The potential power of social media
The swift action taken by Punjab Police at the giant Hafeez Centre Plaza, Lahore’s largest IT market, from where dozens of anti-Ahmadi posters were removed from shop fronts, is of course to be lauded.
The posters, which had gone up as a part of the local government election campaign, carried slogans stating that the establishments that carried them did not allow Ahmadis to enter and/or did not do business with them. Some made derogatory remarks against a community that has been discriminated against under a specific set of laws which essentially deny them their right to practise their beliefs.
The unexpected move by the Punjab government, with the DCO himself visiting the plaza, came after a message and picture tweeted over social media under the hashtag IStandWithAhmadis, quickly picked up support, and like a handful of snow rolled across the ground grew bigger and bigger within hours as more and more read and commented on the spread of hatred. The incident indicates the growing power of social media in a country that now has 30 million internet users according to the PTA.
Fifty percent of the users access the internet on their phone, and with over a hundred million mobile phone subscriptions in the country, the fifth highest in Asia, the number seems likely to keep up a rapid growth as cell phone companies offer more and more attractive net packages. A youthful population, the huge popularity of social media and the extraordinary pace at which it permits information to be disseminated makes it an immensely popular tool.
Is it a tool that can be used to change mindsets and bring in a new social reality? This of course is a very vast, very open question. Yes, the fact that the Punjab government could not avoid the pressure, and from its own Twitter account thanked those reporting the Hafeez Centre posters while asking for other offensive material to be reported is in many ways hugely encouraging. It offers some hope that this medium, essentially controlled by ordinary people rather than the businesses that manage television channels, can actually provide a space for alternative voices, alternative thoughts.
Certainly there seems to be no room for this within the mainstream media, which is essentially uniform in its thinking, generally steers right of centre at slightly differing angles. Apart from the talk shows tuned in to by millions, the media churns out a steady stream of idiocy in the form of game shows requiring people to gulp down large quantities of food, spar with their spouse over some mundane matter or engage in other actions apparently as a form of amusement. It has generally cut back on quality programming even in the spheres of music or sport.
In this scenario, something is required to jolt numbed minds and put forward ideas that can make us think a little harder about quite what is happening to us as a society. Social media could offer such a forum, despite its limitations and the fact that it is not available to the majority. In some ways, it has acted in this fashion. But then again, there are many sites that spread hatred, augment conspiracy theories and build up on the biases that already handicap us in so many different ways. If a survey were to be conducted, the balance would probably fall in favour of these sites which fall in line with the extreme Right or with the perpetuation of intolerance.
What is also important is to move beyond the removal of posters and see how we can erase hatred not only from shop windows but also from minds. This is a far harder task. It will take much more than the peeling away of bits of paper or the painting over of chalked wall slogans. Change in society is a fascinating phenomenon in so many different ways. Within years, General Ziaul Haq, beginning in the early 1980s, was able to completely alter the place we lived in.
Perhaps none of us had realised how long that impact would last and how difficult it would be to reverse it. The truth has now sunk in after living through decades of sectarian killings and reading regular reports about the targeted attacks on Ahmadis. The complaint by a shop owner interviewed at Hafeez Centre, who said that Ahmadis often did not reveal their identity, is in itself an illustration of what we have become.
Quite naturally, no Ahmadi would declare himself or herself to be one when walking through a shop door; there is no reason why they should do so and it is surely far from normal for any individual to declare religious belief, ethnicity, marital status or other personal matters when visiting a shop to buy an item he needs.
The extent of the bias is widespread. We have taken it forward quickly and deliberately. Social media alone cannot of course make the difference. It can act only to support other change. That change has to come through the mainstream media, to at least some degree. Radio stations offer one possible means given that television channels are limited in so many ways and have been devastatingly successful in manufacturing that consent of ideology that Noam Chomsky writes so elegantly about.
The consent consists, in our case, of a combined belief that some individuals are superior to others, that certain groups deserve unfair treatment and that anyone who dissents from the prevailing view is somehow a traitor. This is how we have cast Malala Yousafzai under the label of traitor while presently Aafia Siddiqui as a heroine who must be rescued from the US jail where she is incarcerated.
Somehow, our ideas have become warped, even if there is a twist in almost every story and a good reason to present different perspectives on it. Things in this world are not black and white. It is important to recognise this and to see a diversity of opinion on all matters.
There are, however, some matters on which there should be no room for diversity. One of these is the fundamental belief that all citizens are equal. They are not Shias, Christians, Ahmadis, Sunnis or Kalash, but Pakistani citizens who deserve precisely the same rights and liberties. This is what our law says. The fact that it has been twisted is a tragedy.
The question is how to undo the damage caused in this manner and rebuild ourselves as a society that does not go about pushing people out of shops or demanding that they label themselves. When we do this, we are acting just as Donald Trump is doing in the US or as the Nazis did under the Third Reich. This needs to be recognised.
We cannot throw stones at others when we ourselves are guilty of so much wrong. One wrong was at least partially corrected by the Punjab government action a few days ago. The action of course created debate, and this too is positive in some ways. What it did not really do was alter perception. To achieve that will require a long, hard battle with many weapons employed to prod and push society till it resumes something that resembles a normal place in which to live.