Pakistan has stepped up its campaign against a “blasphemous” online competition to draw the Prophet Mohammad by extending a ban on Facebook to YouTube, Wikipedia, mobile Blackberry services, and a number of other websites.
The move was seen as a nod to public anger at Facebook users who created a page declaring Thursday “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day!” It is the latest incident of individuals flouting Islam’s taboo against depicting the prophet and provoking an angry response, in Pakistan and other predominantly Muslim countries. While some Pakistanis called the bans an overreaction, many rallied in support of the move.
"Everyone should take care not to hurt other's religious sentiments. The actions of Facebook are against our constitution and penal code," says Mohammad Azhar Siddique, one of the lawyers who petitioned the Lahore High Court for the ban. He adds that the government should also be held accountable for not taking actions to remove offending content earlier.
The country’s telecommunications authority was ordered by the Lahore court on Wednesday to temporarily block access to Facebook after users of the social networking site created a page declaring Thursday "Everybody Draw Mohammad Day!" The website had already prompted protests in Pakistan and spawned several other Facebook groups opposing it.
The decision to extend the Facebook ban to the other sites was meant to prevent users from accessing the material by other means. According to Alexa.com, which tracks web traffic, Facebook is the second most popular website globally. Youtube is No. 3 and Wikipedia is No. 6.
Blackberry users received SMS messages from their service providers informing them of the ban to comply with government instructions, which was lifted by the afternoon. Wahaj-us-Siraj, the CEO of Internet service provider Nayatel, told Reuters that his company had been asked to block popular videosharing website YouTube. The ban appeared to have been extended to photo-sharing website Flickr and online encyclopedia Wikipedia. The bans are set to last until at least May 31, when the next hearing in court is due.
Nationwide protests continued Thursday – in the city of Lahore, hundreds of people raised slogans praising the Facebook ban.
The last time Pakistani authorities banned material on the Internet was in 2007, to block YouTube and various blogs criticizing then-military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
The Draw Mohammad page grew as a movement in response to Comedy Central’s decision to withdraw an episode of South Park in which Mohammad was depicted in a bear suit. The network withdrew the episode after receiving threats from a New York group called “Revolution Islam.”
The protests are reminiscent of the 2006 cartoon controversy that originated in Denmark, in which Danish and later European publications printed caricatures of Mohammad. That, too, led to protests in Pakistan, which left five people dead, and prompted the bombing of the Danish Embassy in 2008.
Heeding public sentiment
Pakistani politicians have either remained silent or expressed support of the ban. On Wednesday, Talha Mehmood, chairman of the Senate standing committee on interior affairs, urged the government to redefine its relations with the West against the backdrop of an increase in incidents hurting religious sentiments of the Muslims.
But the blanket bans have also provoked the ire of many Internet users within Pakistan’s growing middle classes, who rely on Facebook for communicating with friends and organizing events. Many argue that the decision to ban the websites en masse was injudicious.
"Why on earth should Islam be given any immunity to criticism, hiding like ostriches and constantly getting offended is what has made us so backward," wrote one Nabiha Meher Shaikh.
Badar Alam, a senior editor in Pakistan’s Herald magazine, argues that the ban reflects the increasing role of religion in the judiciary.
“Since the 1980s there have been few if any at all progressive, liberal people who could make it to the bench,” he says. “The courts in Pakistan over the last three decades have in their judgments started citing religious injunction as much as, if not more, the laws and the constitution.”
The judiciary is also keenly aware of the popular impact of its decisions and has become a highly politicized institution, he argues. “It is a natural consequence of the movement for the restoration of the judiciary that the judges keep public's sentiments as much in mind as they do law. More often than not they have made 'popular' decisions,” he says, referring to a popular movement in recent years to reinstate dozens of deposed judges.
Facebook has reacted with “disappointment,” according to a statement made to Agence France Presse late Wednesday. “We are analyzing the situation and the legal considerations, and will take appropriate action, which may include making this content inaccessible to users in Pakistan.”
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