Written by Benjamin David and Terri Murray
And here we are, once again, documenting another story on blasphemy. And yet again, here we are documenting more hefty attempts to hog-tie free expression on the grounds that bona fide religious sensitivities will be piqued. The perpetrator in this case is Pakistan; the apparent enablers this time, Facebook.
Much to the worry of atheists and anti-theists in the country, Pakistan has claimed that they have been assured by Facebook this week that concerns over blasphemous content on the social media site will be indulged and a company delegation will visit this week to discuss blasphemous material on Facebook with the government. This was made public by the interior minister on Tuesday.
Nawaz Sharif, Pakistani Prime Minister, earlier this month publicly stressed, badgering the country’s telecommunications regulator in the process, that blasphemous content on social media be removed or blocked and that anyone posting such material will be “punished.”
Tuesday’s order came in the wake of ongoing inquisition-esque hearings at the Islamabad High Court in a case pursuing the blocking of all Internet content deemed “blasphemous.”
Sharif commented, “The [posting of]blasphemous content on social media is an unclean attempt to play with the feelings of the Muslim Ummah [community].”
Reading from what he claimed was a letter from Facebook’s vice president, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told reporters: “I wanted to reiterate that Facebook takes the concerns raised by the Pakistani government very seriously. We have also committed our representative to meet with you and senior officials of your government.”
Khan heralded the news as a “very big improvement” from Facebook as, he claimed, the social media giant typically turned a blind eye to such complaints in the past.
To make matters worse, he went on to say that Facebook, as Pakistan’s ambassador in the US informed him that over the past few months 62 blasphemous web pages had been blocked by Facebook, 45 in the past several days alone.
“We see it very positively that at the highest level Facebook has responded and takes this issue seriously,” Khan opined.
Last week, Khan admonished the World Wide Web that he’d close those social media sites that fail to prevent online blasphemy.
Even in 2017, blasphemy remains an extremely sensitive issue in Pakistan. Insulting Muhammad, a prophet in Islam, carries a judicial death sentence and the increasingly commonplace threat of extrajudicial murder by Islamists.
In January 2016, Pakistan ended a three-year ban on video-sharing website YouTube, also over blasphemous content, after the content provider agreed to launch a localised version that would streamline the process for content to be censored for viewers in Pakistan.
At least 65 people, including lawyers, defendants and judges, have been murdered by Islamist militants over blasphemy allegations in Pakistan since 1990, according to think-tank figures and local media.
What is at stake?
The Pakistani Prime Minister’s appeal to “the feelings of the Muslim Ummah [community],” to stifle dissent in a Muslim majority country, is an example of the kind of question-begging that has become the norm in Islamist discourse. It assumes what it needs to prove: namely, that “the Muslim Ummah” is a homogeneous group unanimously in agreement with the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam that Nawaz Sharif represents. If that were so, then Islamist militants would not have needed to murder so many lawyers, defendants and judges (for alleged ‘blasphemy’) in order to produce the image of “unity.” In a country where religion is very seldom about an individual’s private faith and very often provides the sole ideological justification for dictating how other people must live, Islam should be a prime candidate for open and critical debate, satire and other forms of public dissent. The attempt to shut down any such public discussion implies that the “Muslim Ummah” is a political fiction. Those who claim to represent the community only do so by eliminating diversity among Muslims of different persuasions and their more moderate interpretations of the faith. If there were no dissent from within the religion or from other religious minorities, there would be no need for the kinds of censorship and/or punitive deterrents the Prime Minister wishes to establish.
The content of Facebook Vice President’s supposed letter, reiterating Facebook’s ostensible commitment to collude with the Pakistani government in suppressing “blasphemous” dissent, is a genuine cause for alarm. The world’s ears should be tuned-in to hear the outcome of the claimed meeting between Facebook’s representative and senior officials of Pakistan’s government. A key question we should be asking is whether the meeting will produce any substantial change in Facebook’s collaboration with a medieval government policy, or whether it will merely spin the semantics to re-package the policy and its appearance, so it can be sold to the public before expanding to other regimes under the same branding. Anything short of Facebook’s de facto retreat from sponsorship of this religious tyranny will sound the death knell to free expression. Any collaboration with such an illiberal and intolerant government should be taken as evidence that any company has no commitment to liberty, free expression, or net neutrality and that it is prepared to positively assist even the most intolerant regimes in their egregious violations of basic civil liberties and human rights.
One could, of course, cast doubt on Pakistan’s claims concerning Facebook. Perhaps Facebook will decry, publicly, that Pakistan’s claims are all bogus. Indeed, we have been informed by a credible source who recently met with Facebook staff that Pakistan’s claims are just that: bogus. However, a lot of people will still be filled with consternation over the fact that no official rebuttal has been made by Facebook over such serious claims. One should assume a rejoinder would be dolled out forthwith by Facebook if a serious breach of truth concerning the company has indeed occurred- fearing its reputation being undermined by Pakistan’s claims in the process.
If Facebook has collaborated with illiberal and undemocratic Pakistani censors, which is a conclusion quickly amassed from the current state of affairs, it would be consistent with the pattern it has established in Europe. In September 2015, when a wave of Syrian refugees were entering Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel was caught on a hot mic (at a UN luncheon) pressuring Zuckerberg about anti-immigrant social media posts. The Facebook CEO was overheard responding that “we need to do some work” on curbing anti-immigrant posts about the refugee crisis. “Are you working on this?” Merkel asked in English, to which Zuckerberg replied in the affirmative before the transmission was disrupted.
The extent to which Facebook has been willing to act as a censor on behalf of governments of apparently diverse ideologies, should make us question the depth of Merkel’s commitment to liberal values. Her suppression of dissent is inconsistent with the demands she has made on her own constituents for tolerance (towards immigrants). Rights she would not extend, apparently, to her own constituents, she has asked them to extend to others.
The Pakistani interior minister’s claim that Facebook has already assisted the government in blocking dozens of blasphemous web pages in recent weeks suggests that the social media site has no genuine intention of protecting free expression online. It remains to be seen on what grounds Facebook removed the material or which definition of ‘blasphemy’ it applied when adjudicating that the censorship of those sites was justified. We should not be surprised if there is an attempt to merge the Pakistani law with the already dubious EU online “Code of Conduct,” which came into effect last June, or to borrow wording from it. In partnership with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft, the European Union unveiled the “code of conduct” to combat the spread of “illegal hate speech” online in Europe. Proponents of the initiative argued that in the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, a crackdown on “hate speech” was necessary to curtail jihadist propaganda online.
In practice, however, the EU initiative amounts to a retreat from free speech in Europe. The code’s definition of “hate speech” is so vague that it could encompass virtually anything deemed politically incorrect by European authorities, including criticism of mass migration, Islam or the European Union itself. The NewSpeak phrase “incitement to violence” (which forms the basis for legitimating the EU’s code) is little more than a euphemism for victim-blaming insofar, as it transfers responsibility for violent assaults to those on the receiving end of them, while exculpating assailants and denying them moral agency/responsibility.
The UK’s National Secular Society (NSS) responded that the EU’s plans represent a threat to online discussions that criticise religion.” It added:
“The agreement comes amid repeated accusations from ex-Muslims that social media organisations are censoring them online. The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain has now begun collecting examples from its followers of Facebook censoring ‘atheist, secular and ex-Muslim content’ after false ‘mass reporting’ by ‘cyber Jihadists.’ They have asked their supporters to report details and evidence of any instances of pages and groups being ‘banned [or]suspended from Facebook for criticising Islam and Islamism.'”
NSS communications officer Benjamin Jones said:
“Far from tackling online ‘cyber jihad,’ the agreement risks having the exact opposite effect and entrapping any critical discussion of religion under vague ‘hate speech’ rules. Poorly-trained Facebook or Twitter staff, perhaps with their own ideological bias, could easily see heated criticism of Islam and think it is ‘hate speech,’ particularly if pages or users are targeted and mass reported by Islamists.”
People deserve protection; ideas do not. Vague concepts like “hate speech” and “incitement to religious violence” are combined with wording that merely conflates religious ideology and identity (i.e. ideas and people). Religious ideology is not equivalent to a set of victimised persons. In reality, the slippery equivocation between ideas and persons has allowed protection to be stripped from vulnerable individuals and transferred to the most virulent ideas (and the powerful people who wield them). The current situation is a sobering reminder that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.