The Internet Under Attack in Pakistan


*Originally published on Fair Observer

It has been two months since Mashal Khan’s brutal murder. Amid great shock and outrage, many hoped that this would mark a turning point for things to change in Pakistan. Things had to change after this, they believed.

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And indeed there has been a change. There is now official license and pursuit for replications of the ghastly incident: a social-media witch-hunt and increased crackdown on alleged incidents of blasphemy and dissent.

Last month, text messages from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority began circulating nation-wide warning that “uploading and sharing of blasphemous content on internet is a punishable offence under the law” and calling for such content to “be reported for legal action.”

Rather than adopting caution and carefully defusing the growing incitement and agitation over blasphemy, especially after such an appalling incident, the government has decided to vigorously charge right into it by actively encouraging the use of the blasphemy law and expanding its stretch to social media.

THE RULE OF LAW

A few weeks back, the first death sentence for blasphemy on social media was handed to 30-year old Taimoor Raza by an anti-terrorism court. The allegations of blasphemy emerged after Raza engaged in an online Facebook debate on Islam with an individual who later turned out to be a counter-terrorism agent. The sentence was given by an anti-terrorism court and should occasion debate about the bizarre logic of an anti-terrorism court dealing with cases of blasphemy and its subsequent implication of blasphemy being tantamount to terrorism.

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Since the past few years, the internet and social media in Pakistan have surfaced as vital spaces for expression of critical views of the state, the government and discourse on various issues confronting the country, especially those that are deemed sensitive or left uncovered the media such as Balochistan, attacks on religious minorities and the Blasphemy Law itself. These were spaces long considered safe from the eye and intervention of the state and government; and free from the taboos prevalent otherwise regarding such subjects.

The disappearance of six prominent social activists and bloggers earlier this year, however, shattered this illusion. And the recent series of developments have only served to cement the realization that the internet is no longer safe but at the center of a dangerous witch-hunt and crackdown on dissent.

The creeping state spotlight on social media has been given a more threatening tint by the association of blasphemy with it.

It is also important to remember that after their disappearance and recovery, blasphemy accusations were hurled at the bloggers, which indicates increasing pervasiveness of blasphemy accusations for silencing people and for justifying harrowing acts like disappearances.

MISAPPLICATIONS

One of the strongest criticisms of the blasphemy law pertain to its use for personal schemes of vengeance, vendettas, petty conflicts and property disputes. But rather than curtailing the blasphemy law’s use and abuse, an official invitation and initiative for its use on social media only expands the potential for them. It must also be noted that the internet and social media are murky waters where, among other things, fake profiles, harassment and stalking abound and the possibilities of framing people can easily arise in relation to both concoctions of blasphemous content in someone’s name and harming them on that basis. The numerous profiles posting blasphemous content under the name of Mashal Khan that came into view after his death only attest to this. Navigating such a territory for the government will not be an easy task and poses peril for Pakistani internet-users. 

The danger of an increasing emphasis on blasphemy on social media and the punitive measures designed against it lapsing into a clampdown on dissent and criticism of powerful segments of the country is also not insignificant. And while these developments may be attributed to the influence or strength of the religious right, the existence of draconian laws, and the age-old aversion of the political and military establishment to criticism, but the pivotal role played by the Interior Ministry in actively creating these developments can no longer be discounted.

nisarThe Interior Minister’s constant pandering and cavorting with extremists and sectarian leaders is common knowledge. Recently, however, he has also taken to stress upon a number of sensitive issues to create a case for greater internet censorship and control. His efforts have included invocation of the sentiments underlying the Blasphemy Law, warnings of bans on sites with blasphemous content, instructions to the Federal Investigation Agency to act against “those dishonoring the Pakistan Army through social media” and announcements of new rules and measures against online anonymity. These have not been without significance.

Only a short while back, some social media activists and supporters of the opposition party PTI and even supporters of the PML-N were detained by the FIA on the basis of the fresh instructions to the FIA and the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crime Act.

A report in the Guardian on the matter quotes an FIA saying that “his agency had orders from the interior ministry to interrogate, and seize laptops and phones, without warrant” and that they were “authorized to detain anyone, just on suspicion.” An allegedly official list with the names of social media users and activists who are being monitored for their comments against “national institutions” also did the rounds on Twitter.

The surging tide of these developments and the proliferation of these problematic measures and repressive acts involve dangerous ramifications upon which suggest an increasingly bleak future for free speech, public criticism and opposition in the country. They also demonstrate the weakness of the government’s commitment to public freedoms and its own democratic credentials.

This suffocation of spaces for robust debate, dissent and a healthy discourse by the cultivation of a climate of fear is certain to foster intimidation, harassment, abuse, and violence. After Mashal Khan, it seems the Pakistani government itself has stepped in to lead attacks under the cover and with the cudgel of blasphemy but for the purpose of clobbering dissent, freedom and opposition.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Narrowing Spaces


*Originally published in Daily Times. Slightly longer version below:

Pakistan seems to be caught in a constant movement of one step forward and two steps backward.

Earlier this year, the disappearance of six prominent social activists and bloggers, who were critical of the state and establishment, sent shockwaves through the civil society. Their recovery was a cause of relief, however the message of their disappearances to the rest of the activist community was hard to miss: quieten or be silenced.

Recently, activist and academic Dr Riaz Ahmed was arrested during a protest on the charges of possessing an illicit weapon allegedly found in his vehicle. Regardless of the dubious charges, it is important to know that the paramilitary force officer, on whose complaint the case was registered against Dr. Riaz, did not fail to mention that the professor was also “involved in advocating on Facebook for the release of ‘blasphemous’ bloggers reportedly picked up by law enforcement agencies recently.”

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The allegations of blasphemy have permanently jeopardized the lives of the recovered bloggers, but that those who demanded and protested for their release are now also considered tainted, and their lives subsequently endangered, is a disturbing sign.

In March, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Holi address to the Hindu community in Karachi garnered surprise and praise from several sections of the population for whom it embodied the progressive acceptance, inclusivity, pluralism, and tolerance that should be at the heart of Pakistan.

While the PM’s speech may have ignited a flicker of hope regarding some modicum of a progressiveness in the government’s orientation, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar was swift to emerge as the moral crusader of the hour, second only to Justice Shaukat Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court, to snuff it with the threat of blocking all social media sites in the country which host blasphemous content.

But relevant to this matter, and to the larger phenomenon of Pakistani political parties’ usual pandering and patronizing of the religious right and extremist organizations, is the late Eqbal Ahmad’s incisive analysis in which he wrote:

“Pakistan’s is an ideologically ambiguous polity; here, political paeans to Islam have served as the compensatory mechanism for the ruling elite’s corruption, consumerism and cow-towing to the west. As a consequence, the ideologically fervent Islamist minority keeps an ideological grip on the morally insecure and ill-formed power elite. It is this phenomenon that explains the continued political clout of the extremist religious minority even as it has been all but repudiated by the electorate. Yet, horrors escalate by the day, and neither their original sponsors, nor the victims are doing much about it.”

However, Chaudhry Nisar’s reported statement in Dawn regarding the social media ban, that “no country can allow religious sentiments to be hurt or top state functionaries to be subjected to ridicule the pretext of freedom of expression”, is telling of the other objectives the ban would clearly serve. That the “ridicule” of state and government officials can be swept by a ban ostensibly related to religion indicates the enduring convenience of religion as a useful prop for Pakistani politics and the state itself.

These threads of incidents and developments tie into the thriving reality of an increasingly and dangerously shrinking and narrowing space for freedom of expression, criticism, dissent and protest in Pakistan. It is a space constantly threatened and stifled by religious obscurantism, extremism and state’s growing intolerance of dissent. Activists, students, bloggers, artists, academics, journalists and members of the civil society are steadily being targeted by virulent campaigns or directly arrested on dubious and fictitious reasons.

The academic spaces in the country don’t have brighter views to offer in this these days either.

C7d9RgWXgAAVP6zAt Punjab University in Lahore, the Islami Jamiat-e-Talba once again demonstrated their notorious thuggery on a Pakhtun Cultural Day event resulting in clashes and violence. It was later revealed that, in wake of this incident, the Punjab University administration had decided to ban all student programmes and events within the university premises.

This beleaguering bodes well for no one.

Earlier this year, Pankaj Mishra wrote on Vaclav Havel’s conception of a “parallel polis” and its practical construction as a source of people power against the Trump administration:

Havel saw the possibility of redemption in a politically active “civil society” (he, in fact, popularized this now-commonplace phrase).

The “power of the powerless,” he argued, resides in their capacity to organize themselves and resist “the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power.”

Active resistance is necessary because it is the moral and political indifference of demoralized, self-seeking citizens that normalizes despotic power.

As the main political parties lie in disarray, the dissident, who takes upon her own conscience the burden of political responsibility and action, rather than placing it upon professional politicians, has suddenly become a figure of immense consequence in America.

Although Mishra emphasised Havel’s idea in the current American context, it is helpful for all cornered people and their resistance against the rise of unjust power against them in other countries too, including Pakistan.

The people will have to take up their cause themselves.

The drive to homogenize Pakistan’s religious and cultural character, and to monopolize its narratives through exclusivist understandings and actual violence, has long been a project of regressive forces and the responsibility falls on ordinary citizens today to thwart its renewed attempts.

With this march of terror, fear and suppression, that draws strength from the standard repertoire of reasons such as religion, “national ideology” and “national security”, it has now become necessary for all concerned citizens to recognize this reality and organize to protect those who fight for our freedoms, and vigorously preserve the spaces and liberties we are entitled to.

Further space and freedoms must not and cannot be conceded in the face of this rising tide of regression, repression and pressure, for there is only more beyond a surrender to them.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Dissection of a Trivial Argument: Ramadan or Ramzan?


*First published on the Express Tribune Blog.

Since the last few years, the arrival of the holy month brings with itself the ignition of a debate on social media in Pakistan; at the center of which is the usage of words for the month: the Urdu word Ramzan and Arabic word Ramadan.

Some tweets explain better:

“Beena Sarwar @beenasarwar:

You can call the holy month what you want. I’ll use Ramzan, rather than the corporatised, commercialised, Arabised, westernised Ramadan.

Fazeelat Aslam @FazleetAslam

If you’re Pakistani say Ramzan. If you enjoy continuing Zia’s mission and being a lemming, please say Ramadan. #lemmings

AM‏ @delhisultan

@AneelaBabar Today we say use Ramzan, not Ramadan. Tomorrow it will be something else. Where will these social dictates take us? @bdutt

Those on left side of this schism opine that usage of Arabic instead of Urdu words are a constituent of Arabic cultural imperialism and religious rigidity in Pakistan; commenting sarcastically how the country’s name itself should be changed to Al-Bakistan (The Arabic language doesn’t contain ‘P’ in it.)

While those on the right argue for using Arabic words to keep to ‘proper’ religious linguistics or holding onto Pakistan’s Islamic heritage; often ‘correcting’ other’s greeting of Ramzan to Ramdan.

An article in Guardian titled ‘In Pakistan, saying Goodbye can be a religious statement’ on a similar Khuda-Hafiz/Allah-Hafiz issue, says:

‘Until about 10 years ago “Khuda hafiz”, which means “God protect you”, was the phrase commonly used to say goodbye. But, in the past decade, “Khuda hafiz” began to be overtaken by a new term “Allah hafiz.

While languages change and evolve with time, and Pakistan certainly has bigger problems such as corruption and militancy, the alteration has unsettled liberals in Pakistan, who say it reflects a wider change in the country’s cultural landscape.

The promotion of “Allah hafiz” first began in the 1980s under the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq when Pakistan was involved in the US- Saudi-backed jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.’

The belief that this ‘religious linguistic propriety’, which included the introduction of ‘Allah Hafiz’ and ‘Ramadan’ in Pakistan’s lingual fashion, began with Zia’s campaign of cultural Islamisation does hold truth. It has inevitably led to these (words, phrases) to be seen symbolic of the infamous General’s Islamification drive or ‘Saudization‘ of Pakistan; which is the cause of many liberals and progressive-minded people objecting to their use today.

Although it is a question of precedence of subjects that needs to be reconsidered by them because Zia’s ideological influence is at its most dangerous when it exists from our madrassas, mindsets to our constitution, not in mere words or phrases.

Despite that, it is important to realize that with the flight of decades; these words became incorporated into the nation’s lingo and style of speaking in a manner that they are now viewed and used as ordinary as any other ones (for most); regardless or unknown of and removed from their background of Islamisation/Arabisation of the linguistic culture. This is particularly true for the young generation of today; that was either born in the 80s or grew up in an age where they were unable to notice the process of lingual transformation that was being attempted through a state-fuelled campaign.

It is questionable whether the application of a few phrases or words cause or be a testament to some ‘rampant Arabisation’ of  Pakistan presently and to assume that all who like using the Arabic word for Ramzan are proponents of degradation of Pakistan’s own, distinct culture, lingual establishment and imposition of an Arab one, is preposterous.

Many use either of the words out of pure personal preference or habit. To be fair, Urdu as a language faces more threat of perishing at the hands of the colonial era inculcated sense of inferiority amongst us which has manifested itself in the ’Angraizi complex’, or the paramount significance that this society grants the English language over Urdu.

On the other hand, to believe that the occasional usage of Arabic words lends one more religiosity or ‘Muslim-ness’ is equally absurd. Those possessing this outlook need to review it, too, because respect for religion rests not in a handful of words but in actions, behaviours and attitudes.

Does addressing Allah as God make one a lesser Muslim?

Intentions behind uttering something and its essence is what matters most; words and expressions may differ.

The aforementioned points, thus, should validate how trifling the apprehensions and perceptions and their basis are for both of the groups. To be so vehemently opposed to the usage of either ‘Ramazan’ or ‘Ramadan’ by any, on the account of the stated views or any other reasons, is irrational and in contrast with good sense.

Let everyone have the freedom and choice to pick their own unit of language up, without forcing or prodding others to conform to each other’s self-defined mediums of ‘appropriate’ expressions.

The people of Pakistan need to stop making a mountain out of this molehill and quit attaching such alarmingly grand nature to it; of cultural foist and religious inaccuracy.

While Pakistan gets mired in troubles of far great and disturbing kind, debate over ’Ramazan’ or ‘Ramadan’, only gives prominence to the penchant amongst this nation with its preoccupation with the trivial.

~ Hafsa Khawaja