Drawing a line: Pakistan’s jihad against the Internet

A couple of months ago, when self-styled 'security analyst' Zaid Hamid's anti-India vitriol started getting out of hand, a group of Pakistanis got together on Facebook to condemn his hate speech and calls for war against 'Hindu Zionists'. There were jokes about 'Jihad-e-Facebook' and 'Ghazwa-e-YouTube' because, like former dictator Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf, that's where an overwhelming majority of Hamid's supporters were anyway. No one could have thought at the point that an organ of the state would declare jihad against Facebook, but that is exactly what has happened. On 19 May, on a petition filed by a group calling itself the Islamic Lawyers Movement, the Lahore High Court ordered the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to block Facebook in response to the perceived blasphemy of a single page about 'Draw Muhammad Day'.

It all started in April, when the creators of the animated TV series South Park decided to take a stand in favour of free speech in their 200th episode, which showed, among other things, Jesus watching porn, the Buddha smoking pot, and the Prophet Muhammad in a teddy-bear costume. Comedy Central, the series' broadcaster, censured the bits with Muhammad and bleeped-out parts that mentioned his name; but unedited versions of the episode quickly made their way around the Internet. The creators were not happy with the additional censoring when they had, in their opinion, taken care not to depict any picture of Muhammad, per se – only the teddy-bear costume.

In the opinion of jihadis, however, the South Park team wasn't 'careful' enough. RevolutionMuslim.com (an American jihadi website, which, incidentally, is still accessible in Pakistan, as is almost every other webpage of the same genre) reacted by issuing dire threats to the creators and producers of the series. 'We have to warn Matt [Stone] and Trey [Parker] that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show,' a post on the website claimed. Gogh was a Dutch filmmaker who was killed in 2004 by a Muslim for a movie that he had made that said that Islam condoned violence against women. As if the warning post weren't bad enough, it was also accompanied by a graphic photo of Van Gogh, along with a link to a news article with details of a mansion in Colorado that Parker and Stone are said to own – 'we know where to find you' style.

RevolutionMuslim's Younus Abdullah Muhammad, however, is quick to defend himself, basing his innocence on the claim that he did not 'send anyone' to the Colorado mansion to 'conduct violence', and that he was not worried that his post would incite violence against the South Park team. 'How is that a threat? Showing a case study right there of what happened to another individual who conducted himself in a very similar manner? It's just evidence,' he claimed in an interview with Reuters.

Irritated with Comedy Central's censorship and the ensuing threats, American cartoonist Molly Norris decided to take a stand of her own. She came up with a cartoon poster on behalf of a fictitious group – Citizens against Citizens against Humour – declaring 20 May as Draw Muhammad Day. The idea caught on and a website sprang up, as well as a Facebook event and 'Everybody Draw Muhammad Day', though they went unnoticed for a while. The group's stated purpose was to stand against censorship in all forms. Their aim, according to one of the creators, Andy, was 'not anti-Muslim, [but] pro-free speech and public discourse and art and satire'. The group, Andy says, has 'no intention to offend moderate Muslims, but to defend the rights for everyone to express themselves as they want, without being silenced by death threats.'

Ban them all!
Thousands of miles away, in Pakistan, sources say that the conservative Islamic Lawyers Movement (ILM) first approached the PTA to try and get the website banned; the latter refused, instead only blocking specific pages related to Everybody Draw Muhammad Day. Not satisfied, the ILM filed a petition with the Lahore High Court, seeking a blanket ban. To their credit, when PTA representatives were called into court, they defended their initial stance on grounds that a blanket ban would result in major monetary losses for Pakistani businesses, particular small and medium-sized ones, which use Facebook for advertising and redirecting customers to their respective websites and stores.

The High Court was having none of it, and ordered a ban on Facebook. The PTA complied, but did not stop there. Within hours and over the following days, the ban was extended unilaterally to YouTube, then to around 400 websites, then approximately 850 specific links, and then, at last count, to around 1100 links. The photo-sharing website Flickr came under the axe as well, as did Wikipedia, Twitter, google.com.pk and Gmail, though only sporadically; and while the PTA had initially promised to leave 'media websites' alone, the left-leaning Huffington Post, and some CNN and Washington Post blogs, among many others, were also blocked. These websites, it should be noted, were not hosting 'blasphemous' content, but were merely discussing the general issue.

Blackberry services, meanwhile, were also suspended for almost 24 hours, only to be restored without the web browser and Blackberry Facebook application, while GPRS and EDGE services remained unreliable for almost as long. 'Anything which is deemed blasphemous will be blocked,' PTA public-relations director Khurram Mehran declared. 'Blasphemy is serious business. It is against our religion and the Constitution, and we have our orders from the [Lahore High Court]. We do not make decisions; our job is to simply implement them.'

This trend of banning websites began in 2006, under Gen Musharraf's government, when the Danish cartoon controversy arose. As a result, Blogspot and WordPress, two popular blogging sites, remained inaccessible in Pakistan for several months. Many other bans followed, most notably in 2007 during the lawyers' movement, and particularly after a state of emergency was declared on 3 November of that year. The PTA, in its tendency towards hasty banning, has in the past committed major blunders. Most recently, while trying to ban YouTube in February 2008, PTA and some ISPs together managed not only to choke Pakistan's Internet backbone, but also to bring down the entire YouTube website worldwide – making the PTA the first government organisation ever to nuke a website.

This time around too, armed with the High Court's orders, the PTA swung into action, again without much planning. A 'crisis cell' was set up with a toll-free number and a dedicated e-mail address, which anyone could use to report 'blasphemous' websites. While Mehran refused to divulge the number of personnel dedicated to the crisis cell, or the procedure in place to vet URLs posted by complainants, other sources at the PTA said that only three people were working at the cell. Whatever procedure is in place, it seems far more reactive than proactive, which is alarming seeing as how charges of blasphemy carry a death sentence in Pakistan. 'We know what we're doing, and our staff are very technically sound,' was all Mehran would say. 'We look into content, but if mistakes are made, or if someone reports a non-blasphemous website out of malafide intent, you can tell us about it and we'll take steps to correct them.'

Mehran's claims don't carry much substance, however, given the fact that, out of the nearly 1100 links that had been blocked since 19 May, many had nothing to do with 'blasphemy'. According to some reports, even the Let Us Build Pakistan page, which had, last week, broken the story of TV anchor Hamid Mir's alleged conversation with a member of the Punjabi Taliban, leading to the death of a former ISI operative, was also blocked for some hours. Mehran also denied the existence of any specific list of websites and links that are to be blocked. Other sources within the PTA, however, conceded that a list had been handed down (they refused to say by whom), and that new websites and links were being added to it constantly.

In the meantime, the Jamaat-e-Islami (which got less than five percent of the total votes cast during the February 2008 elections) and other religious parties organised protests in various cities. These protests received favourable coverage from much of the local media, a large chunk of which has historically stood extremely right of centre. Interestingly, most of the participants at these protests did not have access to the Internet, have never heard of Facebook, and have no concept of a 'social networking' website. Many television reporters and desk editors apparently fall in the technologically illiterate category as well, became clear by the many breathless proclamations on news broadcasts about how 'a website, Facebook, had organised a competition to make blasphemous caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh).'

Opposing the ban openly, however, can still land one in a sticky situation, as one group of activists found out the hard way. On the evening of 20 May, the group called a press conference at the Karachi Press Club, condemning the ban on Facebook and calling for a rational discussion. At the same time, a group of Sunni Muslim hardliners was protesting outside the Press Club against Facebook. Somehow, word about the press conference got reached the protestors outside, and the moment the anti-censorship advocates stepped out of the building they were attacked. They were eventually saved by some journalists who pulled them back into the press club, called the police, and sent them home with a police escort.

Dangerous precedents
Amidst the hullaballoo, many seem to have forgotten that several sects in Islam, including the Shia, actively make pictures and symbolic representations of Muhammad and his family. Such pictures can be found all over rural Iran, for instance, despite attempts by hardline ayatollahs to outlaw them. Moreover, Islamic injunctions that are used to justify a ban on making pictures or depictions of Muhammad and his friends and family also outlaw any and all pictures and sculptures as a pre-emptive protection against idol worship – a fact that many Muslim users of Facebook seem to conveniently forget.

The Lahore High Court is known for maverick, unsubstantiated judgments with little regard to judicial precedents. Some years ago, one judge set aside all evidence – including medico-legal and chemical examinations, statements of witnesses and experts, and relevant laws – in a incest/rape case, with a judgment that claimed that a brother cannot possibly rape his sister, and that the girl was therefore lying. Punjab's reputation as an active hub of Islamic extremism is also substantiated by many Lahore High Court judgments, which seem to quote scripture as much as the law and Constitution.

According to reports, not a single religious scholar or technical expert was called upon to depose before the court in the Facebook matter. The High Court's order, therefore, was based entirely on the petition of the ILM. While the PTA has censured websites for various reasons in the past, this is the first incident of the involvement of an organ of the state in blanket censorship of this sort. Clearly, this sets a dangerous precedent one that the mainstream media now needs to think about as well. If a court can issue orders for censoring a website on the basis of 'heresy', can there be any guarantee that similar steps will not be taken in the future against the local media – print, TV and online – if reports or opinions are perceived to be 'unfavourable'?

Many Muslims also need to realise that questioning or critiquing their religion does not necessarily amount to insult. Islam does not discourage questions, and even the Kalimah (the proclamation of faith), begins with 'La ilaha illallah…' (there is no god…) before proclaiming 'Illallah, wa muhammad rasoolullah' (but god, and Muhammad is His messenger). In the meantime, by banning these websites, the government seems to have forgotten the white portion of the Pakistani flag, indicating the existence of religious minorities in the country. Can one religion's laws be applied forcefully to another religion, especially if it means massive monetary losses for everyone concerned?

The creators of the Everybody Draw Muhammad Day had encouraged members to stick to humour, wit and creativity in their depictions of Muhammad, and not to resort to hate speech. In any large campaign, however, trolls are bound to enter, as they did in this one as well, from both sides of the divide. The relevant Facebook page eventually attracted Islam-bashers, as well as Muslims who tried to prove that their religion was peaceful while abusing others. While a section of Muslims may feel that depictions of their prophet is against Islam, they also need to understand this only means that they cannot draw pictures or make sculptures of Muhammad.

'The overreactions many Muslim extremists showed the world in [the Danish cartoons episode of] 2006 were despicable and cannot be defended by the Quran, Muhammad or Allah,' Andy, one of the campaign's creators, said. 'They use their religion to justify violence – no one has told them to do so; these are their own actions, trying to keep their religion from criticism by appearing in violent and murderous mobs to silence those who dare oppose them. This scare tactic has seemingly worked, and this is part of what we oppose and work against.'

Indefinite ban?
On 21 May, a hacker identifying himself with a Muslim name reportedly broke into Andy's computer and took down the Everybody Draw Muhammad Day Facebook page. New ones sprang up, but Facebook has apparently given in – almost none of them are accessible from Pakistan, even if they exist.

In Pakistan, meanwhile, the ban currently looks like it may well be indefinite, with websites and links blocked and unblocked arbitrarily, causing heavy losses to businesses and entrepreneurs. To proponents of the ban, this holds little meaning: China, they claim, has been 'progressing' quite well without Facebook, YouTube – or free speech, one may add. A society cannot really grow intellectually and socially, however, when members learn to not question anything. A citizenry that has mentally been reduced to a herd of cattle can function in the short run, but closed-mindedness is bound to take a toll, especially in a country such as Pakistan, which is already trying to battle the demons of intolerance and religious extremism.

As the good folks at the wiscatheists blog put it: 'We must all eventually come to the agreement that no religion, person, idea, or sacred cow should be granted immunity from criticism. In a free society, even opinions which the majority may find reprehensible have the right to be heard. Among these is the right to criticise religion and to perform actions considered "blasphemous." When that right is under threat, as is clearly is today, we have a moral obligation to exercise it to ensure that it is not lost. We cannot tolerate limitations to our freedom of expression, whether they come from violence, intimidation, or self-censorship out of political correctness.'

The problem, however, lies at the heart of this divide – for each side, the opponent is an undefined 'other' out to get them. For the protesting Muslims, liberalism and free speech are 'Western' concepts, which encourage 'attacks' on Islam; for proponents of free speech, the offence taken by Muslims, even seemingly moderate ones, is an aberration of secular values and a sign of 'backwardness'. At the end of the day, however, banning an entire population from access to large chunks of the Internet is going to affect only the citizens and businesses of Pakistan. It will not stop 'blasphemous' content, nor will it encourage peaceful, civilised debates and exchange of ideas and culture. One hopes that sanity will prevail on all sides, and the battle lines that have been drawn by ignorance and vested interests will be blurred and eventually erased in favour of pluralism and understanding.

Urooj Zia is a journalist based in Karachi.

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