Lately, I watched a video on YouTube, which I have watched hundred times since then, about a poem ‘Mori’ (Mother in Pashto language) by the great Pashtun poet-philosopher Ghani Khan that made me cry. The video intensified my care and love, which we all at times forget out of neglect, for my ageing mother in such a way that very rare occasions in life have afforded me. The lyrics, music, voice, and pictures of war and poverty-stricken Afghan mothers, just like my own, in the video had a tantalizing effect on me.
Enticed by the poem, I instantly shared it with my sister in Pakistan. But she had no access to it due to the ban on YouTube there. And this left me extremely frustrated and hopeless.
But it is not just about that as I am aware that people know alternate ways of gaining access to videos now. The issue, actually, is much bigger in scope and dangerous in consequences when looked into deeply and carefully.
In February 2008, the Pakistani government blocked the video sharing site YouTube in reaction to a controversial Dutch film that was claimed to have contained blasphemous content. The ban was lifted immediately in late February after the content was removed at the request of the government. Then, in May 2010, the site was blocked again for containing objectionable material but resumed a week later after the content was cleared. Yet, on September 17, 2012, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) blocked the site once again in response to Sam Bacile’s anti-Islamic film Innocence of Muslims that mocked Prophet Muhammad, and which the site failed to remove. Youtube remains blocked since then. Bytes for All, a non-profit organization, challenged the ban in Lahore High Court (LHC). Other efforts have also been made by the Pakistan’s Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights and the National Assembly but none has been of any avail. It seems that the website will be inaccessible to the public for an unspecified period of time, which is a big shame.
Though many have proffered political factors behind the block like election rigging videos on the site, which may not be discounted, the prime reason for closing the site has been to ‘protect’ Islam. And if we further analyze the reason behind this motive, it is very clear that the government adopts such policies owing to pressure from the mullahs and their followers who block streets and set shops, banks, and markets on fire in protests against blasphemy. But, on the other hand, there are hardly any protests from the religious establishment when hundreds are killed in sectarian violence against Shia and other religious minorities. Instead, they either try to defend violence in the name of religion or choose to remain silent, as in the case of Maulana Abdul Aziz who refused to condemn the brutal attack on Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar.
Generally the dilemma at hand in the Pakistani polity has been that the government has always given in to the nasty demands of the religious establishment. If we look back at our history, especially in the wake of late 1970s, the state has quite often accommodated the Maududi/Qutb-inspired agenda of militant Islam, compromising the right of people to free speech and choice in almost all aspects of life.
I believe that caricatures or a film of degrading nature of the Prophet is wrong and insulting. But I also believe that the reaction and policy standpoint of Pakistan in such matters is even worse. ‘Protecting’ Islam by blocking YouTube, which contains a wealth of information for all kinds of positive uses, is retrogressive.
Blocking the site for stopping profanity is not a sign of worldly wisdom. Policies such as these are a symbol of the decline of reason in a decaying society which will further shrink the space for tolerance and a civilized dissent in the country.
It is high time that our leaders put their conspiracy mongering aside and be realistic in spotting the real threat. The threat to Islam and peace in Pakistan is not from cartoons of the Prophet or a film on YouTube. It is, indeed, from religious extremists like Mumtaz Qadri, Hafiz Saeed, Malik Ishaq, and those belief systems which justify killing in the name of religion. Islam is under threat from those religious bandits who openly call Shia kafir and declare them liable to be killed. Most worryingly, the real threat is from the ilk of Justice Khawaja Sharif, his fellow-lawyers, and officers and low-rank employees of the State, critically those in security, who either back or have soft corner for criminals like Mumtaz Qadri.
YouTube is not the problem. The underlying cause of worry is the toxic, volatile, and reactive mindset at work both at the society and state levels in Pakistan. Blocking YouTube will not fix the issue. Therefore, the government should immediately lift the ban on this most useful site. That is the first thing that must be done along with taking some other crucial long-term steps.
First, we need to challenge our collective Muslim national ego, which Mobarak Haider rightly calls cultural narcissism.
Secondly, we have to learn to control and tame our anger. For that, we can find supreme examples in the Sunnah of the Prophet. We should also educate our people, particularly younger generation, about anger management and non-violence.
Thirdly, inter-communal and inter-religious harmony can thrive only when we completely replace hate speech with education for tolerance.
Most importantly, we must learn that faith is just a matter of heart and soul. No one faith is superior to others. All faith or belief systems and their followers are equal and deserve equitable respect and protection. Turning it into a source or base for eschatological or cosmic strife is itself against the very essence of faith.
In today’s world, only nations that have made tremendous progress in science and technology and art are deemed superior. Those who are indulged in proving their religious superiority lag much behind in all fields in context to global development. Goethe says, ‘He who possesses art and science has religion; he who does not possess them needs religion.’ And this is exactly what is happening to us right now.
Fourth is the revival of our tolerant culture that can accommodate unity in diversity. I argue that we were equally secular and perhaps more tolerant than the West if we look back at our history and revive our cultural heritage and the works of our poets and philosophers.
Fifth, if Pakistan wants to protect faith it should chase those who kill its nationals in mosques, Imambargahs, children in schools, female polio workers on streets, and threaten the safety of life and property of the people, particularly that of religious minorities.
Sixth, the above efforts would be meaningless unless Pakistan renews its approach in foreign policy matters. Very critical in this regard is India. The military, in particular, has to change its everything-but-India attitude. The change with regard to Afghanistan seems welcoming but we have yet to see its impact domestically and in our relations with neighbors, particularly India.
Moreover, Pakistan also seriously needs reframing its ties with Riyadh because our country has suffered a great deal already from the ambivalence of leadership about the disastrous impact of the Kingdom’s funded sectarian strife. Pressing hard on the Taliban or religious seminaries will bear no fruit until Pakistan changes the dynamics of its relations with the Saudis. In this regard the help of our ally, the US, is also critical. Joe Klein, in his recent article in the Time magazine, has also pointed out the fact that America needs to have an honest and serious conversation with the Saudis who have funded Islamic radicalism in the region and the entire Islamic world.