By Nabiha Meher Shaikh
As someone constantly exposed to the so-called “youth” of this country, I do believe I have some insight and some valid criticism of the recent ban on facebook, which, ostensibly, has to do with blasphemous content.
Firstly, what is the “youth” of this country? And why are they lumped into a monolithic entity? Why is it assumed that they are all one and the same when their realities are different in many ways. To assume that our “youth” is living air-conditioned lives, constantly logged on to the internet, chatting away etc. is purely delusional. The truth is, the vast majority of the “youth” are very poor and cannot access websites. The “youth” is actually the majority of our population. And we are constantly trying to box them into holes on what they should be, what they should do, how they should think, how they should behave, killing off any diversity that exists… this has lead to an increase in intolerance which I have noticed in my less than three decades of existence, despite the fact that sensitivity towards women’s issues has increased as compared to my generation (I’m only talking about educated people here though. I do acknowledge that the ground realities for women have become even more horrific). Sounds contradictory? It’s not. Read on. It’s all connected to religion and wanting to desperately prove that their religion is not barbaric towards women, a criticism that has very valid roots since, let’s face it, the status of women in the Muslim world is far from decent. So even though I see an increase in gender sensitivity, I also see an increase in linear thinking, mostly intolerant, reeking of a severe persecution complex (“the world is out to get us and destabilise Islam!”), which is very, very dangerous.
The “youth” have grown up in a post 9/11 world so they have little or no living memory of a time when the world wasn’t obsessed with us. I remember people scratching their heads, perplexed about where this Pakistani I speak of was. India was all they knew. And now… well… we’re everywhere, one of the most recognisable countries in the world, a hub of terrorism, a country on the forefront of the oxymoronic “war on terror”, perhaps on the verge of self-destruction, “the most dangerous country in the world”. Our grief has become the world’s entertainment. The world watches as we are bombed, killed, destroyed, humiliated and demonised. And sadly, it truly feels like no one cares. We all know, for sure, that our lives are worth less than any other lives, truly worthless. These kids have always known that. What’s worse is that as more and more innocent people die in their own country, these beliefs get strengthened. As the privileged ones travel the world, and are tortured at airports thanks to the colour of their skins and passports, they face humiliation which angers them for good reason. Why wouldn’t being called a “rag-head who will pray to his sand nigger god to destroy us” enrage someone? They have grown up in a country full of unrest and at war with itself. They have grown up in a world that constantly reminds them they are the “other” in every sense. They have grown up in a world where “Muslim” has become a synonym for “terrorist.” Imagine what it does to their psyche. Imagine growing up like that. It saddens me immensely because, as a teacher who is close to her students, I see the toll it takes on them. I see their anger and I sympathise with it. I don’t agree that this is a war on Islam per se since that is just too simplistic an explanation, but I do understand why they would feel this way.
As a teacher of critical thinking, I have a frustrating job. I love it because it is very rewarding, but teaching critical thinking to kids who have been taught NOT to think is quite challenging. They come to me with blinkers on. And, obviously, there is much resistance to thinking about multiple perspectives at first. The majority don’t want their worldview shaken. Most don’t want to hear that there is another valid perspective at first. It’s hard to digest and I know that because I remember the IB TOK classes which I model some of my classes on. It wasn’t easy. But then again, critical thinking is never easy, nor should it be. It should be constant tool used for one’s personal growth, and it is absolutely necessary in order to evolve and become tolerant. This is why I feel the recent ban on facebook is dangerous and promotes a culture of intolerance.
As a teacher who often jokes that her class should be called “How to Grow a Brain” I strongly believe that banning facebook sends out a counter-productive and frightening message. And no, this is not a slippery slope. This country suffers “The Ostrich Syndrome” and this ban is proof. We like to stick our heads in the sand, like kids sticking their fingers in their ears screaming “I can’t hear you! I can’t hear you!” I’d like to ask all those constantly wanting to censor this that or the other what kind of message they think they are sending out. Because this is how I see it: if you don’t like it, ban it. If you don’t agree, pretend it doesn’t exist. Everyone else is wrong anyway, since they’re all out to get us. There is no need for productive dialogue, there is no need to have a healthy discourse; heck there’s no need to turn the other cheek and ignore it. This is the message: stick your head in the sand until it’s over. Oh, but it’ll never be over since the world is out to get us.
And I ask you: why do I HAVE to be offended? Is our faith so weak that a cartoon will destroy it? And even if I am offended, why am I not being given the option to boycott facebook voluntarily? A voluntary ban would have been much, much more effective in order to send a message out. A blanket ban has only lead to exactly what we like to cry about so much: negative publicity in the world press and many outraged Pakistanis protesting the ban such as me. How conveniently we pick and choose from religion! Lest we forget, I would like to remind the Muslims reading this of the incident of the woman who used to throw garbage at our prophet. The prophet, in whose name we claim we are protesting, was a peaceful, cooperative man who forgave people who pelted him with garbage and rocks. Responding with an intelligent dialogue, responding with patience is, in my opinion, the best way to protest one’s concern. Think about it: why is this competition going on? Why are we responding in exactly the manner the world expects us to? Why are so hell bent on proving that we are not tolerant? Responding with anger, with outrage, will only strengthen Islamophobic beliefs, which will, by the way, make these Islamophobes happy since we are playing right into their hands and giving them the reaction they expect and probably want.
As for me, I am going to go change my “Restore Judiciary” shirt to “Restrain the Judiciary” adding the neglected article whose absence has so peeved me since I first bought it during the lawyer’s movement. The fact that the courts are acting like tyrannical parents is something I strongly object to. The fact that they are entertaining demands by catering to the religious parties is abhorrent, especially since these religious parties are incapable of winning in democratic elections. I protest this ban on facebook and my objection to the competition doesn’t count since it’s not voluntary. Without the freedom to offend, free speech ceases to exist. And as someone who grew up in Zia’s oppressive regime, I know how dangerous it is to censor and ban things based on religious sentiments. Intolerant religious interpretations should not be immune to religion, nor should we allow religion to be used to promote intolerance. For those who have witnessed it, we do not wish to see it again.
I may not agree with the venom being spewed through the media, but I’d rather get multiple perspectives than just one, leaving me no choice but to think only the way I am apparently supposed to. And the fact that we let our media go ahead and spew this venom in the first place reeks of hypocrisy. While we think it’s perfectly all right to demonise the world, promoting intolerance and hatred for the West, creating Hindu-Zionism conspiracy theories, we strongly object when the world responds in kind. Again, I ask, why is it ok for us and not anyone else? Are we all meek little innocents? And again, what kind of message is this sending the “youth” we are oh so very concerned about? I’ll tell you what it leads to because I battle with it constantly. It leads to essays that are rants on how evil the world is, full of hate speech, and with absolutely no sensitivity to the other perspective. It has, like I said, lead to a persecution complex so strong that it’s very hard to break. It has lead to people like Faisal Shahzad. Now you tell me. Do we want more of him? Or more of those who are willing to debate peacefully instead of resorting to violence? Because at the rate we’re going, no one will need to bomb us into the stone ages. We’re going there ourselves.