By Imtiaz Gul
The Friday Times,Dec 14, 2012
Despite the changed dynamics of information - the combination of print, electronic and social media - the ISI continues to look at the world through the cold war era prism. Its policies still appear to rest on intrusive, preventive and obstructive tools for counter-intelligence, which is its primary task. Particularly since the oppressive Gen Zia era, the agency spread its tentacles across various segments of the society, assuming the role of the ideological guardian of the country, and its moral vigilantes.
Even today, besides its mandated counter-intelligence tasks, it also runs checks on the entire Pakistan's morals through representatives in PEMRA and the Federal Film Censor Board - where its officers are infatuated with an unparalleled sense of patriotism and a clearly discernible overflowing self-righteousness which they believe is necessary to protect Pakistan against all evils, including the "cultural invasion" through Indian and other films. These endeavors primarily centre on cold-war era intrusive and preventive measures - drastically editing films and songs or banning them altogether because they don't pass the ISI definition of patriotism and vulgarity.
A brigadier who represents the agency at the Federal Film Censor Board recently raised hue and cry over the Indian film Khiladi 786 for the simple reason that the digit-combination 786 is sacrosanct for Muslims. Similarly, the agency caused the banning of Aik Tha Tiger taking the plea that it targets the ISI.
Jab Taak Hai Jaan was also edited after pressure to ban it because the film projected Shah Rukh Khan as an army major in a bomb disposal squad. Another film, 72 Singh, faced similar flimsy objections by the agency, rooted in the fact that there are 72 sects within the Muslim fraternity. When out of arguments, these officers often duck under the excuse that the film lacks quality and is thus unfit to be shown to the Pakistani public - as if the public would not have access to cheap DVDs or scores of CD channels available to hundreds of cable operators across the country.
Civilian members of the Censor Board say they often face pontifications on morality and patriotism, accompanied by intimidating tone and tenor by the agency representatives, who "seem to consider morality and patriotism their exclusive domain."
Love for Pakistan and concerns about public welfare are not wrong, but they should not be guided by a sense of superiority and self-righteousness, or as by presumptions that other people's morality or loyalty to the country are suspect.
Questions are also being asked about the trajectory of Pakistan's journey from the Afghan jihad in the 1980s to Kashmir to the war on terror in the last decade. The international isolation and condemnation that Pakistan has faced in over three decades offer plenty of reason to deduce that something serious has been going wrong within the security apparatus. The GHQ and Aabpara may have been tactically brilliant but strategically their policies have clearly run the country down a path that is fraught with self-created crisis and obstacles. Blocking information and entertainment belongs to the cold-war days when TV, satellite dish antennas, the Internet and cable had not proliferated households. But doing so today amounts to being in a state of denial. Neither does it make any sense any more.
A case in point, probably, is Michael Moore's Farenehit 9/11. The basic theme of this film essentially questions the causes and the course of events on and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It also casts doubts on the Washington narrative and thus warranted ban or censorship by US authorities (if we were to go by the theory of preemption practiced by ISI or similar agencies in developing countries). But the authorities made no attempt to block the film in any way just because the present day answer to "objectionable content" lies in producing "counter-content" and not in suppressing what one or other agency might construe as "damaging" to the national interest.
Rejecting information or entertainment on moral grounds most probably belongs to those who are intellectually constrained and lack the vision and competence for standing up to perceived "challenges to national interests" in an innovative and non-obstructive way.
Taliban in Afghanistan banned all sorts of entertainment. So did their Pakistani buddies in the name of Islam and morality. How then does the ISI distinguish itself from the obscurantist Taliban's moral brigade? Its response basically mirrors the Taliban ministry for vice and virtue, whose thugs used to beat up women on the streets or thrash men who did not have the prescribed-sized beards. And does it really believe it can "protect" Pakistanis from the Indian cultural invasion by banning or heavily censoring films from across the border? Defining morality or obscenity does not and must not rest with the state. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does so but who in the civilized world condones a culture where women still cannot go out or drive without their husband or a close blood relative?
It is time for the security apparatus to realize that much of the troubles this country faces today stem from its skewed view and approach about religion, morality and patriotism. While the security apparatus constitutes an essential part of every state, its primary responsibility remains protection of that state's geographical and political interests. The rest is the job of the society, ie people and their representatives.
Obstruction, intrusion and denial do not save or protect nations. On the contrary, they ensure decline and destruction.
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India