This post is about readers in Pakistan. Unfortunately readers in Pakistan won’t actually be able to read this. Which is what this post is about.
Pandaemonium is a WordPress site. This week WordPress received an email from the ‘Web Analysis Team’ of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) ‘The webpages hosted on your platform are extremely Blasphemous and are hurting the sentiments of many Muslims around Pakistan’, it read. What particularly seemed to concern the PTA were my articles about Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine targeted by Islamist gunmen in a machinegun attack that left 12 people dead in January 2015. These articles, and the images from the magazine that I have published (in particular the one above), are, according to the PTA, ‘in violation of Section 37 of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 and Section 19 of Constitution of Pakistan’. It ordered WordPress to block access to my website in Pakistan in order ‘to contribute towards maintaining peace and harmony in the world’. Which is why readers in Pakistan can no longer access Pandaemonium.
The best way for readers in Pakistan to circumvent the censorship is through a VPN. I will also see about setting up a separate self-hosted site to mirror Pandaemonium, though the reason I stopped self-hosting and moved to WordPress is because self-hosting took up an inordinate amount of time.
I am not, of course, the first person whose website has been blocked in Pakistan. Nor is Pakistan the only country that blocks websites deemed unacceptable. China, Russia, and many others routinely do so. Britain has its own list of unacceptable extremist sites, the takedown of which will no doubt also ‘contribute towards maintaining peace and harmony in the world’.
What the Pakistani action does do is provide a new perspective on the attitudes of many Western liberals towards Charlie Hebdo. When the Charlie Hebdo offices were attacked in 2015, many liberals in the West were reluctant to offer their solidarity. As I observed in the immediate aftermath of the attack (in one of the articles that caused offence to the PTA), ‘hardly had news begun filtering out about the Charlie Hebdo shootings, than there were those suggesting that the magazine was a ‘racist institution’ and that the cartoonists, if not deserving what they got, had nevertheless brought it on themselves through their incessant attacks on Islam’. ‘Those who claim that it is ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobic’ to mock the Prophet Muhammad’, I added, ‘appear to imagine, with the racists, that all Muslims are reactionaries. It is here that leftwing ‘anti-racism’ joins hands with rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry.’
Perhaps the most disgraceful refusal of solidarity came a year later with the boycott by a host of writers – including Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Geoff Dyer – of the annual gala of PEN America in protest against the free speech organization’s decision to present Charlie Hebdo with its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award.
In countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, writers and cartoonists constantly risk their lives facing down blasphemy laws, standing up for equal rights and fighting for democratic freedoms. They constantly challenge the kind of censorship imposed by the PTA. They are the people whom many Western liberals betray in their refusal to support free speech and in their insistence that to mock Muhammad or to champion blasphemy is to be ‘racist’.
Such liberal critics would no doubt object to Pakistan’s decision to censor ‘blasphemous’ websites. But it’s worth asking: is there really that great a distance between their refusal to support Charlie Hebdo and the Pakistani authorities’ takedown of websites that do demonstrate solidarity?
A shorter version of this article was published in the Observer, 22 July 2018.