Are you ashamed of being secular? – by Ahmad Nadeem Gehla

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Social media is playing a vital role as a medium of communication which promotes critical thinking, sharing of new ideas and tolerance for dissenting opinions. Critical thinking includes identification of prejudice, propaganda, deception, distortion and disinformation fed to individuals or masses in disguise of genuine. Yesterday I came across an interesting stats up-date by Governor Punjab, Sulaman Taseer on his Twitter page. It read, ” The worst thing about a society permeated with religious fanatics, fundamentalists and extremest is that they make you ashamed of being normal.” Has media in Pakistan been successful in educating youth to the extent that they does not feel ashamed for being normal?

Information available to people in times of dictatorships, was manipulated, censored and most of the times rather purely disinformation, distortion and propaganda. But they were lucky to have the older generation of political workers, intellectuals, poets and media personals. Despite all atrocities of dictatorship, these selfless political workers, poets and intellectuals considered it as their duty to help youth in critical analysis of available information. This lead us to have the constitution of 1973, a social contract, which promised equity before law and protection of life, honour and property for every citizen.

After the judicial murder of elected Prime Minister ZA Bhutto, countless sacrificed their lives resisting the hypocritical Islamic rule of Zia ul Haq and religious bigotry introduced by the dictator. They were not relatives of Bhutto, or any other progressive or a secular leader. Most of them even might had never met Bhutto and majority of them had no aspirations for getting in to parliament. Certainly, another attraction – the culture of plots, Prado’s and getting incompetent relatives recruited on profitable posts had not yet infested the society.

The strength of these great mean and women was – their ideology. A commitment and passion for a just society, free of in-equality and exploitation. A society where rich doesn’t get richer and poor does not get poorer, where no one commits suicide because of hunger and no one is killed for having a different belief. A moderate, liberal and secular Pakistan where resources belong to people and the’ social contract’ called constitution guarantees equal opportunity and protection as a ‘welfare state’.

The biggest crime of Zia ul Haq, Judiciary and Establishment was to kill Bhutto and promote intolerance, extremism and violence. Even without a leader ideological movements continue and can survive the state atrocities. The Dictator’s most henious crime was to persecute the political workers, intellectuals, poets, writers and those who believed on critical thinking. The liberal, progressive and secular news papers, magazines and news-letters were banned. The political workers were executed, countless intellectuals, scholars and poets were tortured and imprisoned while others fled the country.

This persecution, shut the doors for critical thinking and youth had no option except to believe on distorted history taught in public institutions, propaganda of dishonest state sponsored intellectuals and interpretation of religion by political Mullah’s. The terrorists blowing themselves in streets, the extremists burning the minority villeges, the sectarian violent group labeling and killing others as ‘infidels’ does not fall from skies. They are produce of the system where critical thinking becomes a crime, difference of opinion becomes intolerable and religion becomes a tool for ‘generating infidels’ rather than preaching peace. Asking for a just, tolerant, secular and liberal society became synonymous to ‘infidelity’, as per Political Mullah’s interpretation and preachings. The ritual replaced the morality and illiterate violent extremists became the custodian of religion of peace and it continues until today.

The technological revolution and growth of social media have once again opened these doors which no dictatorship can reverse. This is an age of ‘over-information’ as compared to the times back when there was lack of information. But still we are not out of wood, along with information comes disinformation. The corporate media giants depend on revenues from their ‘sponsors’ and these sponsors have their corporate interests. In `capitalism as a religion’, Walter Benjamin characterizes capitalism not only as a phenomenon that is `influenced’ by religion, as conventional sociological interpretations assume, but as one of `essentially religious’ character.

This mix of religion and corporate profits in a capitalist society becomes more dangerous than censorship of some dictator. An alternate is social media and internet, but in underdeveloped country like Pakistan, internet is not accessible to masses, which depend on distortions and disinformation of corporate media giants. Despite the fact that social media in Pakistan is limited to relatively small number of educated youth, it can still play the role of opinion-maker and promote ‘critical thinking’.

In past, when young educated Pakistani’s started blogging, they met with strong resistance from forces of status-quo. However, threats, technical attacks, hate-mails and ‘fatwas’ were not enough to stop the new born communication system in a global village. We have several blogs wich have higher number of visitors than most of English dailies published in country. There are think-tanks and online forums along with social media sites like Facebook and Twitter with huge Pakistani youth presence to interact and exchange views. This has become an effective counter measure against the forces which thrive on distortions, manipulation and exploitation in name of religion through corporate media.

Social media which was supposed to be a tool for promotion of ‘critical thinking’ in educate masses, has mistakenly taken ‘criticism’ as their major objective. This misunderstanding is not only causing confusion but also indirectly strengthening those who preach hatred and think democracy and secularism as an ‘infidel conspiracy against the pure’. Criticizing the government in power is always a favorite, not only in third world but also in developed countries. Those in power in elected governments in Pakistan are no angels but the ‘criticism’ being two fold sword is also being used by forces of ‘status-quo’ and religious fanatics against democracy, secularism and tolerance.

The gap still continue and even educated youth would jump on bandwagon of religious fanatics or switch to sermons of some intellectual selling spicy conspiracy theories with distorted facts. Even in this age of information, most of them lack the ability to ‘critically analyse’ the information to understand the simple words like secularism, equality and tolerance. Just because their ‘favorite man on ‘show’ has told them that these are ‘infidel conspiracies” to bring down Pakistan and take away its nuclear weapons. This lack of critical thinking in educating masses and espacially the youth is the biggest failure on part of reasonably dveloped social media in country.

This does not mean that social media should not criticize the government or stop voicing their concerns about influx of feudal, industrialists and business tycoons in political parties. The government policies should be criticized, the governance and rule of law must be called in to questioned. At the same time it is responsibility of social media to educate youth to enable them to think and analyse rather than becoming followers of some ‘celebrity’ . By mixing the ‘criticism’ and ‘critical thinking’, social media has been unable to educate youth to a level where they can proudly say that we want a secular, liberal and democratic society. A state of confidence – when they are not ashamed of being ‘normal’ and able to reject the ideology of Zia-ul-Haq of making them slaves to interpretation of religion by extremist Mullah.

We have to differentiate in ‘criticism’ from being ‘critical’, the former an ”action’ and the later an ‘ability’ to evaluate’ information and convert that information in to knowledge. That Knowledge will give us the confidence for standing up for a society which is based on justice and equality. The same strength youth needs more than ever before to counter extremism and achieve a liberal, secular and democratic society. We have to reject the Mullah’s interpretation of principles which are basis of ‘social contract’ in a just society and evaluate these principles ‘critically’. Are you ashamed of being a ‘critical thinking’ liberal, secular and democrat?



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