By Yasser Latif Hamdani
Disturbing news is coming out of the Islamabad High Court, where first a judge threatened to ban all of the social media and then the interior minister said that the government would consider banning social media if need be to eradicate blasphemous content.
Will that be enough? As long as there remains the internet, blasphemous content will remain available. Perhaps the honourable judge should simply pass the order of banning the internet altogether. Yes. Let us isolate ourselves from the world. There is nothing like cutting the nose off to spite the face. Pakistanis are skilful masters at this art of self-mutilation.
A few years ago when the Danish caricatures appeared, our brethren responded by ransacking, burning and pillaging our own businesses. Then, in 2012, we banned YouTube, depriving students and professionals of access to a huge virtual library of knowledge for three years. It seems that we just cannot handle the Internet; perhaps, then, it is not a bad idea to ban the Internet.
As the lead counsel in the YouTube Case before Lahore High Court, I had argued that blocking the site was akin to locking up a library just because of one bad book in that library. I had referred then to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s response to the 19th-century book by Sir William Muir, which was severely critical of Islam.
Before that grand old man of Aligarh, there were then two options. He could either burn the book and petition the government to block its import in British India, or he could respond in an academic fashion to that criticism. Khan chose the latter. His defence of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and Islam is a classic, which was greatly appreciated by liberal and conservative Muslims alike.
Even a conservative like Maulana Maududi has written about the positive impact of Khan’s book; calling it the first major scholarly account of the life of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). In this effort, Khan nearly bankrupted himself. Such was his commitment to Islam. If only he had the superior wisdom of our present-day judiciary, he would not have bothered.
Islamophobia is rampant around the world. Increasingly, Islam and Muslims are being presented in the worst possible light. It is an intellectual onslaught that has managed to convince, one must admit with regret, even Muslims of their worthlessness. The reason remains that there does not exist any counter-narrative.
This counter-narrative does not exist largely because Muslims, in general, and Pakistanis, in particular, have adopted the Ostrich mentality, that is, bury your head in the sand at the slightest indication of danger. There are no Sir Syeds amongst us today. In the process, we have ceded ground to Islamophobes and hate-mongers. Meanwhile, the world sits back and watches us self-destruct.
The way to counter Islamophobic chatter is to create a chatter of your own. Every Pakistani or Muslim can be a veritable voice in defending Islam on the Internet. But that would mean hard work and a sense of selflessness; two qualities sorely lacking amongst Muslims. It is much easier to ban the internet.
Be that as it may, the internet will survive if Pakistan decides to block it. But will Pakistan be able to deal with the irreparable damage done to its economy, society and education? How is the cause of the glory of Islam served by taking away the tools that are needed for the material progress of the country and, therefore, 200 million citizens, most of whom are Muslims?
So in my humble opinion, banning the internet is not the answer. Nor is banning Facebook the answer. If you want to fight bad speech, especially hate speech, fight it by countering it with your own point of view. In the marketplace of ideas, the best ideas would ultimately triumph. Islam is, at its heart, a progressive and humane doctrine. We must show by our actions and by our arguments that it is so.
Therefore, my appeal to the powers that be is to not block the internet or any part thereof but instead fight the battle on an intellectual front. We are amidst a great intellectual war and we must prepare fully equipped scholars and opinion makers to fight this war on the Internet.
We need to create Sir Syed Ahmad Khans, Chiragh Alis and Muhammad Iqbals of the future and this cannot be done if we handicap ourselves through an emotional and ill thought out decision. Instead of swimming against the tide, we should ride it.
Where are the cyber wings of our think tanks and institutes? These cyber think tanks, when suitably armed with knowledge — both modern and traditional — can do a much better service to Islam than those who feel that the glory of Islam can only be served by banning and blocking. Let us fight this war pragmatically and rationally instead of emotionally. We need Hosh not josh. Are we equal to the task?
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality.