Are Pakistanis free to think?

Are Pakistanis free to think?
Of late, various activists, journalists, and movements in Pakistan have been silenced. But really, there is nothing new about the Pakistani struggle for securing the right of thought and expression. From jailing dissidents like Bacha Khan and Faiz in the 20th century to arresting bloggers and issuing notices to folks on Twitter, and banning Manto, the struggle has repeated itself many times over.

To many, such a struggle represents an effort by elites to impose foreign values and weaken traditional values they consider as sacrosanct. To a growing minority, curbs on free thought and expression are primarily responsible for stunting the progress of Pakistani society.

John Stuart Mill, arguably one of the most influential philosophers of the 19th century, highlighted the importance of ensuring freedom of thought and expression in a society. His work offers an insight into why it is important that individuals’ right to freely think and express their thoughts are protected.

Published in 1859, Mill’s On Liberty establishes that the freedom of thought and expression is one of the most important liberties that should be guaranteed to individuals in a society, except when such freedom is used to harm others. He argues that opinion should not be suppressed for three key reasons: silencing opinions that are true means that society cannot benefit from learning the truth; suppressing opinions that may be partially true – and most prevailing opinions are only partially true – means that societies cannot improve by understanding the truth more fully; and even if an opinion has been established as being false, its free expression is important, for it allows a falsehood to be tested against truth.

According to Mill, it is important to allow the voicing of false opinions, for it allows society to not simply believe the truth as just a doctrine, but better understand the rational grounds of the truth. Without this test, truths become dogmas, and dogmas do nothing but hinder the progress and weaken societies.

If we were to pay closer attention to how thought and expression are controlled in Pakistan, we can quickly see how this regulation has the astounding effect of stunting the progress of Pakistani society. This control is at times exercised by the state, but it is more commonly exercised through the tyranny of the majority, which imposes its values and beliefs on all, at times by the credible threat of committing violent acts against those who go against the grain.

This tyranny of the majority, according to Mill, is worse than the tyranny of the government because it extends beyond the political domain. It permeates all facets of life, leading to an “intellectual pacification” that sacrifices “the entire moral courage of the human mind”.

On various trips to Pakistan, I am often reminded by friends with whom I meet in public places that I must keep my voice down while voicing certain opinions. This warning is especially grave when the discussion turns to the rights of a certain religious group that has been labelled as a minority in the country. This is the tyranny of majority, for the threat of voicing an opinion that contradicts the established norms is such that one may be summarily executed without due process for doing nothing but questioning the opinion held to be true by a significant majority of Muslims in Pakistan. Such is the tyranny that even a short tweet on certain subjects can lead to a targeted attack by trolls, and as if that was not enough, notices are served to people warning them that they may have violated Pakistani law!

Some may argue that this only happens to a select few and only in extreme cases, but the fact of the matter is that the tolerance of free thought and expression can only truly be tested at the extreme, as it is the only way to fully test the foundations of the opinions held to be true by the majority.

It may be true that the opinions being expressed are wrong and incorrect. If so, then there is no reason to suppress the opinions, for the refutation of a false opinion should only strengthen the arguments of those who believe that their opinion is fully correct. If this test were not to be conducted, people over time would forget the rational grounds for their opinions, thereby completing the evolution of a belief into dogma.

The tyranny of the majority also means that society, straitjacketed by the majority belief, cannot progress without fully understanding the truth. By suppressing the expression of an opinion that someone may not like, we hold ourselves from discussing issues that need to be tackled. For example, by suppressing those who seek to raise awareness of human rights violations conducted by law enforcement authorities across Pakistan, we only do injustice to future generations who need to know the grim and gory truth, as it is the only way to bring about an improvement in the way a certain class and ethnicity is treated in the country. The suppression of such unpopular truths leads to the persistence of societal ills, at times at a systemic level, as issues are swept under the rug because highlighting them goes against the narrative that is being espoused by the majority.

Many in society claim, particularly when it comes to matters of religion, that their opinion is the full and complete truth. They use this as a justification for suppressing opinions that come in direct conflict with their truths. The believers of said truths claim infallibility and forget that this claim to infallibility goes against the ethical and morals teachings of the faith they claim to profess. History teaches us that better individuals than the ones who today claim infallibility shuddered at the thought of being perceived as such, and it is ironic that their followers today lack the humility and patience to listen to others with whom they may disagree with.

Without the freedom of thought and its free expression, says Mill, the existence of “an intellectually active people” is all but impossible. Is it any surprise then that more than seven decades after its independence, Pakistani society continues to veer from one crisis to another?

The writer is an analyst based in Washington DC.