Friday, May 21, 2010

The Trident of Erebus

The recent furore in Pakistan over the “Everyone Draw Mohammed Day” has spawned dozens of anti-groups and a vociferous SMS/e-mail campaign: using flawed assumptions and flimsy mathematics to overemphasize the financial worth of Pakistan's Facebook users and optimistically believing that a 'boycott' by Pakistani users would teach them a lesson. 'Them' being a group of fascist-Zionist (but somehow devil-worshiping) anti-Christs. Of course the whole point of the spirited boycott campaign and Internet-borne heckling (their commitment is admirable, even if one does not agree with their views) has been rendered moot by the Lahore High Court's heavy handed, blanket ban on the social networking giant, extended by the PTA – eager to showcase its own evangelical zeal – to cover Youtube and en.Wikipedia as well. I am generally a very unhurried blogger: content to leave things unfinished, unsaid and unpublished in the security that “it'll be done when it's done,” but the recent spate of bans has me worried they'll shut down Blogspot itself shortly – and I cannot let that happen without weighing in on the issue for myself.

A lot of unqualified, emphatic assertions (to the accompaniment of even more spittle!) have been made in the (mockery of) debate surrounding the subject: Facebook's double standards vis à vis Holocaust denial pages have been particularly lambasted. As someone who followed this older debate closely last summer, the nonobjective bias rampant in these allegations is easily apparent to me. Yes, two pages advocating holocaust denial were removed – but many more were not, notwithstanding considerable pressure by a number of influential forces such as CNN. Ezra Callahan from Facebook's PR team, who also happens to be Jewish, had this to say on the subject: “You do not combat ignorance by trying to cover up that ignorance exists.” When eventually they did take down two of several pages, it was for reasons other than the promotion of hate speech or antisemitism, as evidenced by several other antisemitic pages that continue to exist.

The First Amendment of the American Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, and even the freedom of hate speech is held sacred. A United States court tossed out a case last year against a small group of Midwestern hicks who protested the Iraq war in a very unique fashion: by picketing funerals of servicemen killed-in-action and ascribing their deaths to God's punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality. Very few people, within the United States and without, would consent to that rather unique view; even fewer would consider dishonoring fallen servicemen – regardless of what one thinks of the cause they died for – to be anything but shameful. What prompted a bench dominated by conservative Justices to throw out the petition brought by bereaved and rightly offended families was not an agreement with said Midwestern hicks, but a responsibility to uphold the First Amendment right to Freedom of Speech. Will a fortnight of boycott by Pakistanis, of dubious value to the social networking giant really convince Facebook to clamp down on Islamphobes? Does Facebook's removal of these web pages, even if it were ever to happen, remove the hatred that pervades the thoughts of a small but vocal minority of Westerners? Perhaps most importantly, how does blocking access to Facebook help combat blasphemers or blasphemy? If anything, it plays into the favor of those people who stir up controversy by denying the spirited opposition the means to combat them. Walking away from an argument equals forfeiture; it is not a winning tactic but the opposite - a spoiled infant smashing her sand castle because someone showed her a picture of the real thing.

Of course the larger, perhaps more sensitive, question is why Pakistani sensitivities are offended more easily than those of the larger, vaunted Umma (a worldwide Muslim national identity); or perhaps we are just more prone to expressing ourselves violently than our brethren in the Middle East, North Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia and wherever else Muslims happen to reside. The Jyllands Posten controversy saw millions of dollars of damage to our markets and infrastructure as riotous mobs inflicted righteous justice on themselves; I wonder if these same frothy-mouthed zealots are sitting down across the country with monstrous smug smiles, proclaiming the local and temporary ban on Facebook, Youtube and en.Wikipedia as a great victory for God. I wonder also if these are the same ignorant beasts who believe television is a demonic contraption and the necktie is a symbol of Christianity. I have no illusion that such views are held by only a minority of our people, or that all we're missing for a lasting, forward-looking solution to our rampant ignorance and regressive tendencies is a bit more time for the media/government etc. to work their magic. The people of this country take great pride in their ignorance, and brandish it like a weapon to those that would challenge it – a means and an end in and of itself.