norms. If they refuse, democracy will take its revenge.
As I put my first step inside the world famous cathedral of Notre Dame, I wondered if I would have thought to visit this church, like many other tourists, had Victor Hugo not written his famous novel called ‘Notre Dame de Paris’. After all, there are lots of Cathedrals within the city of Paris, and I do not know many of them. Anyway, the church of Notre Dame has its own air of magnificence which attracts the visitors from all over the world.
I had long been undecided whether I should pay my respects to the said church but I was not disappointed by my visit itself. One of my friend happened to visit this church and for him the interior of the church was nothing but a complete disappointment. He then took the pain of practically discouraging all of acquaintances to pay for a visit, a sort of viral de-marketing one can say. However, in my case, the results of interior were quite on the contrary. Amazed with the architecture of the church, I was also overwhelmed by the feeling of calmness and tranquility.
I am well aware of the fact that pictures and videos do not substitute a real visit, but I am confident that following pictures and videos will help you an idea of the interior and when you will be actually visiting this place, your eyes will be ready to delve into further details.