Of blasphemy, Facebook and terrorism —Imtiaz Alam

Times are horrifying in this land of the pure and a chaotic world around. A “satire” protesting censoring of an episode of ‘South Park’ by Comedy Central turned viral, forcing the irreverent cartoonist to take refuge behind opposing censorship in a most inappropriate manner. A section of the aggrieved Muslims, especially Pakistanis, took it as sacrilegious and demanded a blanket censorship not just on Facebook but also the internet, an uncontrollable arena of freedom of expression. The supposed casualty on both sides of the divide is freedom of expression, which has nevertheless found ways that cannot be overwhelmed.

Sensing a rage among the Pakistanis over blasphemy, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Punjab, struck against two worship places in the heart of Lahore, killing over 90 Ahmedis, whom they consider heretics, and on a day that falsely reminds us of the existence of our ultimate security weapon that was not meant to rescue the lives of the innocent. Such is the interplay of diverse forces having, ironically, the same impact: of frenzy, intolerance and censorship, which cannot last for too long, even if the remnants of a medieval age provide the motivation and escape from the future.

The issues may appear ideological and reflect a broader and deeper divide within the Muslim world and the world at large. But whether it is blasphemy or a ban on Facebook or TTP Punjab’s show of a strong arm in Lahore, they all represent an aggression against the democratic values of tolerance and respect for the rights of others. The judiciary and the executive — least concerned about the citizens’ right to know, express and make their own choices — competed in clamping down censorship on the most vibrant arena of information, communication and dialogue of the 21st century and, ironically, with the 19th century’s crude weapons of suppression. They failed to achieve any of the desired objectives as hundreds of thousands of impious pages continue to exist on the internet and no PTA, judge, cleric or policeman can have any control over the unmitigated ocean of cyberspace. By imposing a ban on Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia and other internet sites, the authorities have not only played into the hands of a vicious intolerant fringe but have also denied the right to choose and freedom of expression to their citizens.

What the initiators of the site “Citizens against citizens against humour” did not realise was that their offensive pursuit to test the scope of their freedom of expression will directly result in the drastic curtailment of freedom of expression elsewhere. Nor did they have any civilised sense of not hurting the religious sentiments of others. Their expression was insensitive towards the sacred feelings of Muslims and was seen as a part of the racist demonisation of the followers of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by those who have a history of doing injustice to the Muslims and their lands. This could only reinforce those in the Muslim world who are bent upon making the Muslim masses a hostage to their infantile and uncivilised disorder.

Those who have reacted against the impious site in Pakistan had all the right to do so, preferably through the same means also available to them. However, by giving death calls and the call for jihad against the infidels they have only proved the point by the blasphemers that the Muslims are “intolerant and barbaric”. By demanding to close down the internet, which has various other useful sites, they were in fact asking to close the doors of information, communication, knowledge and business on them. Already the Muslim world is in the grip of backwardness and indignation; the suicidal course adopted by the protesters was nothing but self-defeating. You do not burn a library for a book you may not like nor close down the entire Facebook for a page you have all the right not to access or use cyberspace to exercise your right to reply. Those who protested on the streets were those who are mainly IT have-nots or exploited the internet only to push their fascist agenda.

Unfortunately, large sections of the electronic media and the Urdu press were carried away by the populist sentiment and engaged in a counter-hate campaign, not realising that they were undermining the very basis of their profession by demanding a ban on Facebook, which can still be accessed through indirect routes. They also forgot that by joining forces with the extremists they were not only jeopardising their future but also lending a helping hand to those who proclaim that democracy, modern civilisation, development and freedom are incompatible with their inverse version of an otherwise tolerant faith.

Against this backdrop of ideological backlash, the radical vanguard of this reactionary ideology, TTP Punjab, unleashed terror on the worshipers of a minority in Lahore that is not even allowed to call their place of worship a mosque and is forbidden under the constitution and the law not to pronounce themselves Muslim or call their kalma as kalma. We do not have the right to protest against the transgression of a misguided cartoonist against our faith if we do not allow the same right to our minorities to protest the agony of not being allowed to practice what they believe. Since the first anti-Ahmediyya movement, passage of the 4th Amendment and promulgation of the Qadiyani Ordinance by General Ziaul Haq, a witch-hunt of the Ahmedis continues unabated. If certain westerners are not sensitive to our feelings, and we rightly protest, we too are insensitive towards our minorities or those we do not agree with us and we do not even allow them the right to challenge the injustice done to them.

Perhaps the TTP Punjab in its first owned terrorism targeted the Ahmedis with the hope that it may win the sympathies of those who consider it a right to kill them (wajib-ul-qatal). But they must have been disappointed with the sympathy the people at large expressed for the victims of terrorism who are our fellow citizens. But by openly targeting Lahore, the TTP has given a loud message of their lethal existence in Punjab. The Punjabi terrorists were sent from North Waziristan and who stayed at Raiwind put to shame those who have been in a state of denial about their existence in Punjab and acting as their apologists.

The politics of fanning religious frenzy on the basis of sectarianism, blasphemy and fighting infidels is intrinsically linked to creating an environment for breeding nurseries of terrorism and promoting vigilantism. It creates a culture of intolerance that is inimical to all democratic values. It is not a matter of an ideological battle between the liberals and the rightists; it is a matter of keeping democratic values above all considerations. If the scourge of terrorism is to be eliminated, it can only be done by defeating their fascist ideology and subscribing to undiluted democratic and civilised values.

Imtiaz Alam is Editor South Asian Journal. He can be reached at imtiazalampak@yahoo.com

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