Not a word

Published: November 26, 2011
The writer is a lawyer and partner at Ijaz and Ijaz Co
in Lahore

The writer is a lawyer and partner at Ijaz and Ijaz Co in Lahore saroop.ijaz@

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has recently found out that we, the people, are not moral enough and has decided to put its foot down which has, for the time being, been put on hold. There is a list of words that the PTA deems ‘indecent’ and any text message including those words will be blocked. I do wonder about the mental health of the person or persons executing this task. This reminds me of a story about Dr Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer. Dr Johnson was credited with compiling the first comprehensive dictionary of English language. After the completion of his great work, he was attended upon by a delegation of respectable middle-aged ladies of the London nobility. The ladies congratulated Dr Johnson and expressed their delight in the fact that the dictionary did not include any indecent or obscene words. Dr Johnson replied, “Ladies, I congratulate you for being able to look them up”.

The proposed list made public by the PTA displays not only an astounding ignorance of any language but is also indicative of deep, rather scary perversions. The problem with this stupidity is not the petty quarrel regarding what words should be included in the list, etc. It is vaguely more fundamental, primarily that the PTA or any other organ of the state has no business telling us what is fit to be said or watched. The second question is, well is it really that big a deal given all else which is going on in the country? People communicating profanities in text messages are not engaged in a particularly noble endeavour, so nobody is truly furious if this is stopped. The short answer is that it is a very big deal. The quality of text messages in general, even those not including obscenities, is such that one is tempted to condone any ban on them. Yet, it is textbook totalitarianism.

The attempt to curtail language and speech is probably more despicable than the effort to police our morality. This applies to bad and offensive speech, as a matter of fact, applies especially to offensive speech. Lest I be accused of romanticising this PTA small-mindedness too much, in my opinion, speech and language in many ways are the seminal challenges facing our society. It has often been said that almost all great ideological conflicts in the history of the world are between the literal and the ironic mind. We have the misfortune to live under a depressingly, hermetically literal society, only to be outdone by Saudi Arabia and North Korea. Salmaan Taseer was killed for using the term “Kaala Kanoon” (literally translated as a black law) for the existing formulation of the blasphemy law in the Pakistan Penal Code. His cold-blooded murderer and his supporters possess no ability or inclination to understand the context. The fact that offence is caused by something is never an argument for shutting someone or something up. Mansur alHallaj was brutally and publicly executed only because his audience took him a tad too literally.

George Orwell wrote 1984 in the year 1948, the same year the North Korean republic was formed. Christopher Hitchens once said that at times it almost seems that somebody gave a copy of 1984 (obviously in Korean) to the ‘Dear Leader’ (Kim II-sung) and said, “do you think we can make this fly?” Well, it seems that we wish to give North Korea and Saudi Arabia a run for their money. The Danish cartoon fiasco saw the entire country going into frenzy, with mobs torching up vehicles and buildings owned by their own fellow countrymen. All this was in response to mediocre caricatures made by an unknown and, apparently, pedestrian cartoonist and published in some obscure newspaper in Denmark. There is some insanity in that. The appropriate and perhaps the only response should have been to ignore. However, it seems that we have become a people who wish to be offended, who will go out of their way to seek out things that might be offensive, only so that we can violently protest.

Salman Rushdie is a name that you do not hear often in the Pakistani media. Even the mere mention of the name is terrifying. I have no intention of putting up a defence for him at all. However, by banning his undeniably and even irresponsibly provocative book, The Satanic Verses, it was ensured that most people had to be offended by something that they had not read and will not read. It is absolutely justified, even necessary, to be offended by things and writing. However, it is never justified to kill people on the basis of fiction that you do not like. That particular book was, in any event, not Rushdie’s best work. The best way to condemn it was to write about why it was offensive. On that issue, the particularly squalid compromise was made by the literary community of Pakistan, who implicitly and rather meekly signed the warrant for lives of self-censorship. Most of them now do not need the state to censor their work; they willingly do that for themselves. Nobody’s faith should be so flimsy that it be shaken by a work of fiction.

All of this seems to be quite a stretch from the PTA’s pick-nose freakishness. Well it is not. If one word is banned for causing offence, almost everything can be banned. We have become extremely inarticulate as a nation. W H Auden predicted the Prague Spring, as he saw that the oppressors had everything at their disposal, except one i.e. they could not speak. He wrote his beautiful poem, “August 1968” which goes, “The Ogre does what ogres can, Deeds quite impossible for Man, But one prize is beyond his reach, The Ogre cannot master Speech. About a subjugated plain, Among its desperate and slain, The Ogre stalks with hands on hips While drivel gushes from his lips.”

As a general rule, one should be very skeptical of anything done for protecting the ‘moral fabric’ of society or ‘for the sake of our children’. The reasoning will apply to Nabokov and Manto before you can say “Jesus Christ”.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 27th, 2011. 

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Reader Comments (24)

  • Ali Tanoli
    Nov 26, 2011 - 10:01PM

    In west reliegen is joke in the name of freedom u guys wanna do the same..


  • Nadir
    Nov 26, 2011 - 10:26PM

    I find it unbelievably condescending for some bureaucrat to decide what I should or should not say, or what my child or children should or should not say. In the citadel of Islam it appears everyones faith is so fragile that no freedom can be allowed, as everyone seems ready to jump into bed with the devil.


  • Usman Malik
    Nov 26, 2011 - 10:27PM

    A brilliant piece of writing, Couldnt agree more. You r amazing. Too many refrences in the history.


  • Bassam
    Nov 26, 2011 - 10:31PM

    Touching a live wire like Salman Rushdie’s topic isn’t a wise thing to do in a community like our’s.


  • khan jr
    Nov 26, 2011 - 10:40PM

    Just by the act of trying to ban ‘Jesus Christ’ from SMS vocabulary sums up their nonsensical mindset of these people in Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA). Yes, it is not uncommon in the West to use Christ’s name as a swear word, but what does that have to do with Pakistan. By this silly proclamation PTA is declaring that Christian Pakistanis are not entitled to religious sensitivities (or perhaps even a right to exist) and Christmas with its customary greetings less than a month away…

    I can think of several words of describing these ‘brains’ in the PTA but all of them fall in the banned category – so I’ll just say $#@*&%$#@



  • Parvez
    Nov 26, 2011 - 11:34PM

    Excellent as usual. We are an astonishing lot. We want to ban the use of certain words thereby doing more harm than good. At the same time we allow a memo to go through
    resulting in the dismissal of an ambassador, egg on our face and all sorts of recrimination
    from all sides.


  • Jameel
    Nov 26, 2011 - 11:42PM

    @Ali Tanoli:

    In west reliegen is joke in the name
    of freedom u guys wanna do the same..

    If a religion wants to make a joke of itself by supporting the likes of Mumtaz Qadri then what can one do except to watch it to become a joke.


  • Meekal Ahmed
    Nov 26, 2011 - 11:57PM

    I thought this matter had been set aside for the time being.


  • ali
    Nov 27, 2011 - 1:38AM

    @Ali Tanoli

    Why are you living in US? Why dont you return to the land of the pure?


  • Saif M
    Nov 27, 2011 - 3:10AM

    @Ali Tanoli: I don’t know in which cave you live in Pakistan, but in the West, contrary to what you say, religion is not a joke. It’s just that ome believe in a religion and others don’t. They all go their own ways. No one forces others to follow or not to follow a religion.

    It’s Pakistan where religion has become a joke. Where a self-confessed murderer is made into a hero of Islam and a former Chief Justice of a High Court defends him, without charging any fees. Where the use of words “Jesus Christ” is banned along with words such as “F* You”!


  • Amjad Cheema
    Nov 27, 2011 - 6:42AM

    simply brilliant writing


  • Sajid
    Nov 27, 2011 - 9:03AM

    @Ali Tanoli:
    And in the east you guys have made religion a nightmare


  • observer
    Nov 27, 2011 - 10:17AM

    @Meekal Ahmed

    I thought this matter had been set aside for the time being.

    Nothing can be set aside ‘for the time being’. Either you speak up here and now or forever hold your peace.
    Can any one think of undoing Ahmadia and Blasphemy amendments, by simply being quite for the time being.


  • Khurram
    Nov 27, 2011 - 10:21AM

    @Ali Tanoli:
    Well in Pakistan people have taken a concept called ‘religion’ to the level of fixed fantasy (=delusional)… No one will have a problem if you stay in fantasy unless it affects others!!


  • Mirza
    Nov 27, 2011 - 11:05AM

    Couldn’t have agreed more.


  • Shoaib
    Nov 27, 2011 - 11:39AM

    @Ali Tanoli:
    I agree, religion is a joke in the West, but it is precisely this attitude that has made people disenchanted with religion, that morality must be regulated by the state. I am not advocating immorality, debauchery and swearing, but the values of being a good person should come from within, it shouldn’t have to be regulated. Pakistani society is not particularly wholesome, crude jokes and insults are commonplace – banning a list of words doesn’t resolve the problem. People’s attitudes need to change, and a list of banned words and censorship won’t resolve this. It’s been done before in the West, in South Africa and in the Middle East – it has ien time and time again that it is ineffective.
    Personally, I feel that professionalism in politics and the media will make a greater impact than censorship.


  • sajid
    Nov 27, 2011 - 12:29PM

    @Ali Tanoli
    Not everything is about religion and neither is this. I do not see a connection between religion and words such as fairy, jesus christ,bakwaas, foot, idiot etc. which are all on the list.


  • Ali Tanoli.
    Nov 27, 2011 - 11:16PM

    I can see how firy u guys are getting from my few words but for moment think about it if
    some one use a bad word for your parents how u guys will react little hot and warm right
    if not then “Ghairath” animal dies allready in the border area with Afghanistan 11 years ago.


  • Ali Tanoli.
    Nov 28, 2011 - 3:12AM

    @Saroop Mahraj ji
    When ever i tried to find Quran Translation written by some well known writer i could not
    find in best book selling store in America for example Mr Madaudi sahab, Ibn kaseer or
    Ibn Taymia i dont know why its like that but u can find very easy some body like Rushdi
    maloon and many like him in Burns & Noble and Borders book store can some body explaine me?????? Jamil sahab


  • Ali Tanoli.
    Nov 28, 2011 - 4:06AM

    @Shoab sahab
    could not agreed more thank u sir,


  • sars
    Nov 28, 2011 - 10:48AM

    if the a large proportion of followers of a religion condone the killing of human beings for whatever reason( following a different sect, being”kafir”, being blasphemers, “honour” issues etc), even while offering daily prayers and carrying out other rituals, then the whole purpose of that religion has become a joke, unfortunately.

    i hate to tell you this but it doesnt happen routinely in the west, and happens daily here


  • Cynical
    Nov 29, 2011 - 2:47AM

    Awsome article.Respect is all I can say.


  • Raja Islam
    Nov 29, 2011 - 2:49AM

    @Ali Tanoli.:
    Stores stock books based on popularity and sales. You may think of Maudoodi as a well known writer whereas others may not. If Rushdie sells then bookstores will stock his books. This is simple business philosophy.


  • malik
    Nov 29, 2011 - 7:53PM

    Salman Rushdie’s best work is : ‘Shame’ .

    This novel is based on Zia, Bhutto and sundry others.


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