The Facebook ban in Pakistan has raised questions about the limits on freedom of expression and its relationship with democratic rights, reflecting the media’s capacity to shape opinions. As disinformation floods through media propagandas, the resulting perversion of knowledge sets into motion a cycle of conflict. Whilst state institutions fight the war on terror through military strength, the larger context in which this war is allowed to breed is overlooked. Increasing anti-American sentiments in Muslim societies and anti-Muslim/anti-Pakistani sentiments in the west are pushing forth a greater divide and articulating an ‘Islam vs Rest’ farce. Propagandist literature widely disseminated through popular media has allowed Muslims to be stereotyped as violent, backward and ‘anti-west’. As Muslim cultures are pushed back - or indeed themselves retreat - into isolation, these images become concretised into formal ‘knowledge’. This limited (dis)information can impact policymaking ranging on security issues to sanctioning development aid. Moreover, propagandas have created an irrational global hysteria surrounding Muslims in general and Pakistanis in particular.
Traditionally, the creation of such offensive ‘information’ and hate messages has been countered either by enraged Muslim revivalists (such as those seen leading protests against objectionable material on Facebook in Pakistan) or liberal apologists (as our young, indignant Facebook users), instead of through any meaningful epistemological debate. Reactions only serve to confirm Muslims as ‘irrational’, ‘violent’ and intrinsically anti-democratic. Whilst it is important to combat such constructions, the approach to this ought not to be to disarm one of the instruments of war but to enable its effective use towards a more sustainable end. To use social networking sites and information technology to educate the diversity and heterogeneity within an erroneously perceived homogenous Muslim culture is to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.
Simply put, in this day and age, such constant flow of dis-information and limited and useless ‘knowledge’ about cultures, as evident in the popular media in the technologically connected ‘west’- is plain embarrassing. Surely, if one can learn to make a bomb on the internet, one can learn about the key players in the global ‘crusade’, and learn to distinguish between opponents and by-standers. Militants used FM radio frequencies and religious rhetoric to garner popular support; delivering sermons that promised social justice, denying women education, forbidding TV and listening to music, and preaching anti-Americanism. Tragically, propagandist views of this ‘utopian’ Islam holds sway in the face of our ignorance of our own belief system. Despite the fact that it is expected that every Muslim child in Pakistan has or will read the Holy Quran, and that Islamic studies is part of the core curriculum of all schools, the average Muslim Pakistani can profess little authentic knowledge of the teachings of Islam. This has made the nation vulnerable to religious dogmas, woven by (more often than not, dubious) authoritative figures, be it clerics or head of states. It appears that the allegedly ‘backward’ militants are better equipped at extracting maximum benefits from the modern amnesties of globalisation to arrive at global alliances.
To give the devil its due though, the media matters. It inspired uncharacteristic efficiency from our state apparatus; from petition, to mobilisation to legal action in just two days. More significantly it permits a counter-revolution against dictatorial tendencies to breed by granting access to media channels and allowing citizens to voice dissent and a difference of opinion.
Published in the Express Tribune, May 25th, 2010.
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