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Cyberspace and mischief

Here in Pakistan, we’ve unfortunately had to become used to horrifying images and advertising intruding upon our online lives.

Many of the violent extremist groups operational in the country display strong media management skills, disseminating videos and other details about their unspeakable crimes with regularity, issuing press releases, hit lists and threats as the case may be.

(I refer here specifically to the online presence of violent extremist groups, leaving aside for the moment the vast amount of hate-filled and divisive content that goes around otherwise.)

It’s depressing to learn, then, that this is apparently part of the general trend. Last week, at an International Conference on Terrorist Rehabilitation and Community Resilience held in Singapore, speakers talked about the manner in which the online media was increasingly being used to spread extremist views and dangerous ideologies.

According to one counterterrorism analyst, Rohan Gunaratna, who heads the Singapore-based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, there are more than 10,000 extremist websites on the Internet compared to fewer than 100 that counter them.

“In many ways, the terrorists are very successful in cyberspace,” he told the gathering. “It is very important for us to build in the next 10 years the capacities and capabilities to counter the increasing presence and the operation of these groups in cyberspace.”

One can take exception with the broad generalisations made here — for example, I can hold extremist views but that doesn’t technically mean that I’ll necessarily deal in violence; and, what exactly is an “extremist” and why has it, in the global discourse, become linked to a) religion and b) one religion in particular? (In technical terms, I can think of several entrenched but extremist views that have nothing to do with either of the above.)

Nevertheless, the message being communicated is clear — those who wreak violence as a consequence of extreme views have a real and active presence on the Internet — and many might find it hard to disagree.

I can’t check out 10,000 sites, but even the medium-level online life I do have tells me that there are at least as many, if not more, manic voices out there calling for supporters as there are moderate ones. And modern experience has taught us, sadly, that while an extremist has the option to not be violent, he often is.

When views get to the point of being extreme, they are usually embedded in the person deep enough to physically defend or propagate.

On the other side of the coin, in Bangladesh there’s a crackdown going on against “atheist” — supposedly blasphemous — blogs. One such blogger was murdered. Several people have died in riots. Last week, a number of Islamic groups and clerics that had been staging protests against atheist bloggers threatened to march en masse to Dhaka on April 6 unless the bloggers were prosecuted.

In response, the Bangladesh telecommunications regulator ordered some Internet sites to remove hundreds of posts by some half a dozen bloggers whose writing was considered offensive to the religious majority. The government has blocked about a dozen websites and blogs, and has reportedly set up a panel to spy for blasphemy in the social media.

Between the two broad groups I’ve mention here, there are substantial differences — but there are points of vague similarity too.

The first often deals in and exports violence. The second is controversial regardless of the religion to which it is applied, and can — especially in conservative and/or homogenous societies — result in violence (though the distinction must be made that atheists tend not to wreak violence; it is generally visited upon them.)

In either case, violence is a relatively predictable possibility. And both are political stances in their essence.

So how far should internet freedoms go? How far should they be allowed to go? And how far should governments be involved, and legislation be devised, to control the dissemination of what could be found by some or many as an offensive or abhorrent or unpalatable view?

There’s no easy answer.

One could say that the freedom of speech extends to the point of not crying “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. But that would be to miss the point. Much of the point of subscribing to a certain ideology, extremist or otherwise, is to convince other people to do the same. Your point of view has no currency unless there are enough numbers to support it.

But ought there be legislation? In Pakistan, the answer is there for all to see. The blasphemy laws have done more harm than good, given the manner in which they lay themselves open to abuse. The majority may consider itself placated through their presence on the books, but they have led to serious crimes.

What can or cannot be vocalised in the public sphere? In Pakistan or Bangladesh, the issue is blasphemy, but in other countries Holocaust denial can be unlawful or speaking ill against the state can be illegal. Once you start setting laws, trying to identify terms and ideologies that might be found offensive by some, there is no end. Could a country legislate against calling someone a “bimbo” or a “jaahil”? It’s offensive, it’s pervasive and while it doesn’t identify itself as an ideology, the reasoning behind it is entrenched, and has enough roots in history, to practically be indistinguishable.

The trouble is, if I were to argue that any point of view on the internet that could give rise to violence be taken off, I’d have to stand against the Bangladesh bloggers as well as the violent extremists.

But there, perhaps, lies the beginning of an answer. Propagating violence is one thing. Airing a view that might lead opponents to violence is another. So, in the end, who should the onus lie with?

The writer is a member of staff. hajrahmumtaz@gmail.com

Hajrah Mumtaz, "Cyberspace and mischief," Dawn. 2013-04-01.