Since «Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!» was announced on 20 May, those associated with its creation have been rushing around to distance themselves from the ensuing controversy. Cartoonist Molly Norris has announced, «I am NOT involved!» Apparently, Facebook user Jon Wellington used her cartoon to create the group. But even he has stepped back, «Ya’ll go ahead if that’s your bag, but count me out.» It’s not so easy to step away from these developments, however.
With a widening crackdown threatening Pakistan’s 20 million internet users – Facebook was blocked first, on Thursday YouTube and Wikipedia were added to the list, and now Twitter – the Facebook ban is about more than a simple social networking site. While everyone, including the US state department, seems to want to clean their hands of this situation, neither Facebook nor Muslims can afford to step back. The question is, how to step up?
Illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad are blasphemous in Islam. It is clear – and has been for some time – that the transnational Muslim community does not respond well to depictions of their beloved prophet, and neither is this breaking news. The violence and fury that resulted from the publication of 12 editorial cartoons by a Danish newspaper in 2005 are well-known. To whimsically revive the issue on the world’s largest social networking site is an irresponsible poke-in-the-eye. Against this backdrop, then, the juvenile attempt to mock a holy figure in one of the world’s largest religions deserves serious attention.
While sensitivity to drawings may seem irrational to non-Muslims, many religions and cultures have sore spots that the world has learned to respect. Freedom of speech is a right, but this right is not befitting of irrationality. It should be treated like any other right afforded by civil liberties: with responsibility. And when it is abused, an apology or some form of resolution is in order.
According to its own terms, conditions, and precedents, Facebook should have removed the group. Facebook’s policy makes it clear that obscene content and the triggering of hate material toward any group, individual, or religion will be banned and removed. Last year, Facebook was quick to honour requests by Italian authorities to shut down a page dedicated to Massimo Tartaglia, the man who allegedly punched Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at a political rally in Milan. No such urgency found its way to the controversy behind the «Everybody Draw Mohammed Day» page: only yesterday did Facebook shut it down.
Unfortunately, because Facebook did not initially ban the page – despite requests – Pakistan banned Facebook. But Pakistan has millions of internet users and the banned sites constitute 25% of internet traffic. Many Pakistanis are asking why the sites were banned in their entirety, when the government might have launched a more effective and moderate response, including banning individual pages where possible.
It may have never occurred to the government that the most effective response would have been to actually allow Pakistanis, in consonance with Muslims worldwide, on Facebook to express their own outrage. Muslims had already created Facebook groups in protest and such a viral campaign would have been a much more powerful, compelling, and dignified response than the reactionary shutdown. And it may have sparked more: negative images of the prophet could have been countered by using Facebook and YouTube to communicate his positive significance to Muslims in new and creative ways.
Ironically, the current debacle provides Pakistanis with the best opportunity to demonstrate that Muslims can communicate their way out of a crisis. As Monis Rahman, head of one of Pakistan’s largest internet companies states, «There are too many assumptions being made about Pakistan’s vibrant, educated internet community.» But if westerners fail to note that this community exists in Pakistan, it’s because their voices have been drowned out by Pakistan’s reactionary authorities.
Now is the time for Pakistan’s internet community to engage in an organised and compelling dialogue: if not with the offenders, then most certainly with the rest of the world that is watching. Pakistanis need to take back the internet, and do for social liberties in Pakistan what the Lawyer’s Movement once did for civil rights. At the same time, they will demonstrate to Muslims that there is a third way: organised communication is a more effective response to conflict than violence or silence.
News of the ban on Twitter came as the keys on this unrestricted mac typed away. The question is: where does this end? Pakistan is not Iran – where rock music, western movies, and associating with the opposite sex can earn fines and lashes. But with Pakistan’s internet authorities hunting out «sacrilegious content», it’s not just about caricatures anymore. From the protests against drones, to frequent rallies by the religious right, Pakistanis have demonstrated their strength on the streets. Now is the time to demonstrate their power on the internet.
Bilal Baloch, concentrates on foreign policy research based in Washington DC and Nadia Naviwala, a student at the Kennedy School of Government, and fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.