Authoritarian regimes prefer ignorance, as the liberty to think freely by the vast majority could put the hegemony of those regimes at risk. In general, the undemocratic forces controlling those regimes prefer to feed the masses one-sided propaganda that suits the needs of the ruling elite.

Zia-ul-Haq and Imran Khan. Composite
image: Imad Zafar / Asia Times

The first rule for how to manipulate the minds of the masses is to deprive them of the power of reasoning and critical thinking. Like many other regressive and authorization countries, Pakistan has faced that problem.

A society that already lacks the habits of reading and research can hardly flourish intellectually or in the domains of education and research.

It takes no rocket science to find that in the modern age a country or society devoid of genuine knowledge while also lacking civic liberties such as freedom of expression and the right to information is bound only to travel backward.

In Pakistan, the hybrid regime of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) backed by the military establishment is reviving the legacy of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who with his own ideas of religion and in a bid to Islamize the entire country laid the foundation of a society that is intolerant and extremist in nature.

It was under Zia’s martial law when Islamization, the culture of jihad, the veil for women, and moral policing of the people by the state were introduced. Dissenting journalists and political leaders were sent to jail and tortured; the literature of the far right wing was promoted and journalism was systematically turned into the business of molding people’s minds and opinions on the basis of hyper-nationalism and religion.

Allegations of treason and blasphemy were the tools used effectively by Zia to Islamize society. As a result, we have seen a society that even in the year 2020 is living in the medieval age. Moral policing remains the tool for many to suppress critical and rational voices.

The literature produced today is based on religious views. Imagine fiction novels in the Urdu language where the heroes are portrayed as pious Muslims offering prayers five times a day and always insisting on moral policing of others, while the heroines are portrayed as women with a dress code that covers their entire body and every other woman who makes her own choices is deemed immoral, and often meets a bad end in these novels.

The new bunch of writers including Umera Ahmed and Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar are examples in this regard. Umera Ahmed often brings the Ahmadi community into her stories and it is portrayed as following a wrong religious path, thus influencing many minds to hate minorities and only to respect their own religious and moral practices.

Even non-fiction books are flooded with one-sided narratives of state history, which is even distorted in textbooks. The likes of Dr Mubarak Ali, a famous historian, or Pervez Hoodbhoy, Ayesha Siddiqa, and Husain Haqqani, are called traitors and blasphemers.

Since assuming power, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s PTI-led government has only brought regressive changes to the country.

A few days back the Punjab Provincial Assembly, where PTI has a majority, passed a bill called Taffuz Bunyad-e-Islam (Protecting the Foundation of Islam) Bill 2020. This law obligates all publishers to submit at least five copies of each edition of a book they publish with the Directorate General Public Relations, which has been empowered to inspect printing presses, bookstores and publishing houses, and confiscate books containing such content, before and after their printing. 

The Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board (PCTB), led by managing director Rai Manzoor Husain, has already banned 100 textbooks that were allegedly found to be against the two-nation theory and were considered blasphemous and anti-Pakistan.

The bill has brought stern criticism from civil society, but for the majority devoid of rational and critical thinking it is a good step. This is the same majority for whom the great Urdu fiction writer Saadat Hasan Manto was just an author of a cheap, sexy stories who spread vulgarity, and who think the great poet Jaun Elia promoted vulgarity and anti-religious thoughts and was a threat to societal norms.

For this segment of society authors like Bertrand Russell, Friedrich Hegel, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Gottlieb Fichte are far less renowned than the likes of Qudrut Ullah Shahab or Ashfaq Ahmed, who instead of encouraging their readers to look for reason and rationality in the modern age advise them to focus all their energies on the afterlife and leave everything to fate.

The likes of Orya Maqbool Jan and Naseem Hijazi, who glorify jihad through their books and columns, and people including Orya who spill venom against religious minorities, are not only considered heroes by a large segment of the masses but have strong fan clubs among the power elite, while the likes of Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Mohsin Hamid are thought to be propagating foreign agendas.

Even the acclaimed writer Shuja Nawaz, the brother of the late army chief General Asif Nawaz Janjua, found it difficult to launch his book in Pakistan.

The restrictions on knowledge and the effort to bring back the legacy of General Zia by this hybrid regime is not limited to books. The famous Internet game PUBG has been banned by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, which declared it a waste of time and against the principles of ethics and right conduct.

A few days back the Supreme Court of Pakistan hinted at a ban of YouTube, giving the reason that some content on YouTube is against the country, the army, and the judiciary. The court also stated that many countries have banned YouTube or brought the use of social media under local laws.

It is well to remember that Pakistan has already banned the Bingo live-streaming app and has issued a final warning to TikTok to stop users in Pakistan from posting immoral, obscene and vulgar content.

So the entire focus of the hybrid regime is on stopping vulgarity through moral policing and imposing curbs on every possible medium of knowledge from where the people can access true history and gradually realize that they have been taught falsehoods by textbooks and the fictional and non-fictional books of most Pakistani authors.

The question is, when will sanity prevail among the ranks of PTI and the establishment, and when will they realize that forcing students to read distorted history will only produce more generations of useless minds who will not be fit for the modern century?

When will they see the foolishness of having people read the contributions Muslims made to science, psychology, literature and other branches of knowledge a hundred years back while denying them the opportunity to read the current developments in these fields by other countries and people from different religions and ethnicities?

We have seen how the Islamization propagated by Zia destroyed the political and social fabrics of Pakistani society and how it brought a massive downfall in the collective intellect by promoting only far-right literature and journalism that revolves around religion and nationalism only.

The men calling the shots have no clue of the definition of knowledge, or perhaps they are actually afraid of their own ignorance and do not believe in their own narratives and ideologies, and that is the reason the only option this hybrid regime has is to ban everything that can spread knowledge or information.

What women wear or how they spend their lives is not the responsibility of the state, nor has the state the right to meddle in the private affairs of citizens and make them read and think what the state thinks is good for them.

It is a journey of self-destruction whereby denying millions of minds a fair chance to access knowledge and information and by imposing moral policing on citizens the society will become more intolerant toward counter-narratives, and extremism will grow further.

While literature is limited to moral policing, preaching religious and ethical values, and non-fiction is limited to distorted history, and the controlled press and journalists are still influenced by fictional tales of the past, it seems an uphill task for Pakistan to get rid of the legacies of Zia and Imran Khan.

For a country where minds are taught to think and live according to certain patterns defined by far-right state narratives, this hybrid regime’s curbs on books, textbooks, and Internet platforms are going to waste more generations, and more people will be inclined toward extremism and intolerance of opposing views.

The question is, can a country like Pakistan that is already facing economic turmoil and has a large section of unemployed youth afford these deliberate restrictions of knowledge and the revival of Zia’s Islamization?

As the famous Urdu poet Jaun Elia said, “The 21st century has not come to Pakistan, but been brought here kidnapped.” It is time that saner voices resist these regressive steps from a hybrid regime backed by the establishment, before even thinking in ways other than prescribed by the state will be declared a serious crime, and before more generations become victims to the ignorance that is Zia’s legacy, carried forward by Imran Khan.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.