Pakistan unplugged

May 28, 2010

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The deadline for the end of the ban on Facebook is almost upon us; farms have been ruined, parties gone undocumented, conversations interrupted. But the question is not whether strawberry bushes can be replanted on Farmville, but whether the ban will be permanent.

I’ll state at the outset that I don’t think it should be. Here’s why: a social networking site like Facebook combines the functions of mass media with the feel of interpersonal communication; it has redefined the meaning of mass communication. Banning Facebook, YouTube, and the 800 or so sites is therefore like snipping the phone lines, burning the library, and shuttering the shop window all at once – cutting off access to information, opportunities for small-scale businesses, and conversations with friends and family.  It is, therefore, a kind of disengagement from the world out there – personal and political.

Not everyone in the world is a Muslim, and not everyone is disposed kindly towards Islam and the Muslim community. Islamophobia and Muslim-baiting are clearly on the rise. Does that mean we should not travel, work, or study anywhere beyond the Muslim world? A blanket ban is like declaring, ‘I shall not send my daughters out of the house into the big, bad world out there because there are rapists and paedophiles’; or, ‘I will not fly an aeroplane because there’s a 0.1 per cent chance of an accident.’

But should we really unplug ourselves from the international community? Before you nod yes, think about where this madness will end: it is this kind of mindset that the jihadi groups espouse. Last year’s attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team put an end to international cricket in the country; the attack on Mumbai in 2008 derailed the peace process between India and Pakistan. Groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Tehrik-e-Taliban want international isolation for Pakistan; it is only that their measures are a whiter shade of pale.

What is even more disturbing than extreme, fringe groups is the response from at least half of educated, internet-browsing Pakistanis. Any discussion on the merits of the ban elicits an equally violent response. In some cases it is virtual – I am certain comments on this blog will question the beliefs and Muslimness of myself and others as if it is theirs to judge – and in others it is physical. Here’s what happened at a press conference to explain to mediapersons why putting government levers on the internet curtails civil liberties. Activist Sabeen Mahmud writes:

On 20th May 2010, we reiterated the contents of our Press Release, in Urdu, only to be attacked ferociously by members of the press. One young reporter writing for an English daily, stated, “speakers at the conference were unable to effectively convey their point to media personnel”. I’d like to set the record straight. The media personnel were rabid, inflamed, and unwilling to listen to, or comprehend our stance. They were vicious and belligerent in their verbal attacks and we were told that we were in contempt of the court and were blaspheming. The conference did indeed end on a sour note because the reporters were yelling, screaming, and threatening us and unless we had decided to resort to their brand of “dialogue”, there was little point in continuing. The Jamaat-e-Islami, meanwhile, had gathered outside to protest the same issue. Our names were sent outside and they were waiting for us to emerge so they could “kill” us. One reporter advised us to exit from the back. Two of us did, one of us was not so lucky and got stuck inside the Press Club, along with another young journalist, whilst the insanity outside raged on.
As I write this, the protests against Facebook continue, even though the offensive page has been removed and the social networking site is still banned in Pakistan. Now it is no longer even a matter of whether facebook should’ve been banned, but whether there can be any rational discussion in this country about anything to do with religion without fear of reprisal. This is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in society – the disengagement from the world of ideas and debate.

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Amber Rahim Shamsi is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist who does not Tweet.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.