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Pakistan's Online Blasphemy Battle

Pakistan's Online Blasphemy Battle

Commentary

5 min read

Pakistani Islamists shout slogans during a protest in Karachi against the published caricatures of Prophet Mohammed on Facebook.

Blasphemy has always been an explosive issue amongst Muslims of South Asia. In the pre-partition era it was deeply tied with questions of identity and the politics of majority and minority.  To ensure communal peace, in 1927 the central legislature of India introduced Section 295-A to the Indian Penal Code, which outlawed deliberate and malicious acts to outrage a class of persons, carrying with it a prison sentence of two years or a fine.

At the time when the section was under debate, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the eventual founder of Pakistan, struck this note of warning: “…we must also secure this very important and fundamental principle that those who are engaged in historical works, those who are engaged in bona fide and honest criticism of a religion, shall be protected.”

Pakistan, though, went in the opposite direction. In the 1980s when the country was under the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq, sections 295-B in 1982 and 295-C in 1986 were introduced to the Pakistan Penal Code.  The former speaks of “de-filing” of the Quran and carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment, while the latter outlaws the derogatory statements or imputations to the Prophet Muhammad, punishable by death or life imprisonment.

However, a subsequent decision by the Federal Shariat Court, another institution brought in by General Zia, made the death sentence mandatory in each case. Furthermore, the trial has to be presided over necessarily by a Muslim judge. Whereas the total number of cases reported under section 295-A from 1947 to 1986 was less than 10, since 1986 thousands of blasphemy cases have been filed. Then came the internet and with it social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. 

In response to an online call to draw caricatures and cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, the Lahore High Court took the unprecedented action of blocking Facebook for two weeks in May 2010. A few years later, in September 2012 came the order from the Supreme Court, which directed the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to block the 13-minute film “Innocence of Muslims” on YouTube.  The PTA, being unable to block links to the film individually, blocked YouTube as a whole. For nearly four years YouTube remained officially blocked in Pakistan.

All this leads to where we find ourselves today – a hardline interior minister of the right of centre ruling party is pressing Facebook to crackdown on “blasphemous” material.

As the lead counsel in the case, which became known as the “YouTube Case,” I argued that such blanket bans were unconstitutional, illegal, and should be struck down.  Ultimately, after years of legal battles, the government came to an arrangement with YouTube in 2016, allowing it to censor content.  YouTube was restored albeit censored and purged of the “Innocence of Muslims” film, at least in Pakistan.

All this leads to where we find ourselves today – a hardline interior minister of the right of centre ruling party is pressing Facebook to crackdown on “blasphemous” material. A corollary of this demand was to link Facebook accounts to verifiable mobile phone numbers, a demand Facebook rejected.  Earlier this year, a judge of the Islamabad High Court threatened in open court that he would shut down the internet in Pakistan because “nothing was dearer to us than the love of the Holy Prophet.”  People took him seriously.  The same judge had earlier banned the observance of Valentine’s Day in the country through an equally spurious pronouncement. 

The constitutional writ petition is the weapon of choice for right wing and religious pro-censorship elements.  Furthermore, this is a popular cause.  Nothing sells quite like religion does in Pakistan. Use and misuse of religious provisions of the Pakistani constitution is the norm.  All a lawyer has to do is to argue the supremacy of the Holy Quran and Sunnah (deeds and saying of the Prophet Muhammed) to have a writ petition entertained by the High Court. It is an unbeatable argument, used and abused in a number of ways.

Seizing the opportunity, interior minister Chaudhry Nisar struck. A number of bloggers who were known to write against the establishment were promptly rounded up and a social media campaign was initiated to brand them blasphemers. Threats were issued to social media platforms to put an end to blasphemous content or face government action.  

While other developing countries engage executives from Facebook to discuss opportunities such as Free Basics, boosting access to websites hosting useful services, the government of Pakistan usually enters these talks with a single focus – removal of blasphemous content from the internet. There is a local saying in Urdu which translates that a Mullah only sprints to the mosque, meaning that their sole concern is religion. In this case it most fittingly applies because in its quest for piety, the Pakistani state risks losing its imagination.

The problem is that the internet is awash with what would be deemed blasphemous content by the pious in Pakistan. This attempt to create a nanny state therefore is a losing battle against a medium that is ever increasing and expanding as a veritable universe of knowledge. In the YouTube Case, I argued that no state, whether secular or religious, democratic or authoritarian, has been able to restrict the internet. While there is blasphemous content on there, there is so much more.  You don’t burn down the library because there are some books you disagree with. 

The fetters that are being placed on freedom of speech, expression, and access to information in the name of religion in Pakistan is not going to help the cause of Islam. It is only going to hurt Pakistan, for every society must have dissenters.  By closing the door on even those academic critiques of religion, which the founding father of Pakistan wanted to safeguard and protect, senior figures in Pakistan are attempting to diminish free thinking and dissent which is essential for any democracy to compete in this modern, knowledge-based global economy.

Ultimately the loser is going to be Pakistan.

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

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