Books & Censorship

A few years ago, I went to a supermarket that had a books section and I saw Hitler’s Mein Kampf on sale there. I complained to the management; seeing the title there offended me hugely. “But people want to buy it,” was the answer I got. I was furious, but there was nothing I could do. Apparently people’s rights to buy a book were more valuable to the bookseller than the principle of not peddling hate speech. This is South Asia, Hitler is considered a hero by a lot of people who should know better and many who don’t.

Recently I got news that a man went to a bookstore and complained about a title called Gay Icons of India, and that the bookstore’s response was to apologize profusely and remove the book from the stores and the Web site. Not only did he make repeated threatening posts on the bookstore’s Facebook page, but he tagged people to whip up a vigilante anger against the bookstore and bullied them into taking down the title. Of course, he used the word “Islam” and condemned the bookstore for trying to spread homosexuality in the country. The bookstore had no choice but to remove the book; the threat of fundamentalist violence is too frightening for any company operating in Pakistan to face.

The backlash against the man’s actions came from brave individuals, most of them NOT gay, but incensed by the idea that one person could throw his weight around and violate other people’s right to read whatever they chose. Yet the bookstore did not brook any discussion about this. I myself went to the bookstore and asked about the title. The salesman rebuffed me in a very rude way. “This book has been withdrawn and it will never be sold here.” I understood the tension on his face; who wants an incident over a book about gay people? (Gay people, by the way, do not exist in Pakistan).

Do books about gay people have any place in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? If the answer is no, then do books about vampires having sex with people (Twilight), unmarried straight people having rough sex (Fifty Shades of Grey), or books about genocidal maniacs promoting killing every Jew in Germany (Mein Kampf)? What about textbooks which portray Hindus as evil? Do these have a place in our country?

What we ban is what we are afraid of. What we ban serves to show us our insecurities, as surely as if we were looking at an X-ray of ourselves. I guess I was the only person afraid of Hitler’s ideology, and most people in Pakistan are more afraid of queers. At least we can go to bed at night, proud that we have our priorities straight in the 21st century.