Fear and Loathing: Or Why Pakistan Banned The 21st Century

Pakistan has a small but surprisingly liberal and progressive middle class. Politically connected and motivated, they are a solid pillar in the fight for the development of human rights, rule of law, freedom of speech and economic responsibility.

Does this sound like a group of people who would casually accept a ban on Facebook and YouTube (and over 400 other sites) on the basis of "sacrilegious content" and "blasphemous materials"? Not likely. And they're not.

The wave of bannings this week (which was started by a Lahore court after a petition from an alliance of conservative lawyers over the Facebook group "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" and now includes YouTube and over 400 other sites) is another step in the chipping away at the Pakistan new media scene, which has been a vibrant and increasingly influential part of Pakistan society in recent years.

But along with the growing middle class, "the country still has an extremist segment and this segment often hijacks the moderate majority through the simple manipulation of faith," says lawyer, TV host and blogger Farrukh Pitafi Khan. "Since the issue of blasphemy can drive even some of the moderates to the extreme the government is surely afraid of an extremist backlash."

Media commentator Adnan Rehmat agrees that the ready compliance by government with the court order is a case of taking into account varying degrees of the population's faith, while trickily balancing concerns about growing militancy and an Islamist insurgency in the north west of the country. "There have been bloody riots in the past - with fatalities in the streets - over alleged blasphemy by western media and with (former President) Musharraf having to pay a heavy political price of 'not doing enough' to condemn it. Being in the middle of a 'war on terror' against Islamic radicals, the elected government did not want to give an issue to the Islamists and militant groups to beat it up with."

One of Mr Rehmat's main concerns about the prohibition is that by banning (which has never proved successful elsewhere) the courts are also removing a civil right and responsibility to engage. "By banning Facebook altogether for a week, I, along with the 2.4 million Facebook users in Pakistan, have been deprived of our right to protest the allegedly offensive Facebook page by going to the offending page and expressing ourselves."

Pakistan, like the rest of the world, is still grappling with the realities of an instant, online world.
"Pakistani courts are ill prepared for handling the issues regarding new technologies and cultural changes brought about by them," says Mr Khan. "Consider the fact that a right wing group of lawyers approaches the court for a ban and without thinking twice (the) Chief Justice decides to impose the ban."

Adnan Rehmat says that despite all the breast beating about sacrilege and blasphemy, the state has failed to notice that it for all the fear and terror that is constantly predicted, previous offences have not resulted in the sky falling in. "The political parties have failed to educate citizens and voters on the values of pluralisms," he says. "No heavens have collapsed after any alleged blasphemy - clearly 'God' is unruffled."