Flash Forward Pakistan: Pakistan online
By Samad Khurram, Dawn, 17 Feb, 2009
Samad Khurram speculates on the challenges which face this country in future years as part of Dawn.com's launch special 'Flash Forward Pakistan: Where do we go from here?'
In Swat, the army indulges in another never-ending battle with elusive militants who hold entire cities hostage to their whims. The silent victims of this violence are ordinary residents whose lives have been utterly devastated by the carnage. Sadly, there is no hope for peace until the residents of Swat and the people of Pakistan actively stand up and do their part in combating terrorism.
Speaking out against Islamic militants remains taboo in the minds of Pakistanis for many reasons. People are genuinely afraid of threats or falling victim to terrorism. Numerous editors have claimed to have been threatened by militants or their supporters. Furthermore, many who disagree with the militants in their actions may sympathize with what they stand for – a Shariah-based system of governance. They tend to silence their criticism either in the vain hope that militants will reform themselves, or for fear of being labeled a non-Muslim.
While we are often quick to dismiss conservatives as narrow-minded, this strategy of selective silence stems from the most progressive people of our country. PPP loyalists, who tend to be the most vocal advocates of human rights during other governments, turn a blind eye towards the appointment of honor killers in their cabinet. Those who still let principles guide their conscience and dare to speak up are scorned for sowing the seeds of a military takeover or being right-wing. Constructive intellectual discourse is stifled by an ‘us vs. them’ rhetoric that has become commonplace in our society.
For those who do wish to speak up, alternative media presents a different avenue. People can communicate without having to reveal any personal information using blogs, in chat rooms, or by commenting on popular sites and online videos. The messenger is saved from witch-hunts while the message trickles down. Given time, these drops of dissent can form a reservoir of change. Indeed, those of us who had no experience with or intention of starting a blog or mailing list realized that alternative media was the only tool left to us when the mainstream media vanished from our households in November 2007, when General Musharraf imposed emergency rule.
Eventually, the real resistance to the emergency was built on the internet. Millions signed online petitions and hundreds of thousands extended support as the world watched the blogosphere explode with anti-Musharraf rhetoric. Efforts such as The Emergency Times blog and mailing list, which I helped publish, helped people stay informed about protests as well as emergency-related news developments.
Some in Swat have tried to follow a similar model, but have enjoyed limited success. They were drowned out by the cacophony of voices on the internet or lacked the fundamentals of good blogging. Ironically, it was the mainstream media that helped put alternative media back on the map during the present crisis. An online dairy became a success once BBC Urdu picked up the blog of a brave seventh-grade school girl from Swat who pens her thoughts as well as the sights and sounds from the area, and tailored it for the general audience.
These online efforts have helped advocate for change, but the fact is the Emergency Times and Swat Diary will remain event-centric blogs, popular only among a small band of followers. Real, long-term impact is achieved by those who are willing to reveal their identities along with their message. Moreover, credibility is built by being consistently honest and advocating for the same principles each time.
Professor Adil Najam is one blogger who has spoken critically and impartially on many issues ranging from economics to foreign policy and religion at Pakistaniat.com. Thanks to his careful analyses, this liberal has garnered the trust and goodwill of many conservative Pakistanis across the world, and has even succeeded in changing many of their minds. Comments on Prof. Najam’s website clearly suggest that his readers do not agree with everything he says. Yet when he asked for help in reconstructing a girls’ school in Swat, his readers were quick to donate one-third of the cost in a few days. Many of the pro-judiciary, pro-Musharraf, pro-Nawaz, and pro-PPP cadres, who normally point knives at each other’s throats, banded for a common cause.
The same results could not be achieved by other cyber-intellectuals such as Ahmed Quraishi and Zaid Zaman Hamid. When reports of the crisis brewing in Swat were first revealed by Hamid Mir, Zaid Hamid was quick to dismiss them as fabrications and allege instead that Mir was a covert CIA operative. Neither website today has any mention of the crisis in Swat. And, in my opinion, neither would succeed if they initiated a call for action.
The fact is, alternative media has changed the dynamics of moral responsibilities. If you are a Pakistani who is able to read this message, it is your ethical and national obligation to speak up, present your side of the story, advocate for change, and organize for a better tomorrow. It also means that you are responsible for whatever statements you make as a Pakistani on the internet. Online readership is not geographically bound and one irresponsible statement can unleash a storm of hate. The vitriol generated by Zaid Hamid’s war threats to Indian journalists and citizens is ample proof of the high potential of abuse alternative media has.
The eventual hope of positive change in Pakistan rests with those who choose to make their voice heard by whatever means necessary. Specifically, that hope lies with nonpartisan activists such as Prof. Najam and not with those who exacerbate the ‘us vs. them’ split. Criticism must begin at home and must be applied without restraint to everyone, beloved or hated. That is the only way to change the minds of those on the other side and make the most of the power of free speech.
Samad Khurram is an undergraduate at Harvard University who made headlines by refusing to accept an award from the US ambassador to Pakistan, citing continuing drone attacks in the country. He maintains a popular blog and has participated in the lawyers’ movement to restore the judiciary dismissed by former President Pervez Musharraf.