Banning technology just isn’t the right remedy

  • Technology once again the bogeyman blamed for moral wrongs, illicit activities
  • Blaming tech won’t solve the problem; education and self-regulation are key

Banning technology just isn’t the right remedyAND so it goes again. Whenever something neutral borne out by technology ostensibly clashes with the interpretation of some moral, religious and cultural values – ban it.
Last week, news portal Malaysiakini reported that the mufti (Islamic scholars) in the states of Pahang and Penang respectively called for the National Fatwa Council – a government agency responsible for issuing edicts to Muslims in Malaysia – to issue a fatwa (edict) declaring the act of chatting on social media by unrelated men and women, as 'haram' (not permissible)
This call comes on the back of a move made by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who on Jan 7 banned online chatting between unrelated men and women. This ban came days after Iranian authorities blocked WeChat, a popular messaging app that enables smartphone users to access online social networks, reports Al Arayabiya news portal. Iran in general has prohibitions against most social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter.  
Citing a report from local Malay daily Berita Harian, Malaysiakini quoted Abdul Rahman Osman and Hassan Ahmad, the mufti for Pahang and Penang respectively, asking the Fatwa Council to come up with a set of guidelines on the practice to prevent the spread of acts that can be detrimental to the institution of marriage in Islam.
“An easy example is issuing a greeting (memberi salam). If there is no purpose to the greeting or it is misused to start a conversation that is without benefit, it is not compulsory to reply,” Abdul Rahman was quoted as saying. 

The article reported that the cleric also suggested that couples using social media could fall prey to the temptations of lust between the opposite sexes. 
There is no doubt that technology has permeated just about every instance of modern life. From microwave ovens, the television and toasters 30 years ago, to mobile and Web apps and social media today, technology has made things more accessible, open, convenient and, generally, better for all.
Sure, it can be argued that not everything technology has ushered in is necessarily good or beneficial. Bad elements, influences and even cultural clashes have come about because of what technology has brought to mankind.
But as I’ve argued in other columns before, the truth is that there are many undesirable elements out there on the Net that affect our current and future generation, and that simply banning the Net or an app such as social media chat can’t be the answer to this complex issue.
For starters, as many tech experts will tell you, there are always ways to circumvent the censorship of applications on the Net. Indeed, the Al Arabiya story pointed out that many in Iran are relying on proxy servers to get round the ban, noting also that ironically, even the country's president, Hassan Rowhani, has active Facebook and Twitter accounts.
In short, where there is a will, there is a way to get past bans.
Banning technology just isn’t the right remedyBut what irks me most about suggestions to ban every kind of technology that clashes with religious/ moral values is the fact that what is right and wrong has nothing to do with technology per se, and to ban the Net – which happens to be a medium of knowledge delivery – or anything that uses the Net, is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
For me, the crux of the issue is this: Will banning an application such as chat – and by logical extension any other technology – really serve to prevent illicit activities and “discourage lust” among unrelated men and women?
Or for that matter, would banning Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like, make people more morally upright?
I’m no political expert, but one can reasonably conclude that the banning of chat in an extremist country such as Iran likely stems from other geo-political motivations, and not just to discourage 'illicit activities' amongst men and women.
So such a call to emulate such practices by Malaysia's Islamic scholars shouldn’t be entertained as there is simply no place for this kind of thinking in moderate Malaysia.
The plain truth is that moral and religious values should be inculcated from the heart, and censoring the Internet and/ or banning technology such as chat apps, isn’t going to keep people from accessing what religious authorities deem as harmful or undesirable.
In fact, I would argue that banning such apps would further lead people to want to try use them illicitly, as human nature dictates that the more you want to hide something, the more people want it.
Would this not be counterproductive?
The fundamental thing for any right-thinking person is to acknowledge that such challenges exist, and to realise that any technology is neutral and has the potential to be used for good or exploited – sexually or otherwise.
After all, I think it’s fair to say that admission is always the first step towards actual action.
Next is to move beyond the rhetoric and look at the big picture: That is, if religious scholars want to address the negative influences that exist on the Net, they should deal with the core of the issue rather than employ knee-jerk reactions, suggesting bans on whatever new thing is produced by technology.
Such moves, as called for by the clerics, would only exacerbate the situation, drive people underground to use such services illicitly, and fail to address the true heart of the problem, which will then lead to the inability for anyone – including the clerics -- to deal with the crux of the issue.
Rather than suggesting censorship or bans, the key really is education – spiritual or otherwise – as we’re dealing with moral/ religious issues.
Put simply, cutting the pipes to technology won’t instil morality in humans. Parental guidance for the young, social experiences, moderation and moral/ spiritual education – these are more important factors to consider.
Knowing what to and what not to do – self-regulation – is perhaps the best defence against such threats.
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