The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

JUDGES run amok, politicians moralising, the state crusading. It’s like they all had an epiphany — at the same time, on the same issue.

What’s happening?

With so many different strands, some random, several opportunistic, and the mixing of the old with the new, a coherent tale is hard to find.

But zoom out a bit and it’s there all right.

Religion under threat is as old as, well, religion. More interesting are the attacks on the alleged transmitter of the latest alleged mischief: the world of online.

There is no evidence, none that has been publicly offered or credibly advanced in private, that there has been a surge in counter-religious narratives online.

That’s not really surprising. There’s no real market for it and, more to the point, no real producers of it in the counter-culture.

Young or old, coordinated or uncoordinated, a surge would need a counter-culture to tap into. Like arguably the one viciously under attack in Bangladesh.

Since the Russian influence waned decades ago and after the Zia purge of state and society, the — to put it delicately — religio-sceptical tradition is pretty much non-existent in the country.

But while demand is limited and production unlikely in the extreme, the oversight game has caught up and done what all overseers do when confronted by technological change: stirred panic over what they don’t understand and then latched on to the panic to justify extending their control.

Basically, the state and its various appendages fell behind the technology curve early, but then poured massive resources into mastering the online world and that has helped reverse the asymmetry.

Now, it’s the state with powerful surveillance tools and the individual citizen under threat.

It’s happened all over the world, but there’s a local flavour to it here. Rewind to the early days of the dish-antenna, private-TV boom.

More interesting are the attacks on the alleged transmitter of the latest alleged mischief: the world of online.

The need for control quickly became apparent. As is now well known, the fear of being infected by an Indian perspective and the realisation of the nationalist potential of private media triggered a revolution.

That private-media revolution was messy at first, but control was eventually mastered.

The same impetus to control is again evident, but it sits at the confluence of different factors. The most basic difference being how the internet works.

TV could be unleashed because the means to eventually harness it were obvious too. There are only so many channels, owners and anchors, and few means of distribution.

You can’t bypass the state. With the internet you can, or can try to.

On to the confluence of the other new factors. There’s at least four of them, one of which is obvious.

Internet use is climbing. For the usual technological reasons — cheaper devices, faster access, more content — and also because of policy tweaks like infrastructure spending and 3G/4G licensing.

That more Pakistanis are going online is obvious. It could, though, just as easily have resulted in confusion. Like more cars hasn’t added up to more disciplined driving or better traffic management.

But that’s where the other three factors kick in.

The surveillance state has grown. It is only whispered about and part of it is the usual faddishness and corruption-related possibilities that expensive technologies attract.

Its roots may even lie in the fight against militancy and the intelligence cooperation that Pakistan has engaged in with Western countries.

Whatever the reasons, the infrastructure of surveillance is rumoured to have grown significantly, on both the civ and mil sides of the state.

New powers in the hands of old curmudgeons can have funny effects.

But it’s not just that the internet has gone mainstream, it’s that the battles online have gone mainstream.

More and wider usage alone may not have triggered alarm. Like the occasional rants against cheap overnight mobile phone calls corrupting the youth and the half-hearted war on porn, the puritans and the corrupt could have continued to coexist in society.

But then politicians got on the internet bandwagon and turned social media into a battleground. Online went from something some people were doing to something everyone was talking about.

And that’s never a good place for freedom to find itself here.

Thrilled, scared, flummoxed, aghast — if the mainstream political stuff can leave both participant and observer reeling, you can guess the impact that the farther reaches of the internet could have on the puritanical voyeur.

The political mainstreaming of social media and the like has helped make it a target for a certain, cleansing sort.

And then there’s the possibility that few will admit.

There may still be no real NAP implementation and no narrative against extremism, but there has been a shift.

From Zarb-i-Azb to the justification for military courts to the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri and an incipient willingness among the powerful to push back against blasphemy allegations, the slightest of shifts can be discerned.

The misuse of religion for political and terroristic ends can now, in the softest, most incipient of ways, be called out.

That change — necessary to some and embraced by the many — will have been interpreted differently by the opposite camp.

Flip it around. You happen to be someone from the previous consensus — that militants are misguided, but ultimately men of faith who can be shown the right path with patience and through dialogue.

From that reverse perspective, suddenly, it is religion itself that is under attack in the guise of a war against terrorism.

From that perspective, there is a need to reassert the perceived foundations of the state. From that perspective, there is a need to find easy targets.

There’s few easier than the world of online.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2017



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