(We will act against literature, newspapers and magazines that are spreading hate, [ideas of] beheading people, sectarianism, extremism and intolerance. (National Action Plan, Pakistan)
In the wake of the Peshawar massacre, the most important trend that has emerged in the Pakistani public sphere is the focus, both by the government and the civil society, on the hitherto unimpeded hate speech.
Even though compared to the destructive power of terrorists, creating some laws that claim to monitor hate speech and prosecute hate crimes seems like a staid and rather tame response, having such laws on record is extremely crucial to the future of Pakistan as a progressive and tolerant nation.
Laws, at least, give us a statutory reference against which we can measure the words of our leaders as well as other public figures. The laws, thus, allow us to learn the habits of thinking not only in moral terms but also in legal and juridical terms. In the past, even though most of us often heard our neighborhood mullahs speak against women, Shias, Christians, Ahmadis and other Pakistanis, we never really paused to think abut the legal ramifications of their words, even when some of us might have found their words morally troubling. But now with increased focus on the legality of these statements at least we will know that what is being said against another community in the name of religion is illegal. Furthermore, this legal sanction is absolutely necessary to control the power of militant propaganda that relies on fomenting inter-ethnic and inert-sect and inter-religious strife.
According to section 20 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” Note that this is the approved version of international law relating to nation-states, but a modified form of this is absolutely necessary in Pakistan. A law that monitors hate speech and then enables us to prosecute hate crimes is absolutely essential to Pakistan’s survival.
I am, however, not just advocating that only a strict law should be legislated and implemented. I think it is necessary to make hate speech an issue in the public sphere and the print and digital media can help shape this debate. The media should take it on as a public service to highlight and point out individual and collective acts of hate speech and hate crimes. Sadly, in the wake of Peshawar massacre, at least one media personality, found it apt to blame, of all people, the Ahmadiyya community as the ultimate threat to Pakistan. However, this blatant act of scapegoating did not go unnoticed and other media outlets challenged this scapegoating and one of the public petitions against this coverage has so far garnered signatures from over nine thousand people. I know these are not significant numbers, but this tradition to hold hate-mongers accountable is certainly a positive trend for the future of Pakistan.
Yes, it is obvious that hate speech laws can also sometimes be used to curtail freedom of expression and thus a strict implementation of the law could end up impinging on the rights of the press and public intellectuals. That is why it is so hard to convince people about hate speech laws in the United States, as all speech is protected under the US constitution. But even in the US, speech that aims to incite violence toward others or that simply targets a group for no reason at all, is considered hate speech and there is, at least, a public response against such speech. In the Pakistani context, the purpose of the law could be to restrict and monitor a certain specific kind of hate speech, the kind of speech that our mullahs use pretty much in every Friday sermon as well as in most of their public pronouncements.
So, it is important to approach the issue with a certain degree of legal and cultural subtlety. There are certain obvious kinds of speech that can be very easily labeled hate speech:
- All announcements or incitements to violence against a group or an individual based on their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and religion.
- All speech and acts that encourage armed resistance against the Pakistani state and its institutions.
- All speech that aims at public humiliation or policing of women, minorities, or other such constituencies.
- All acts of public speech that encourage people to damage public or private property for a political cause.
- All acts of speech that incite people to perform acts of popular violent justice without due process of the law.
Having hate speech laws on record, even when not strictly implemented, is important for the people, especially the writers and activists who fight discrimination in Pakistan. They all can, at least, point to the illegality of speech by the Mullahs and force the government or the courts to take notice. This became evident in the recent campaign by Jibran Nasir
and others who gathered outside the Lal Masjid in Islamabad to protest the Taliban-sympathetic stance of Maulvi Abdul Aziz. Quite a few things enabled the people from the civil society: the media covered the rhetoric of the maulvi, the people were enraged at the Peshawar massacre, and the government was immediately enacting and honing new laws against terrorism, including some measures against the terrorist sympathizers. This nexus of events and possibilities created that one chance where the civil society protestors were heard and eventually the police and the courts were forced to take up the issue. The government has not done much about it yet, but at least something has been started because of a citizen initiative. Now if hate speech laws are on record, any member of the civil society can ask for a case to be registered whenever some mullah or others incite hate and violence against an individual or a community. So, what we have is good enough for now, but a more nuanced system of accountability for hate crimes and hate speech is needed.
We need to go beyond the current laws, but this is a great start. For years we as a nation have conceded the public sphere, inch by inch, to the religious leaders or their followers. As a result, these groups have drastically curtailed our own movement within the public sphere. Their power has also impacted the ideological realm, the realm of public discourse where progressive and civic-minded people can be condemned and put under threat. Monitoring hate speech and holding those who incite violence against others is a crucial first step in ensuring that no supra-state organizations can police the lives of Pakistani people, especially if they attempt it through fear and intimidation.
Yes, I understand I am not suggesting a revolutionary step to change Pakistan’s future, but such small changes have huge ramifications for the future. Pakistan no longer needs to be the country where minorities can so easily be a target of group violence on the incitement of village maulvis: remember the murders of Shama Bibi and Sajjad Maseeh, the Christian couple killed and burned by their neighbors on the incitement of a mullah! Also, the recent trial of Mr. Qadri, a murderer, is yet another example of how normative this mode of thinking has become: on the surface, the argument of his lawyer is that any citizen can declare a person a blasphemer and can then carry out a death sentence just as Mr. Qadri did for Salman Taseer. And, furthermore, this year even the small gathering to remember Salman Taseer’s murder was attacked by the followers of a religious group. Thus, it seems, not only do we have a society where murder can be publically praised, but we have also reached a state of affairs where simple acts of remembering our dead can be made into a motive for violence.
Having strong hate speech laws, laws that absolutely forbid all incitements to violence against weaker groups, against women, against minorities and others are absolutely necessary and it is therefore salutary to see that the current government is working in the same direction.
As citizens of a state where the public sphere has increasingly become more conservative, it is imperative on us as citizens as well as the media to continue fighting—within the material, legal and semiotic domains—for inclusion of silenced voices and for the monitoring of hateful and destructive voices.
Sometimes, it would take for us to admit the wrongs first, to acknowledge the darkest aspects of our private as well as public culture: a kind of collective self-examination of our own actions.
Whatever we do, we should know without a doubt that silence is no longer an option!
Raja tweets @masoodraja
 For details, please see http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx