Facebook and Pakistan

A young activist and social scientist Usama Khilji has sent this contribution for PTH.
The Facebook event ‘Draw Muhammad Day’ indeed came as an offensive shock not only to Muslims around the world; but to all those who believe in tolerance and respect of others’ beliefs. Islamic tradition disallows the representation of the Prophet Muhammad in any state, but a special event to draw caricatures of a revered and respected religious figure is tantamount to hate speech, and was most certainly bound to provoke a strong reaction across the globe, especially from followers of Islam. In Pakistan, the courts reacted by blocking access to Facebook on May 19, and to YouTube on May 20, owing to the presence of blasphemous material on these mass sharing and communication portals. However, it is pertinent to discuss the dynamics of this issue before concluding the extent of its effectiveness.
Facebook is a social networking site where millions from all over the world can interact with anybody with a Facebook page anywhere in the world through his/her own page, known as a profile.. Photographs are shared, messages are sent, one can write on another’s ‘Wall’, and there are millions of groups and fan pages for varying interests for people to interact and discuss different topics on. Another useful component of Facebook is events, which can be made by any user for any purpose, and people can be invited to it. Events range from art exhibitions to school functions, protest demonstrations, book readings, parties, concerts, charity drives, business meetings, etc., and reminders are given to users on the home page once an RSVP is given.
One such event, ‘Draw Muhammad Day’, had been made by a Facebook user in Seattle in reaction to the censorship of an episode of the popular American animated satirical comedy ‘South Park’ that had a graphic representation of Prophet Muhammad, and in support of the freedom of expression. However, this was insensitive to millions of Muslim users of Facebook. Muslims reacted by ‘reporting abuse’ for offence on the event and page, however, the Facebook administration has announced that the event and page do not violate Facebook’s privacy statement and terms of use; hence, they cannot be deleted. Another point to be noted here is that the Facebook event has been made by a private Facebook user, and is not endorsed by the Facebook administration. The event can only be seen if searched for, or if one is invited to it.
However, the question that arises here is whether the blockage of Facebook by official Pakistani authorities is useful and effective.
The chances of a Pakistani participating in this event are very slim. Rather, Pakistanis were one of the most active in creating and spreading awareness about, and making groups and events to counter this event considered blasphemous by Muslims. One such event declared May 20 as ‘Respect Muhammad Day’ and encouraged users to share and talk about the sayings of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. Other reactionary groups were also made calling for the deletion of ‘Draw Muhammad Day’ event and page. Another movement titled ‘Boycott Facebook on May 20’ was also initiated that encouraged users not to use Facebook on May 20 in protest of the ‘Draw Muhammad Day’ event. This was a viable option as users could boycott the page upon their own discretion, but a ban on access to page in the entire country becomes too imposing and borders draconian.
This is a time where Muslims should exhibit strong faith and be unmoved by any attacks on their religion; and take peaceful and constructive steps to avert such offensive outbursts. The state blocking the site makes it seem like it is fearful of its citizens losing faith and averting to blasphemy. Furthermore, the ban, in effect, alienates the Pakistani people from Facebook users all over the world. These people could have been made aware of the sensitivity of such an event rather than being cut off!
It is also pertinent to explore the effects the Facebook ban has had on Pakistanis. Facebook is a much cheaper and quicker medium for mass communication and interaction purposes. Its interactive features make it all the more useful for people to meet others with similar interests, and makes networking for all purposes very convenient. Many developmental projects have their grounding in Facebook where social activism and community service, as well as awareness programmes are made popular. It is a place for many Pakistanis, especially the younger lot, to meet and discuss ideas, and mobilize resources for different causes. Examples of youth organizations with a mass purposeful presence on Facebook include Future Leaders of Pakistan (FLP), Pakistan Youth Alliance (PYA), Thali, Zimmedar Shehri, among others. There are many religious groups as well where religion is actively discussed, and information is exchanged. Many businesses use Facebook to appeal to prospective customers and have pages that have become alternatives to more costly websites.
With a plethora of crises mounting in intensity and causing discontent in society, Facebook is a world of its own that acts like a welcome distraction as well as hope for the internet-using Pakistani. However, the blockage of Facebook is only increasing this discontent and discomfort amongst the public, acting as an infringement of personal freedoms. Hence, these factors must be considered and explored by the Pakistani authorities before such a ban with wide repercussions is imposed. Moreover, the state should concentrate on solving more pressing issues that the Pakistani is facing; such as loadshedding, inflation, unemployment, and illiteracy, and lack of proper healthcare facilities.

Usama Khilji

2 Comments

Filed under Activism, Islamism, Pakistan

2 responses to “Facebook and Pakistan

  1. Hassan Bajwa

    the FB ban was a misguided attempt at piety that ultimately has done more harm than good.

    Had muslims voluntarily boycotted FB, it would have been an extremely powerful symbolic gesture that would also have affected FBs bottom line.

    the simultaneous de-activation of millions of FB accounts by FB users would have affected their advertising revenues and given the western world some actual numbers to consider. Imagine how they would have reacted to millions of muslim FB users showing this kind of unity.

    Instead the short-sighted move by the LHC fuelled by political expediency (we cannot deny any longer that our judiciary is becoming a political entity unto itself) has robbed millions of muslims of their voice and their opportunity to lodge their individual protest against FB.

    Instead of a united muslim ummah, all the west sees is a theocratic nation employing draconian measures to blind their own people. Way to go!

    Some supporters of the ban have said that if there had been no ban, only a negligible number of people would have de-activated their accounts. Well if that is the case it means that a vast majority of muslims online did not consider the “draw muhammad day” enough of an insult to affect their lives. If they simply did not care, then why should the LHC (or any other state organ) decide on behalf of all of these muslims. If muslims choose not to give a hoot about the offending page, should they not be allowed to exhibit their lack of concern over it?

    The LHC committed a grave error in judgement by hastily reacting to the insult without giving due consideration to the rights of individual FB users.

    I also find it ridiculous that the LHC actually thought such a ban would shelter muslims from “objectionable material”. The internet cannot be contained and anybody trying to do so only winds up looking like an intolerant a$$hole.

    Lastly, i noticed that while Youtube was banned, Youporn was working just fine. But then again, that’s not surprising since Pakistan has THE HIGHEST number of searches for pornography per capita IN THE WORLD. We can block people’s freedom of expression and freedom of access to certain information, but we must NEVER EVER block their porn.

  2. I don’t think that a lot of people care about the ‘draw muhammad day’ issue and therefore they wouldn’t have disabled their Facebook accounts. I found it Ironic that people were using Facebook to protest against the cartoon stunt. If they don’t like it why don’t they quite Facebook. Pakistanis have lived under oppressive regimes for so long that they have started to promote censorship upon themselves.

    If also find it absurd that representatives of Facebook which happens to be an American company apologized to a quasi theocratic failing state and agreed to remove the page. This implies that they are now supporting censorship. Where will this end? I am already seeing people asking for other “offensive” pages to be removed. WTF!

    I find many religions to be offensive, would Facebook remove pages associated with them? Would Facebook also apologize to me for offending me? I find the constitution of Pakistan to be offensive as well, may be I should start protesting that Facebook remove all pages associated with Pakistan. I could go on but you get the point.