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The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is, as the full name might imply, a Muslim country. What you may not know is that it is THE Muslim country, the only one formed specifically in the name of Islam in 1947 as a Muslim homeland. Their constitution states that all laws must comply with the Quran, and like the Bible, that means whatever the party in power wants it to mean. In today’s parlance, it means that basic human rights are a huge struggle for many marginalized groups living in Pakistan.
One of those groups is, obviously, non-Muslims. Interestingly, Pakistanis inherited anti-blasphemy laws from British colonialists in the 19th century, but in the 1970s and ‘80s they were beefed up to become truly oppressive. In 1986, authorities established the punishment for insulting the Prophet Muhammad as death or life in prison. The laws are used to unfairly imprison atheists, Christians, and other religious minorities, and though no one has ever received the death penalty for blasphemy, more than 50 people have been murdered before their trials were over. Even people who speak out against the laws are straight-up murdered with alarming frequency. And just this week, a man was murdered by three women for allegedly committing blasphemy 13 years ago.
With the advent of the Internet, more Pakistanis have the opportunity to be exposed to differing points of view. Unfortunately, it also means that the government has more opportunity to catch Pakistanis blaspheming and punish them. That’s why the Pakistani government has beseeched Twitter and Facebook to actually help them find and punish people they feel are blaspheming on those social networks. Even if the Pakistanis involved are located abroad, the government would seek extradition to get them back and put them on trial for their lives.
Twitter hasn’t responded, and I hope they never do, because fuck that request. Facebook, though, is taking the request seriously and has agreed to send a delegation to Pakistan to discuss it. I don’t seriously believe that Facebook would actually help disclose the identities of “blasphemers” to the Pakistani government, especially if they know the world is watching, considering that Mark Zuckerberg is pretty obviously considering a political run in the future. But that interest in politics may mean that he’s more likely to deal with a governmental request with kid gloves, even a request as outright disgusting as Pakistan’s.
While they probably won’t actually help anyone get prosecuted for blasphemy, Facebook is considering ways to censor content according to the majority views of a particular country, and that’s dangerous — the positive power of social media is the ability to expose people to new viewpoints, and Facebook’s plan would be a huge step backward into an echo chamber, which as I’ve talked about before leads to increasing radicalization of dangerous people with dangerous ideas.
Speaking of, Pakistan’s interior minister whined that social networks tend to censor Holocaust denial while allowing people to insult the Prophet Muhammad. He doesn’t seem to realize that’s because the Holocaust actually happened, while Muhammad is a fantasy figure who never actually split the moon in half or made a palm tree stop crying because he was leaning on it. We can say that just like we can say that Yahweh never flooded the entire earth destroying all of human civilization besides one family. That might insult Jewish people who believe it, but it doesn’t matter. It’s far worse to say that 6 million people weren’t killed in the Holocaust, because that’s a provable lie with serious consequences that contributes to the rise of neo-Nazis.
In other words, stopping fake news from spreading isn’t equivalent to stopping people from pointing out the absurdities of religion. Religion is the “fake news” in that comparison. Thankfully, Pakistan won’t win this fight, and thanks in part to the Internet, more and more Pakistanis will wake up to that fact.