Yesterday I was sitting around not doing much of anything when I received this message on my cell phone:
“Uploading and sharing of blasphemous content on Internet is a punishable offense under the law. Such content should be reported on info pta.gov.pk for legal action.”
A short message, not terribly coherent, but a terrible message all the same. It basically asks all citizens to start spying on each other on social media, and to report what is essentially a thought crime.
In Orwell’s 1984, a Thought Crime was defined as any kind of thinking that went against the Party: “the criminal act of holding unspoken beliefs or doubts that oppose or question the ruling party. In the book, the government attempts to control not only the speech and actions, but also the thoughts of its subjects. To entertain unacceptable thoughts is known as crimethink in Newspeak, the ideologically purified dialect of the party. ‘Crimestop’ is a way to avoid crimethink by immediately purging dangerous thoughts from the mind.”
Publishing, writing and freedom of expression are also afflicted by the idea of thought crimes – that merely holding an opinion, having an idea, and then putting it into writing can be considered a crime against the state, against morality, against God.
In real life, we’ve expanded that to mean any kind of thinking — thinking, not action — that goes against social principles. Even disbelief or idolatry, according to Jon Glasby, a social policy expert at the University of Birmingham, is a type of thought crime.
Totalitarian countries like the USSR under Stalin, or China under Mao, punished its citizens for thought crimes by sending them to concentration camps for retraining and reeducation – basically brainwashing.
In Pakistan, we have taken steps to curb our version of a thought crime – blasphemy – by enacting laws against it, by enshrining it in our penal code, and by establishing it as one of the worst types of outrages against the religious sentiments of an entire nation. Article 295-C in our Constitution defines it in this manner:
295-C – Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet:
Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.
In truth, blasphemy is not just poorly defined, it is also subjective, and is open to interpretation not just by the courts, but by any member of the public. This is how Mashal Khan was lynched, and Aasia Bibi jailed. They were not found to have committed blasphemy by a court of law, but the people around them, Mashal’s classmates and Aasia Bibi’s fellow villagers, just decided that they’d committed blasphemy through rumors of Facebook posts and a fight with other women in the village, respectively.
In 1984, Orwell wrote about how technology was used to keep citizens in line: their telescreens spied on their every activity, every facial expression, every reaction. The Thought Police monitoring the telescreens reported any suspected crimes to the Ministry of Love, and if a citizen was suspected of committing Thoughtcrime, they were picked up and taken immediately to be tortured in the basement.
Here in Pakistan, we don’t have a Ministry of Love. But we do have the equivalent of telescreens: our mobile phones. Through them our government is asking us to report instances of blasphemy on the Internet to the Pakistan Telecom Authority. We don’t know what the government will do with this information. But we know the consequences.
In Pakistan, you don’t have to be taken off to a basement to be “re-educated”. Instead, a maulvi will announce from a loudspeaker in the mosque that you have committed blasphemy and that all good Muslims should come to redress your crime. What happens next is the real crime, but we don’t want to talk about that. We use our own version of Crimestop to make sure we don’t even think about it.
That way we tell ourselves that it couldn’t possibly happen to us.
Here’s a short interview I did with the BBC World Service about this.