Internet and our future


Yasir Hamdani

One of the biggest problems that Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), as the Internet regulator in Pakistan, has been facing for a number of years is the complex interplay of Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy laws and the content online. This has once again come to the forefront of yet another case being lodged against a Christian because he allegedly liked a picture that may or may not have had a derogatory reference to Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site. I say may or may not have had a derogatory reference is because given the nature of the offence, evidence either way is hardly made public. This has been the problem throughout with blasphemy cases in Pakistan where never has the substance of the allegation actually been argued before a court. Blasphemy cases are decided not on merit but on the ability of the complainant to rouse a mob.
The inability of the courts to define blasphemy in any way, shape or form has created a vacuum in which lawlessness thrives. Read with the judgement of the Pakistan Supreme Court in Zaheeruddin v. the State 1993 SCMR 1718, which seems to excuse Muslims for getting outraged and violently reacting to alleged blasphemous acts, this creates a very dangerous situation for every citizen in the country. An effort was made by the Supreme Court in its judgment upholding Mumtaz Qadri’s conviction to at least say that questioning the blasphemy law was not blasphemy.
Now given this situation where blasphemy is undefined what is a regulator like the PTA going to block online? Section 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, empowers the PTA to block or remove content that is prejudicial to the interest of, inter alia, glory of Islam. Would any disagreement with Islam or a sub-sect thereof be deemed against the glory of Islam? How is the PTA going to determine what constitutes the glory of Islam and when some content prejudices the glory of Islam? If you ask the learned ulema, they will tell you that most things we take for granted are in violation to the glory of Islam. Not only will the websites of all minority communities be deemed offensive but what about websites dedicated to women’s rights and equality. What if tomorrow someone feels that the very idea of feminism is against the glory of Islam? Will all feminist websites be banned? Pretty much every ideology and idea that is alien to Islam or external to it may well be concluded to be prejudicial to it. Marxism, liberalism, secularism and interest-based banking are some examples. What about websites dealing with the idea of evolution? Will they also be removed by the PTA? This is a slippery slope, and in the end we would end up blocking the Internet as a whole.
We fought for three years against the YouTube ban in court, till it was finally unblocked. Now looking back at it, what precisely was achieved by blocking YouTube except depriving our own people of a vista to knowledge from around the world? On the Internet one is likely to find many websites, writings and points of view that are outright blasphemous and extremely offensive to our religious sensibilities. How much of it can the PTA as the regulator remove or block? Adopting the ostrich mentality is no solution unfortunately. What the policy makers have to realise is that Internet is an uncontrollable medium. No government or state will be able to control it on a long enough timeline. The YouTube ban ultimately fell because everyone realised that it was as ineffectual as it was pointless. With the common Internet user now armed with VPNs and proxies, nothing can be kept blocked 100 percent of the time. Selective blocking of the internet is just not an option anymore.
Essentially, there are two solutions before the policy makers in the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom (MoIT). They can either propose to ban the Internet as a whole from Pakistan and turn back the clock. Or they can accept that internet is a medium designed to be free, and that the only solution to offensive speech, including blasphemous speech, is to ignore it or better still to counter it. One hopes that our policy makers in the MoIT will choose the latter, and the PTA will refrain from blocking websites based on personal religious opinions.
Pakistan in particular but also the larger Muslim world needs to view the Internet through a different lens. We need to accept the bottom line, which is that there are many people in the world who do not quite agree with our views on religion. Many of them may hold opinions that might be offensive to our deeply held beliefs, but that is alright. One does not always have to agree to coexist on the same planet. How we approach the Internet will define the next millennium of Islam. If approached wisely, the Internet can usher in the renaissance of the Muslim world and Islamic civilisation, reinvigorating a culture of debate, dissent and healthy disagreement that has been conspicuously absent amongst Muslims as a whole since the fall of Baghdad in the 13th century. What is required is visionary leadership that takes a long view rather than one that is confined to their own time and space.