Looking for a measured response

Mikail Lotia May 28, 2010

The last time I wrote in these pages I was advocating for a soft power offensive on the part of Pakistan to advance the national image and agenda abroad. It’s a pity that the powers-that-be didn’t consider that kind of approach to Facebookgate, because the ham-fisted stance that they’ve decided to take is not helping anyone.

Hundreds of internet sites have been capriciously blocked in Pakistan, leaving citizens clueless, pious and bored at work. But, as is usually the case in Pakistan, things are slowly returning to normal. Within a week of the crisis access has been restored to (the non-blasphemous parts of) YouTube and Wikipedia, among others.

But what has anyone gained?

When the government heard about the Facebook page that sparked off this censorship spree, it could have sent a measured, dignified message to Facebook and the world, eloquently arguing for the removal of the offending page.  Behind the scenes another message could have been sent, saying the sooner the better, lest protests in Pakistan get out of hand.

Best case scenario: the page is instantly removed, the Pakistani government is applauded at home for taking decisive action, and respected abroad for its deft handling of a powder keg situation.

Worst case scenario: the page is not removed, the government bans the offensive pages, and announces a programme to protect the interests of internet users in Pakistan by censoring specific cases of blasphemous content, inviting people to report offenders to the PTA. Each suspect website will be scrutinised by a panel of scholars and then banned if deemed blasphemous.

But instead we charged into the fray, Rambo style, taking down Facebook and hundreds of innocent bystanders in our wake.  In the bloody aftermath, the image of Pakistan stands tarnished. Some people now believe that our leadership is dismissive of human rights, wielding the sword of censorship with a heavy hand. Others may believe that we are a xenophobic state, quick to anger and potentially dangerous to those who don’t fully understand us. It’s a lose-lose situation.

Now, the focus isn’t on Facebook and why the offensive page was allowed to exist for so long, particularly when other pages similarly insulting to other faiths and people have been removed.  The focus is on Pakistan and why our response has been the wrong one.  I’ve read many articles, citing stories from Islamic religious history, that teach Muslims to use a soft hand in dealing with those who belittle and ridicule them. These stories always end with a dignified victory. It’s hard to see that outcome for us now. Instead, the internet, a vital tool for the modern world, has been blunted in Pakistan. Imagine an encyclopedia with pages missing.  That’s a dangerous tool, inadequate and misleading. We deserve better.

Published in the Express Tribune, May 29th, 2010.