Sometimes it seems that blasphemy, its perpetration, and its perpetrators, are the only subjects worthy of discussion in the Land of the Pure. Forget grinding poverty, abysmal social indicators, inept governance, and rampant militancy; the biggest issue confronting the citizens of Pakistan is the alleged blasphemy committed by people on social media. The latest crusade against blasphemous content posted online has been launched by Justice Shaukat Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court, and comes in the wake of the social media smear campaign that baselessly accused Salman Haider, and the other bloggers who went missing earlier this year, of running Facebook pages that hosted material denigrating Islam. With tears of unadulterated religious fervour literally streaming down his face, and after suggesting that liberals and blasphemers were worse than terrorists who commit the comparatively minor sin of mercilessly butchering innocent men, women, and children, Justice Siddiqui directed the government to do everything in its power to eliminate blasphemous content online, going so far as to suggest that all social media be banned in the country. Furthermore, he has also demanded that steps be taken to incorporate pornography and blasphemy in the recently enacted Cybercrime Bill; that there are already laws and measures in place to deal with these issues, and that legislation is the job of parliament and not the courts, are facts that the honourable judge clearly deemed inconsequential.
Predictably enough, the government has been tripping over itself to welcome the High Court’s directives. After all, every minute spent talking blasphemy is a minute that is not spent focusing on issues like, for instance, the Panama Leaks or the recent resurgence of terror attacks. The court has also provided the government with yet another opportunity to ingratiate itself with the religious right by launching a countrywide witch-hunt against alleged blasphemers; the Federal Investigation Agency has published advertisements in newspapers asking concerned citizens to report people who have blasphemed on the internet, and the government has announced that it is working with Facebook and other social media companies to more effectively monitor and regulate the content viewed and published in Pakistan’s borders.
A decade ago, the spread of information technology around the world was welcomed by techno-utopians as an irreversible wave of progress that would strengthen and deepen democracy by providing people with the tools through which to hold their governments accountable. It was believed that misinformation, censorship, and propaganda would become things of the past as an increasingly connected citizenry, plugged into countless streams of data traversing the world unimpeded by the constraints imposed by borders and geography, would possess the means to produce, share, and acquire more knowledge about their lives and the actions of their governments. Even more optimistic prognosticators felt that the internet would be a great leveller, eliminating ancient and irrational forms of racial, religious, ethnic, and cultural prejudice by finally bringing the world together as one big melting pot of ideas and identities. Old certainties would wither away through the free exchange of information.
There was some merit to these ideas, and it cannot be denied that the Internet and its attendant technologies have profoundly transformed the ways in which people learn, collaborate, and act. But, the idealism of the past must now give way to the sobering realisation that while information technology may have empowered citizens in many new and exciting ways, it has also done the some for states, providing them with a range of mechanisms through which to more effectively propagate their narratives, pursue their agendas, and target dissent. The issue of blasphemy in Pakistan is a good case in point. The cacophonous arena of social media, which is known to reinforce biases and harden, rather than undermine, beliefs, has long been used to promote the state’s ideological agenda, either through the direct use of this space by the government and its agencies, or through the efforts of partisan citizens who align themselves with the powers-that-be. Far from being characterized by pluralistic debate, social media today is home to a preponderance of echo chambers, many of which are populated by precisely the same kinds of parochial conservatives the idealists of the past hoped would be transformed into more tolerant and cosmopolitan liberals. More insidiously, by providing the illusion of anonymity and freedom, the internet lulled many into believing that their speech on social media, often within echo chambers of their own, could exist without the interference or attentions of the state.
We now know that is not the case; under the guise of defending Islam from its imagined enemies, the state and its supporters in society will make use of these very technologies to persecute and attack all who disagree with them. This is precisely why there was so much opposition to the Cybercrime Bill in the first place, and why it is imperative that the technological powers being appropriated by the state be subjected to rigorous scrutiny. While many are correct to point out that banning content on the Internet is futile since such measures are not difficult to circumvent, preventing people from accessing objectionable content has never really been the aim of such measures. Instead, it has always been about power – the power to produce and police opinions. As has always been the case in Pakistan, Islam continues to be used as a political tool; by the government to shore up its legitimacy and expand its powers, by political entrepreneurs on the religious right to mobilise supporters, by militants and terrorists who invoke it to justify their atrocities, and by those elements of the establishment who have long sought to weaponise religion in their pursuit of diplomacy and war.
Meanwhile the people of Pakistan continue to be played for fools, cynically manipulated by those who claim to lead them in the name of religion. Why give them bread when you can feed them dogma and bigotry?