Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Freedom of Speech and the Price we Pay for it.

Shanaakht is over

Here's a video of the PPP workers vandalising the Arts Council.

As many of you know by now, The Shanaakht Festival and all the events related to it have been cancelled. The government could not provide assurances of safety and the organizers could not risk the safety of the festival volunteers and attendees.

This has been an extremely painful and frustrating time, especially for those who had been involved in organizing the festival. I attended the press conference where they announced the cancellation amidst a barrage of hostile questioning from the media present. It was heartbreaking to see something that was truly one of the best things to happen in Karachi, something we could hold our heads and be proud of, come to an end.

It has been an even more soul-crippling experience to read some of the comments on the internet and even on this blog by people who have been blaming the organizers for the entire episode. I know the people who were organizing Shanaakht. They are some of the most passionate, and patriotic citizens of this country I have ever had the honor of working with. It is important to me that their integrity should be defended loudly and unequivocally. These people put their lives into organizing this festival, by Pakistanis, for Pakistanis. It was completely open to the public, a chance many people are not willing to take here. These people were genuinely working towards bringing Pakistanis and Karachiities together, to give us something to be proud of, to celebrate our heritage. But these are the people who today we are lambasting from our safe little shells on the internet.

Not only do I support them because I believe in the ABSOLUTE freedom of speech, I support them because I feel it is our duty to support people who set out to do good for this country. However many mistakes they make on the way, we all know that the greater good was always the point of the Shanaakht Festival.

But more importantly it is our moral duty to speak out against those who commit acts of violence and injustice. If we do not, we are just as guilty of perpetrating it. It is not the criticism of the actual photograph that bothers me. People are entitled to their opinion on a piece of work and I wholly encourage healthy debate over it. What has appalled me is the lack of condemnation for the acts of the Pakistan Peoples Party. It's as if people are implying that the protestors could not be blamed for their acts of violence, destruction and intimidation because their feelings had been hurt and their great love for Benazir Bhutto drove them into a self-righteous frenzy of destruction.
Are we so resigned to the fact that we are always going to be a nation of barbarians?
No, I don't think we are a nation of barbarians. Which is why it is so crucial for us to draw a distinction between ourselves and the perpetrators of those violent acts. You cannot support them. You must not.

It has horrified me that somewhere among the educated people of this country, from people who should clearly know right from wrong that there hasn't been a stampede to CONDEMN the violence that we were witness to that day. This should not be something we are debating over. Nor should this be something people should be looking to justify. It is dangerous to even play Devil's Advocate here because it is our moral fabric that is under question. What kind of people are we that would condone a violent attack over somebody's expression?

There are some of you who seem to have gotten the wrong facts over the incident. Here is a huge misconception which must be cleared up.

Nobody had asked the organizers to take down the photograph before the incident. No one had raised any objection. The exhibit had been up since the morning and no one had raised any objections. When the hooligans from the PPP entered the exhibit they immediately removed the photograph themselves and took it with them. They did not make any requests or ask for it to be removed, they simply attacked the exhibition. The notion that the organizers refused to take down the picture when asked to before is absolutely false. This simply did not happen.

It is important to note that had the organizers in fact decided to refuse to take down the photograph, they would have been well within their rights to. They were not doing anything illegal. Whether it was ethical or not is open to debate. but that's exactly what there should have been. A debate. Not a physical attack. This is extremely important for everyone to realize. There is no law in Pakistan that would consider the display of that picture illegal or obscene. We may be a lot of things but we are not China and we are not the United Arab Emirates. Political commentary is still protected speech.

A long time ago, before I decided to throw away my life and become a musician, I was a journalism student, and the issue of free speech has always been a crucial one. I studied journalism in the US. When it comes to the laws on free speech, I admit I am better versed in US law than Pakistani law. But I do know that displaying a picture like the one at Shanaakht, while it may be offensive, is not illegal. It does not fall under the same category as blasphemy. However you would think from the reactions of the PPP and people over the internet that some religious figure had been mocked or insulted. That is not what has happened.

The point I am trying to make here is that freedom of speech is not a clean cut golden shining value that is going to make all of us happy. It is dirty, and messy but it is the most important value we have. It is worth dying for. Freedom of speech doesn't just mean allowing the people who agree with you to speak. Freedom of speech was made for the people who disagree with you.

"Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you're in favor of free speech, then you're in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise. Otherwise, you're not in favor of free speech"
Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992).

We can't simply cherry pick the freedoms of speech we like and disregard the others. We must learn to accept that when we fight for the right to say what we think, we must be prepared to hear things and see things we may not want to.
It scares me that freedom of speech is such a lowly regarded value here in Pakistan. It's worrying because its not just uneducated people or fanatics who disregard it, it is educated people who are politically and morally conscious. The freedom of expression is the God-given right of every man, woman and child on this planet.
We are Pakistanis who may not have a lot to celebrate but we can celebrate the fact that we can criticize our government and we will not back down when they censor us and we will protest when they block out our news or violate our Constitution. Is this the same country that only a few weeks ago loudly exercised their right to free speech by marching on the government and loudly denouncing it's leaders? Once again, we should be on our hands and knees savoring every moment of the few freedoms we have. Because somewhere in North Korea, there are terrified people who fear for their lives for so much as suggesting regime change. Somewhere in the United Arab Emirates there are activists being whisked away by secret police for daring to criticizie the Draconian laws of the state.

And here we are expressing our opinion on the Internet, freely, without fear of being violently reprisal. And if you cherish this freedom and are willing to fight for it, you must denounce those who try to take it from you. It doesn't matter that you find the photograph at Shanaakht offensive. It doesn't matter if you thought it was art or not. What matters is that it was somebody's expression and no matter what it was, whether you agree with it or not, it is your duty as a Pakistani to stand up and defend their right to say it.

We have a real opportunity for debate and discussion here and while the events of last week are tragic, it will give us an opportunity to talk about it, in a hopefully civilized way. You have my point of view. Now lets hear yours.

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing as S. G. Tallentyre in 1906 (commonly attributed to Voltaire, of whom Hall wrote a biography).


Blogger Atiya Herekar said...

Nice, man. Beautifully written.

But it's not that plain and simple though. If freedom of speech was really to be respected, the cartoon of the Prophet(s.a) should have been allowed to be displayed without fear.

Even though it might seem limiting, sometimes you do have to respect the sentiments of those around you. I'm glad you included that passage about what really happened. No one is in their right to destroy something because of one offensive picture.

But such is the way things are that we really do have our hands tied. You can't argue against bullets.

It's a loss to our country, our heritage and to us as Pakistanis but the simple fact that you're highlighting such things goes to show you that yes, maybe change is around the corner.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Ali. said...

oba-san you should get that facebook networkd blog thingy and add it here so that all the people you know on facebook can read the stuff you write too.

5:15 PM  
Blogger Sadaff said...

I wish Shanakt had gone on. It would have given somewhat of a closure to the maliciousness that the PPP walay did.

I hope that you and the other artists don't leave the fight for our right as Pakistanis to express our freedom of speech.

You have many fans on the other side of the world. Good Luck.

7:27 PM  
Blogger ali said...

i normally don't comment here. but this was really heartfelt and inspiring.
i have taken the liberty of copying your writing and emailing it to friends and family (giving due credit of course:)

we can only hope that some good comes from all this negativity.

i will say this though... in the light of all that has happened... it is rather inspiring to talk to the few people who understand our outrage and are willing to stand behind these principles that our "leaders" keep talking about but don't have the will/need to implement.

now go and write a song about it :P

8:31 PM  
Blogger KM said...

i second
this does call for a song.

9:47 PM  
Blogger for every reaction.... said...

khoon chala! India...pakistan..or the world..freedom is te most important thing in this world.we must fight every time,there is no question of taking this lying down!

10:36 PM  
Blogger kagemusha said...

I completely Agree with you man, this was a Universal level of stupidity. These people are the reason the country is being laid to waste. They treat political heads like Deities.

Rest assured today's youth grieves this loss, but there will me more opportunities.

1:07 AM  
Blogger Ahsan said...

Yeah, couple of points. First of all, great post -- really heartfelt and your anguish comes through.

Second, it is disturbing the extent to which people are tying themselves into knots to get away with not condemning the violence (i.e. "they were asking for it" or "if it was your mother/sister in Zia's lap how would you react"--both comments I received on our blog). Appalling stuff all round.

1:32 AM  
Anonymous Nen said...

These guys have served the purpose of the festival, more than the festival itself could have. That is after all our Shanakht.

God, I sound depressing!

1:52 PM  
Blogger Majaz said...

Great read, well-written. Here's hoping that it will bring the change you wish it to.

2:50 PM  
Blogger KM said...

@ahsan: wow, i got the same "what if it was your mom" comment on mine, but of course i didnt publish it. it was a stupid example...and i wasnt even advocating the picture. i was condemning the mode of showing disapproval.
they've just made the picture more popular this way.

7:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are posting all this because you didn't get a chance to perform coz of the attack. Everything at the end is about ADP, nothing else matters if ADP is not involved.

12:28 AM  
Blogger Ahsan said...


Please don't respond to the troll above (Anon1228).


So you censored the comment(s)? Tsk tsk. After all this discussion about freedom of expression...

4:31 AM  
Blogger KM said...

@ahsan: lol. yes i did. my bad. i should feel bad. but i dont. plus it would just spark a comment war (as loyal readers rush to defend), which usually ends up deviating from the discussion at hand.

10:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All your artsy fartsy types need to get your heads out of your asses and realize that not everything can pass in the name of 'art'. I'm sick of all you artists thinking anything goes as art.. there is such a thing as the real world.. im also sick of everybody trying to 'express' themselves.. pull your heads out of the clouds and start living in the real world you amean js

12:12 PM  
Blogger Omar said...

@Anonymous; I'm curious to know what your version of the real world is? Is it a utopian paradise where no one is allowed to speak their minds? or 'express' themselves as you've chosen to put in quotes?

Do you think that my freedom of expression is different from yours? Do you think there should be one rule for people who agree with you and then another set for those who don't? No, at the end of the day I am arguing for YOUR right to express yourself. I am arguing for YOUR right to tell me to take my head out of my ass because I believe in the greater good of not suppressing anyone's speech. You're on the wrong side of the fence here my friend because what I'm arguing for is a freedom for all of us. You included.

12:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The real world is to recognize limits and sensibilities rather than insist on imposing ideals learnt in text books.

1:48 PM  
Blogger Ali. said...

yeah man anonymous is right.

limits like: people here wont ever be tolerant enough to not want to and subsequently try to kill you if you say something they dont like.

sensiblities like: they should kill you anyway.

bullshit ideals like: everyone gets to say what they want but people should have the good sense not to be offensive and hurtful and be considerate of other peoples sensitivities.

anonymous dude you should start your own blog. but dont say stuff against ADP though. OBA reserves the right to kill you.

3:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The video should be your next music video ... but instead of the banner, it should be you guys that the public should be tearing down (in a shehzad roy way).

3:11 PM  
Blogger Vaqas said...


10:41 AM  
Anonymous wajid said...

I dont necessarily agree with this article but thought you might want to take a look.

9:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was about to post the same link as Wajid above me... OBA, I'd like you to read Nadeem Farooq Paracha's article about the Shanaakht Festival and tell us what you think. He's trying to take the "road less travelled" approach, and talks in favour of the thugs. It's hilarious... the man has the gall to ridicule everyone and make fun of Muslims attacking buildings while protesting the Danish cartoons (not that that protest was justified), but here, he supports the people who are doing the exact same thing, minus the beards and prayers caps!
But yeah... read the article.

7:35 AM  
Blogger Daanish said...

We as a nation are on the way to grow up,tantrum is part of growing up......I hope we will mature soon !!

11:21 AM  
Blogger Omar said...

Hey guys,

Thanks for posting the link to NFP's article, several people sent it to me as well.

Upon my first reading of the article I was absolutely incensed, it seemed like an extremely responsible piece of writing but then I realized that NFP sees himself as some sort of provocateur, someone who deliberately takes the other side of the argument to get a rise out of people.
At the very least, if you read his article and it is able to help you frame your opinion a little better, then there is some worth in it.
However I find it disappointing and even hypocritical for him to be advocating a point of view given his past as a student protestor. I would have been happy to debate him on the issues, but his condoning of violence is deplorable and that ends any sort of debate because either he's trying to get a rise out of everyone or he's morally bankrupt.
Either way its irresponsible.

12:22 PM  

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