Bans don’t lead to solutions, dialogue does

So I’ve spent far too much time on this topic as it is – trying to keep this short.

I find it ludicrous that people (many, but not all) support a ban on Facebook because of a single page. It’s akin to sanctioning Pakistan because of the existence of Lashkar e Taiba, only one step away from blocking all Internet access because of a few websites that promote hatred (and Pakistan’s slide down that path has thankfully been stopped.) It doesn’t make sense to ban what is really a platform for those who choose to use it. There are thousands of pages on Facebook celebrating Islam and the Prophet (saws); similarly, Youtube features both diatribes against the religion as well as recitations of the Quraan.

By banning Facebook and Youtube, the Pakistani government bans both the good and the bad. More importantly, as many have been pointing out for days, the banning of blasphemous views sets a dangerous precedent for banning other views that may be deemed to be unpleasant or disliked. The policy of shutting off communication doesn’t help progress, it only halts it – dialogue enhances understanding, not the presence of walls. Ignorance breeds prejudice and the rise of stereotypes – one can only make reasonable assessments with information; and the PTA’s decision blocks information.

Of course, perhaps I am wrong and have the wrong expectations from the people who support the ban. To them, a ban is justified because of the alleged defamation. The unfortunate reality is that most of them have never even seen the page. They’ve been ‘told’ that it’s blasphemous, that’s all. By and large, these people are ignorant of the background of the page and of the role it plays in an ongoing conversation. That sounds like a very arrogant thing to say, but far too many of the people who are talking about this don’t even know what that Facebook page was about, they don’t know how it came into being, they don’t know what South Park or Molly Norris were trying to say. Few have studied the importance of free speech to democracy. In addition, let me point out that it IS idiocy to believe that banning Facebook will hurt the company’s bottom line. Over 400 million people use Facebook – less than 2 million Pakistanis do so. Do the math.

This ignorance feeds itself: people have been celebrating the supposed removal of the page in response to the ban – unfortunately, they couldn’t be more wrong:

Everybody Draw Mohammed Day! Back.

This page was removed two days ago, after one of our moderators had his email and skype hacked. His personal data was revealed. He then got scared and deleted the page, the blog and the emails. The rest of us, are now back without him after he backed out. This is another scare tactic from the Islamic extremists. We won’t fall.
Pictures you were unable to post on the 20th? Check the forums for interviews.

To further reinforce the point that the Lahore High Court’s decision was eminently counterproductive, consider the fact that the group’s membership and popularity only INCREASED after the Lahore High Court’s decision. There were about 20,000 people who ‘liked’ the page three days ago. That number has now quintupled, and it continues to rise – now, 114,554 have joined the protest, up from 108,572 yesterday. The page has received even more attention than it would have otherwise – interviews with organizations like MSNBC and BBC (amongst many others) have only furthered the impression in the international media that Pakistan is a repressive, intolerant society. To an extent that is true – but only to a small extent. As the amazing Todd Shea says, ‘Americans hear 2% of Pakistan’s story 98% of the time.’

The very act of blocking that page in Pakistan denies people the ability to learn more about this.

Not that it’s a pleasant sight – undoubtedly, despite the stated effort of the moderator, most of the postings on the web site are at least ignorant and at worst hateful and provocative. The conversations are diverse – from MUHAMMD WUZ WIFE BEATER (hate) to HAHA YOU INFIDELS WILL BURN IN HELL (response) to ‘Sorry mate. You’ve been brainshwashed, I feel sad for you.’ (patronizing comment) and ‘Islam is a tolerant religion.’ (dialogue). However, there have been some positive discussions too – for example, somebody wondered whether Muhammad was a genie, which is why he couldn’t be seen (and thus drawn). A Muslim responded well to that stream of questioning, and clarified that angels and genies are separate, and that Islam is not ‘a religion of magic’ as one person asked.

The primary defense for the ban is that it constitutes protest – my stance is that the best form of protest is through dialogue, by publishing articles that debate both sides of the issue. Of course, the protest of the kind adopted by several Pakistanis is obviously destructive, and this brings us to another worthy opinion in this debate: that the ban is playing an important short term role by minimizing violent protests and riots. It’s an excellent way of looking at the positives, but the bigger picture is that the government didn’t stop at Facebook, and that the government’s actions simply provided the movement with more publicity. A small but sizeable group of Pakistanis also believes that getting worked up over the ban is selfish – there are bigger problems to solve than Facebook! My opinion is simply that Internet censorship and the promotion of ignorance are precisely what lead to ‘bigger problems’, and that this medium is a critical tool for solving bigger problems – see, for example, how the Pakistan Youth Alliance has used it:

In any case, there are more troubling facets to this entire discussion – why, for instance, many Muslims are so sensitive that they feel like they/Islam/Allah (swt)/Muhammad (pbuh) have been humiliated anytime they are spoken of in negative terms, and how the Lahore High Court in Pakistan moved so quickly in this case when they have lots of other, bigger issues to deal with.

It would be extremely unfair of me to speak out against one side – the side that is against the Everybody Draw Muhammad Day Page. It must be noted that the free speech advocates don’t really support free speech when it’s unpleasant to them. A friend of mine was so angered last week that he put up a page celebrating Adolf Hitler. While this ‘hit-em-where-it-hurts’ mentality is not one that I agree with, his actions did have the effect of illustrating that free speech DOES have its limits and that Facebook’s administrators ARE indeed biased – for his page was removed and he was banned from Facebook in one day. Another friend points out that the terms of service on ‘Biasbook’ forbid the posting of material which is ‘hateful’. To any rational observer, many of the comments on the contested page are indeed hateful. In an interesting interview, the moderator said it was all about freedom of speech:

RFE/RL: I think the question here is whether inciting it and asking for possibly unnecessary deaths is worth it for a sort of in-your-face freedom-of-speech campaign.

Freiheit: Yeah, but you should know. In the West, the extremists like the Nazi movement, the communists — they are actually able to express themselves…. Because you have freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and freedom of speech. And even though you don’t like it, you have to accept it, because people are so different. And people throughout history forever have been offensive to one another, and you can’t just say, oh, this is too offensive, you have to stop.

He’s so, so wrong. There are laws against Holocaust denial. There are hate speech laws in many countries around the world – Canada, for example , which incidentally has a better track record in tolerance than America (where absolute freedom of speech is constitutionally guaranteed). Patrick Malcolmson and Richard Myers in The Canadian Regime provide this excellent rebuttal to absolutism:

It is generally accepted that no right is absolute. Rights conflict, and decisions must be made about the order of their value. Moreover, in any political order, rights must sometimes be limited for the sake of the common good. For instance, though we believe we have a right to freedom of speech, we recognize that in a free and democratic society it is perfectly reasonable to pass laws prohibiting speech of a libelous or slanderous character.

I have expressed my stance on freedom of speech before: it shouldn’t be taken to extremes. When people are offensive to others, many can and DO say that ‘this is too offensive, you have to stop.’ Being offensive just to reassert that you have the right to do so is stupid and doesn’t achieve anything. You may have the right to burp in someone’s face, but it’s simply rude to do so – especially if you do it on purpose.

Similarly, the attempts by free-speech activists to counter censorship by drawing cartoons only make things worse – you don’t negotiate with people who are making fun of you. There is a big communication gap here – why don’t you try to understand why this is such a big deal? Why do you insist on comparing South Park’s treatment of Jesus to South Park’s treatment of Muhammad (pbuh), when the cultural differences make it obvious that it’s an inherently flawed comparison? Why don’t you go beyond the headlines and see that there is more to the Muslim world than ‘an inability to accept ridicule’?

Update: To clarify, the point I am making is that religion, especially for Muslims, is intensely personal and based upon deeply held beliefs. That does not make it off-limits for criticism – but it does entail a certain level of respect. Many in the West do not understand this perception of religion.

Also, I do indeed believe that (by and large) Muslims are more sensitive to attacks on Islam than, for example Christians on similar attacks to Christianity, or atheists on their choice of beliefs. There are many reasons for that – books could be written on the topic. One school of thought also holds that this is a good thing, for it implies that they still care. Of course I have nothing to back my opinion except for my experience, and I may be wrong, but I do think that a Muslim when faced with a defaced Quraan will react more strongly to (for example) a Jew faced with a ripped Torah. My hope is that the reaction is sensible – violence is not the option preached by Islam. Strong words work better than strong-arm tactics in this age. (Thank yo, Sushrut.)

I ask similar questions of the Pakistani government. Why insist on promoting the view that we are intolerant and painfully conservative? Restricting the Internet in Pakistan only restricts our ability to effectively communicate all that is great and good about the country to others. The hundreds of thousands of Youtube videos of Pakistani cricketers have done more for our international goodwill than any action our courts have ever taken. Let’s keep on the good work. For starters, here’s a delicious teaser to Coke Studio 3, which will feature the best in Pakistani music:

Update II: This list of the blocked websites is ridiculous. The government has even blocked the personal website of Molly Norris, who has joined the ‘Against Everybody Draw Muhammad Day’ group and has posted many messages of support to the Muslim Ummah over the past week, despite being the subject of public ridicule for it! Way to go, LHC. (via a Facebook group opposing the ban.)

Also check out this excellent, wide ranging debate on NDTV with Beena Sarwar and Marvi Memon. (via Rashmin Khandekar)



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  2. I also hope that you guys don’t have the Internet censored. There have been very forces as powerful as the net that have helped open up communications between people.

    While it’s true that the Facebook page was provocative, it wasn’t true that everyone was forced to view it. And my opinion is that if something is not shoved in your face and you have to go looking for it, one can’t protest over it.

    For the same reason, no book or movie should be banned unless it’s shown in a public place. This is almost never the case.

    1. No, Pakistan does not censor the Internet (although some people have tried, which happens everywhere). I completely agree with your statement about the net being a powerful force for good.

      And yes, things like that just get more publicity when they are banned.

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