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Welcome to Chowraha - crossroads!

Chowraha is the crossroads of thoughts, events, opinions and feelings...all that have been shaped by individuals living in an increasingly complex world inter-connected through various means of communications.

This blog is about the crossroads in society - whether it is those of a diaspora community, global media complicating the structure of nations and cultures, or individuals finding parallels in spaces unknown to them.

The above picture is courtesy a much-admired photographer (Ali Khurshid) whose work is a source of inspiration and reaffirms the belief in the complex beauty of this world.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Cartoons and Comics - A Call to Maturity and Self-Determination

I received this article recently from someone I know and really appreciate her forwarding this to me - it serves as an eye-opener in perhaps us re-evaluating our sentiments and responses. The article has been taken originally from this website.

“Cartoons and Comics – A Call to Maturity and Self-Determination: Ust. Abdu Sattar

Published on February 14, 2008 — 26 Comments

9 people like this post.


Notes on the Cartoon Controversy
A Call To Maturity and Self-Determination
So it’s happened again. They decided to republish the cartoons. Perhaps it is because they want to re-emphasize their opinions on the character and personality of the Prophet Muhammad (saw). Maybe because they wish to provoke more reactionary Muslims into random acts of violence or demonstration. Maybe…just to show the world that they can, and stand proud in the gleaming light of free speech.

Anyone with a sense of justice can see that the apathetic Western reaction to these cartoons – full of hate and vitriolic sentiment targeted against the heritage, culture, and beliefs of over a fifth of humanity, is unjust – when compared to the resistance such cartoons would be met with if they were targeted at other groups.
The Muslims wonder why our community can be insulted, and threatened with deportation, our holy cities threatened with nuclear weapons by a U.S. Presidential candidate (Tom Tancredo), and our most sacred figures reviled? But if a whisper is raised against any other community – if a comedian goes off on a racist tirade using the N-word, or an award winning actor and director makes anti-semitic comments in a state of drunkenness – the entire Western world rises to say: “We will not tolerate your intolerance. We are better than your hate.” But when Muslims are lambasted across the country on conservative radio shows, urging violence against them, deportation, whole-scale attacks against their countries and forced conversion to Christianity……we hear no civilized response against the unholy right-wing war talk. When a mosque is burned down by a white-supremacist group in Columbia, TN, it does not even make the news. When the enlightened West is met with comments which declare “The Other” as inferior…..there is a complicit silence.

Muslims need to realize three things:

1. Do not be surprised or shocked, emotionally, or intellectually, that this is happening.

“…[They] will never be pleased with you until you follow their religion. Say: Surely Allah’s guidance, that is the (true) guidance. And if you follow their desires after the knowledge that has come to you, you shall have no guardian from Allah, nor any helper.” (2:120)

When your Lord tells you that a group will NEVER be pleased with you, satisfied with you, or happy with you, until you follow their way, it behooves the Muslim to accept it as a fact. The continuous begging and pleading Muslims who yell: “Please don’t make fun of us! Please don’t ridicule us! We are people just like you! Please be impressed with our history!” is nothing short of pathetic – when you consider how sometimes the street mob goes to burn and attack their own streets in protest, as has happened in Pakistan, and a few other places in e Muslim world. A political cartoon painting Islam as violent – is given seeming credence when in reality, only a tiny speck of Muslims even think of reacting win such ways.
It is time for the Muslim to realize that the actions of a person who makes fun of the Prophet(saw), or even goes so far as to insult or ridicule God himself, is responsible for his or her own deeds. He or she will be held responsible for what they draw, say, or write on the Day of Judgment. It is not up to us to legislate against them in this world when they are living in their own countries, nor to beg powerlessly that they cease and desist their activities.
Should we defend our Prophet? Yes. Through teaching people who he was and spreading the Truth. But, It is time for us to stop being so emotionally surprised when Islamophobes insult Islam. They don’t believe in your Prophet. Or your religion. And they don’t like either of them, or you. We should grow up and deal with it. The Quran is preparing us for this reality with the verse above.
So let us be prepared.

2. If you are going to respond, respond in the manner of the Prophetic Sunnah (Tradition) which we are claiming to defend.

“And the servants of Allah . . . are those who walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say ‘Peace’” [25:63]

Realize that the Islamophobes have the right to say or write whatever they want. They do. And no one will stop them. Your complaints will make them happier. They are not in a Muslim country. Our response should be a response fitting the Sunnah of the Prophet (saw) which we claim to defend so staunchly.
When some enemies of Islam once walked by the Prophet (saw) in Madinah, they said to him, “As-Sa’mu Alaikum” (Death be upon you), trying to slyly make it sound like “Assalamu-Alaikum” (Peace be upon you). They didn’t write against him, draw against him – they spoke directly to him. He, with the calm demeanor of prophethood, simply responded – “Wa alaikum”, and upon you. He did not escalate or insult – he responded by reflecting their greeting, without mentioning anything negative himself or lowering his noble speech.

“And you [Oh Prophet] are upon the noblest of character.” (64:4)

His wife ‘Aisha, who out of her love for him, acted in a way many Muslims today do and yelled: “May the curse of Allah be upon you, and his punishment, and his…!”
The Prophet (saw) stopped her saying: “Calm down oh Aisha, calm down. There is not gentleness in anything, except that it becomes more beautiful, and there is not harshness in anything except that it makes it ugly. So be calm oh Aisha.”
This exemplifies the Prophetic response. Calmness. Tranquility. Humility. He was active in spreading the message with “wisdom and beautiful preaching” with enthusiasm, vigor and strength, but he did not let insults take over his greatness. He engaged with those around him to teach them about God, and teach them about how to live their lives to the fullest. A model citizen. A good neighbor. A fortress of justice. An honest friend. A helper of the needy. A Messenger of God. This was his response. More than that, this was his driving mission.

“Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching.” [Sûrah al-Nahl: 125]

Also, that we engage those people who do believe in God, in working acts of righteousness and benefit for humanity.

3. It is time to stop being dependent on others to present a good image of us. They have not and will never do so reliably, save a few fair-minded individuals. Self-determination in our message, our image, and our work, is the only answer.
Yet another incident, when the Makkans used to try to make fun of the Prophet by twisting his name because of its meaning being “The one deserving of praise” , and calling him Mudhammam (belittled one) – he simply smiled and said,“They are making fun of a man named Mudhammam, but I am Muhammad!”

Rather than worrying about these insults, he spent his time propagating his message. He spent his time building his community and ensuring that every man, woman, and child could hear about what he had to say and how to worship God and come close to Him. So rather than focusing on what they produce, draw, write, and say – what has each of us done to paint the proper picture of the Messenger (saw)? Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes are making millions painting a picture of a warlord and a “Prophet of Doom”. Why are we surprised when Allah (swt) told us it would happen, and more importantly, what have we done to spread a positive image of the Prophet actively?
Perhaps we are arguing about whether or not praying behind someone who eats McDonald’s is allowed. Or whether wiping over our leather socks is permissible. Or if music with more than a duff is makrooh or haram. Or maybe our mufti “saab” teaches that I shouldn’t talk about Islam, Quran, or the Prophet without being in his presence or even read a book without his stamp of approval, turning us to intellectual zombies, far from the example of the Sahaabah and the righteous predecessors. Maybe we are busy arguing about Tariqahs, Madhabs, Manhaj, Aqeedah, and other things which we have no understanding of beyond a few pamphlets and classes in our neighborhoods, and of course, the Internet.
I remember my father teaching me that when the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, the ‘ulama and the their students were discussing whether or not it was permissible to eat crows. Unfortunately, it seems we have not learned.
It is time for the Muslim to be a self-determined, educated, citizen of humanity and of Islam. Someone who’s character aims to mirror the Prophetic character. It is time for the sisters to put down their mascara and their foundation, and the brothers to put down the Nintendo Wii and XBOX controllers, and stand up and become men and women, and stop being boys and girls. It is time for for them to become self-determined individuals, who understand that the honor of this Deen and its Ummah, can only be given by Allah, but they must work for it. Allah says:

“God will not change the condition of a people, until they change what is within themselves.” (13:11)
It is time to stop burning flags, and start burning desires.

Stop yelling in the streets against people who are overjoyed at your anger, and whisper to Allah who will become overjoyed at your prayer.
Stop breaking, burning, and screaming.
Start building, learning, and calling.
Abdul Sattar
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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Facebook ban: Our Polarising Press

A very well-written article by George Fulton (remember from George ka Pakistan) and so glad that he spoke up about the polarizing impact of new media in Pakistan. It all boils down to not just access of the internet but the language of the internet too. English language in itself is a polarizing language in Pakistan – those taught in English schools automatically inheriting a grain of power and legitimacy in society and then them blogging, Facebooking and tweeting automatically representing the thoughts of the elite of the society. This is not to reduce the importance of new media in Pakistan but just to further reiterate what George Fulton has written and what we should be concerned about.

The article originally appeared on the Express Tribune on May 26, 2010 and is called Facebook ban: the polarising press


The Facebook ban is a fascinating story, not because of the actual news, but because of what its media coverage reveals about our increasingly fragmented society. Since the story erupted last week acres of newsprint and hours of TV coverage have been dedicated to a story that, for the vast majority of Pakistanis, is an irrelevance. Loadshedding, inflation unemployment and swollen lakes are more pressing matters than an immature, offensive internet page created in Seattle. Yet you wouldn’t have guessed this by the media’s response over the past week.

I am in no way condoning the blasphemous content of the Prophet (pbuh). But for most people Facebook is a foreign land unrelated to their daily lives. In a country of 160 million people only 18 million people are online, of which an estimated 1.5 million have a Facebook account. So potentially less than one per cent of the population would have been able to access the offending material. Nor were most people even aware of the offending content prior to the Lahore High Court’s decision.

So why the distorted media interest in this story? Because the story directly affected the two small, yet influential, social groups that control our media. Great swathes of our Urdu press and electronic media represent the mindset of the socially conservative and reactionary urban middle class. It was this group that was horrified by the blasphemous content, wanted to generate populist outrage and have websites banned. Meanwhile, the English press, to which this paper firmly belongs, epitomised the values of the western educated, socially progressive elite who were equally horrified by what it saw as overzealous censorship by the LHC. It was also this group that happened to be the overwhelming losers of the Facebook ban.

Each side of this cultural divide cried foul. Articles, columns, talk shows all spewed forth — each supporting the prejudices of their own demographic. The op-ed pages of this organ have been overwhelmingly against the ban. Meanwhile, the views expressed in its sister publication, the Daily Express, have been quite the contrary.

But the media have failed spectacularly in their coverage of this story to educate or enlighten their respective constituencies. There has been little attempt by either side to understand the opposing position. Have we bothered to ask our middle class about their underlying concerns? About the perceived erosion of their values and what they see as creeping westernisation and vulgarity in their culture? Or is it easier just to label them as ignorant cretins and be done with it? Meanwhile, has the Urdu media attempted to comprehend why the English educated elite are so incensed by the state’s attempts at curbing their freedoms and censoring content?

Our polarising press is increasingly looking like one of those late night political talk shows in which everybody’s talking (or shouting), but nobody’s listening. The stridency in which the English and Urdu media scream their respective positions only goes to further exacerbate this country’s widening cultural and social divide. A responsible media shouldn’t confirm one’s own prejudices, but instead confound them. We need to understand and listen to opposing arguments and start listening to our fellow countrymen on the opposite side of the tracks. Perhaps only then can we go some way to resolving the deep cultural and social divisions that segregate this country.

Meanwhile, the Urdu and English media continue to overlook vast portions of the populace — the rural and the poor. Their voice remains largely ignored whilst the media classes indulgently gaze at their navels.

Published in the Express Tribune, May 26th, 2010.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

One Facebook, Two Faces

A cousin's friend has written the following article on the two faces of Facebook. It is definitely interesting to see how Islamophobia is so hyped up on newspapers and every protesting action carried out by a Muslim or a sympathizer is looked down upon by many but something like the following goes unnoticed or even unquestioned. I am pasting the article which has been originally posted on several blogs.


I had been banned from Facebook and my account had been disabled a night before Facebook was banned in Pakistan. Before all this happened, I visited the blasphemous page “Draw Muhammad Day” and the content on the page hurt me badly.

Once again a certain group of westerners called it the “freedom of expression” and went on to show extremism – something they always verbally disassociate themselves from.

As a response to this lunacy, I thought it best to find out how they respond to others’ right of freedom of expression – I created an Adolf Hitler page right away and it read, “To all those who think they can ridicule Islam in the name of freedom of expression and yet punish those who speak of the genius of Hitler”.

The comment on the wall read, “Let’s hit them where it hurts them the most”. Further I added some photos of the Fuhrer, Nazi Party and the Italian Footballer Paolo Di Canio who was banned and fined by FIFA two years ago for performing the “controversial” Roman Salute which according to him gave him a sense of belonging to his people.

Within an hour tens of people joined the Hitler page which was named “H | T L E R”. The very next time I tried to log in I found out that my profile had been disabled for ‘violation of Facebook Regulations’.

Facebook’s reply for my inquiry was as following (also shown in above screenshot):

Hi Saad,

After reviewing your situation, we have determined that your violated our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. One of Facebook’s main priorities is the comfort and safety of our users.

We do not tolerate hate speech. Targeting people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, or disease is a serious violation of our standards and has resulted in the permanent loss of your account.

We will not be able to reactivate your account for any reason. This decision is final.

User Operations,

Now how is it that Hitler is termed as the most evil person in the history of mankind while those that bomb Muslims, commit heinous crimes in their countries, ridicule their Prophet and Quran and as a result hurt the sentiments of 1.2 billion Muslims are hailed as heroes? And I wonder why the victims of Holocaust are more important than victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Despite the protest of a large number of Muslims, Facebook has not removed the blasphemous page from the website.

According the statement issued by Facebook their policy is to withhold such content in countries where it is controversial. The statement specifically says that we do not remove Nazi content from Facebook because it is illegal only in a few countries. As two-faced statements go, this one takes the prize. Perhaps before issuing the statement the Facebook did not realise that words like “Adolf Hitler”, “Sieg Heil” and “Nazi” are not allowed to be used on Facebook to create new pages.

And if all this and the removal of Hitler page and the permanent deactivation of my profile isn’t enough, here is a testament to Facebook’s vile hypocrisy. The statement issued by Facebook on 20 May says, “We strongly believe that Facebook users have the freedom to express their opinions, and we don’t typically take down content, groups or pages that speak out against countries, religions, political entities, or ideas.”

While, in another instance, Facebook replied me in entirely different way. Excerpt and screenshot is given above.

Now these two conflicting statements speak volumes about the discrimination by the Facebook. It simply means that Facebook through its official statement to global media wants the world to believe that they are the torchbearers of freedom of expression and allow everyone to speak their minds out. On the other hand the face that individuals like me get to see is a much horrible one. It talks about hate and intolerance and all forms of so-called equality and unshakable resolve. While Facebook is portraying itself as the silent and innocent onlooker for the entire world, I wonder what gives them the right to remove a major chunk of my life from the web.

I don’t think Facebook should come up with any clarification statements for the Muslim world over what happened. It is clearer than crystal that as long as we are labelled as extremists, we are not going to enjoy the equal rights in this world. And those that are trying to play God love to label us that. While reporting the Facebook ban in Pakistan in different articles, mentions the brutality of Pakistan Army in Swat whileYahoo thinks it’s necessary to unveil Al-Qaida’s plans of attacks on Danish and Dutch football teams. It is a blatant attempt to criticize Pakistan for placing the ban, link the country to extremism and terrorism and thereby justifying this sacrilegious act of Facebook users.

How on Earth Did We Get to the Facebook Ban

The post was originally posted on CHUP - Changing Up Pakistan and written by Kalsoom. Following is the link of the original post:

As I wrote here a few weeks ago, Comedy Central censored the oft-controversial South Park after the show depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a bear suit, leading a fringe Islamist group Revolution Muslim to make an alleged incitement for violence against creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. This then led fellow cartoonist Molly Norris to create the posterlike illustration “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!” to voice her support for Parker and Stone, saying in an interview, “As a cartoonist, I just felt so much passion about what had happened.. it’s a cartoonist’s job to be non-PC.”

Her illustration against Revolution Muslim’s response and the subsequent censorship of South Park was meant to be a one-off protest. However, Jon Wellington was inspired to create a Facebook page, “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!” which called for artists around the world to create their own depictions of Prophet Muhammad on May 20. The group claims that it is not trying to “slander the average Muslim,” adding, “We simply want to show the extremists that threaten to harm people because of their Muhammad depictions that we’re not afraid of them.”

Norris, the cartoonist the group claimed to be the inspiration behind the event, has distanced herself from the controversy, writing on her website,

I did NOT ‘declare’ May 20 to be “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day”…At any rate…my cartoon-poster, with a fake ‘group’ behind it…went viral and was taken seriously. I never started a Facebook page (I see that the two men who started the different FB pages names have now been made public). The vitriol this ‘day’ has brought out, of people who only want to draw obscene images, is offensive to Muslims who did nothing to endanger our right to expression in the first place. Only Viacom and Revolution Muslim are to blame, so…draw them instead!

On Wednesday, in response to the Facebook group and the increasing number of images (many that do, in fact, aim to insult the religion), as well as protests on university campuses across the country, Pakistan’s Lahore High Courtordered the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) to block Facebook across Pakistan until May 31. According to BBC News, “The lawyers’ group [that brought the petition] says Pakistan is an Islamic country and its laws do not allow activities that are ‘un-Islamic’ or ‘blasphemous.’ The judge also directed Pakistan’s foreign ministry to raise the issue at international level.”

So it seems that Comedy Central’s censorship has ultimately led to morecensorship. Does anyone else sense the irony here?

It is not that I don’t think “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!” isn’t purposefully offensive and hateful – looking at the Facebook page, the wall is littered with derogatory and ignorant statements against not just the Prophet but against all Muslims. Even if the group claims to not “slander the average Muslim,” the problem with any movement that goes viral is that the intended aim eventually becomes irrelevant, an after-thought. Wannabe “artists” are no longer concerned with the reason behind the South Park censorship, but instead use this platform to lob insults at the religion as a whole. Any sane person would tell you that’s ingredient for disaster.

But a sane person would also tell you the answer is not blocking the platform all together. First, blocking Facebook doesn’t mean the group went away, or that “Draw Muhammad Day!” was stopped altogether. Second, why does the state get to weigh in on a viral movement and subsequently make arbitrary decisions that don’t just blind Pakistan to the event but also cuts citizens off from the entire social networking website? If Pakistan reportedly has 2.5 million active Facebook users, that essentially means 2.5 million people were not given the opportunity to make the choice themselves. It essentially sends the message that the state knows what’s best for you, even if you know better. To me, that’s just as unproductive.

Freedom of speech is a tricky issue, there is no doubt about that. An anonymous blogger quoted on Norris’ website emphasized, “Fight for the rightto draw Muhammad, but then decline doing so.” This is a significant (albeit still controversial) statement. Yes, people have a right to voice their opinion – getting death threats as a result just fuels the root causes behind that opinion in the first place. But to use this as an opportunity to incite and marginalize a community already on edge? That’s another thing all together. As for the Pakistani government, concentrate on the big picture. Because the LHC decision may have only exacerbated the situation further.

Analyzing the Facebook Ban

This is an email from someone I received analyzing the Facebook situation. This email was in response to an outrage by someone at the poor people of Pakistan being repressed by their government and "it covers the points that need to be considered are necessarily technical, but the crucial aspects of this issue are subtle and often ignored, so I've tried to be succinct but thorough."


I hear you, and I think we have the same basic position, but there are
technical problems with your argument that must be mentioned.

First of all, the message sent to the rest of the world does not matter, and
neither does what the rest of the world thinks. Understand I'm not saying
this out of petulance, but to underscore the fact that democratic government
is by definition very local in terms of its mores and views and therefore
(other than some basic values like freedom of thought and expression), must
serve only its citizens without regard to what how the rest of the world
receives its actions. If that sounds simplistic, it is, but that core fact
cannot be disputed.

Secondly, contrary to opinion, censorship is common practice around the
world. The Australian government recently got into a pickle about censoring
porn and there is of course the example of holocaust denial media being
regularly censored in places like Germany where it is illegal (by the
providers, by the way - YouTube, FB, etc.). I say this not to justify
censorship but to make it clear that framing the current issue as a
developed vs developing world or church vs state issue is incorrect.

Thirdly, it is the nature of government to restrict personal freedoms. You
don't have to take my word for it, you can check with Thomas Hobbes (man
sacrifices freedoms for security) or take it up with Benjamin Franklin
('those who would give up essential blah blah'). Or you can look around and
see the UK government trying to introduce mandatory biometric identity cards
or Bush enacting the Patriot Act (and Obama failing to repeal it). I say
this not to justify the Pakistani court's action, but to state an endemic
aspect of organised government.

Fourthly, it stands to reason that given the fact of moral relativity and
the locality of values (see my first point), if we wish to impartially,
universally judge something we should examine both its intentions and the
outcomes it will lead to. In this instance, the Pakistani court was acting
on an issue raised by a few citizens who clearly considered it important;
the court ruled in accordance with law (blasphemy is illegal). The outcome
is that the freedoms of the entire nation are restricted, at least until
FB/YouTube block the offending pages for Pakistanis. This is overkill as it
infringes on the rights of other Pakistanis and sets a dangerous precedent
(borne out by the fact that YouTube has now also been blocked), and we can
therefore conclude it is wrong.

HOWEVER, it has been pointed out by many people that if this is the only way
our already-hamstrung government can keep 'silly' American cartoonists from
providing ammunition to the religious fundamentalists that the Americans
first armed and have since insisted on (unilaterally) bombing, so be it.

Moral outrage at this specific court action is fair, but I find it naive in
light of the complexity of the situation and particularly in light of the
blind eye turned to so many contributing factors. Just because people are
now seeing this on the 9 o'clock news doesn't mean it's a big deal relative
to the other things that you're not hearing about, or have chosen to
actively ignore.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Clash of Civilizations?

The title reminds me of Samuel Huntington's belief that the world is divided into civilizations - Islam and the rest, in short and their clash is inevitable. It is unfortunate when we fall prey to such a belief because in doing so we convince the one who is different from us in terms of religion or belief that we are worthy of fighting with, whether we are the so-called Westerners being threatened by "others" or Muslims being attached by "foreigners" or any other such division.

However, what I like about the internet technology is the ability to debate and to continue the debate on literally a 24 hour. An interesting debate arose with the Pakistan banning Facebook and Draw Muhammad Day issue that has come to light recently. Here are some snippets from the debate.

A comment and my reply from Project Carousel:
Arzoo says:

It was not only Cartoonists but this time the platform that backed them is more important it was facebook in 2006 during the danish cartoons controversy most of the world leaders had condemned that act but this time instead of Page reported almost million times facebook administration never took any action Violating its own terms of service
Divide between West and Muslims was always there because of two different Ideologies we believe in and conflict between these two is destined

FizaUK says:

...I would however refrain from propagating ideas of two different ideologies destined to conflict. Whether any one is right or wrong in saying that, the propagation of such view points does not help the diversity of the world we live in whether its Muslims living in Europe, in USA, in Australia or in Muslim countries being attached by foreign armies. It just reiterated the non-Muslim belief that this ideology believes in the destiny of conflict and justifies their attitude towards Muslims.

You raise a good point about Facebook violating its own terms and services…

On a similar note, discomaulvi has written an excellent analysis of the same debate on his blog:

He wrote:

Dear Arzoo:

I agree with you that the thought of anyone disrespecting our Prophet (SAW) should make your blood boil and make you want to chop his head off. This should be our level of Iman that we love Allah and his Rasool above all even ourselves.

I however disagree that we as individuals should go about chopping heads. This is the duty of the Khalifa to impose such a punishment and as an individual or group of muslims we have no legal Islamic right to harm anyone.

While the incident of the Jew you mentioned may have happened, the order was given by the Amir-ul-Momineen of that time (the Prophet (SAW)) and Omar (RA) would have not been right if he ....

Read the full article here

Comments on Pakistan Banning Facebook

My last post on this blog was called "Pakistan Bans Facebook" and I wrote this article to discuss the issue around Facebook banning and what in my opinion is problematic with Pages like these. I have also uploaded this article on Project Carousel website, which is a website maintained by the Media and Film Studies department at SOAS. I have been receiving some comments on the article via email and elsewhere and wished to share these with you below:

Comment 1:

Want to share a recent event which happened a few days before the 20th May,

A friend of mine tried to make a group called hitler in response to the 20th may act. Guess what you are not allowed to use the names like hitler, adolph, nazi, etc. Anyhow he manages to make the group called “H|tler” and writes in a description something like “..for those people who make fun of islam in the name of freedom of speech and doesnt appreciate the genius of hitler..” And invited a few friends to join for fun. Guess what, even though the group was not reported(i’m guessing) or any protests against it, the group was removed from facebook(within hours) and above all, my friend is now banned from facebook permanently.

The message is clear to me!

Comment 2:
"Great article Fiza, it provokes you to think. When a country or culture or people do not hold anything sacred, then they are bound to cause hurt or damage to others. That is my problem with the ''freedom of speech'' supporters. In the US, they make fun of everything, their people, their president, their religion and even God. There have to be some limits that shouldn't be crossed."

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Pakistan Bans Facebook

Now that I have your attention with the title of this post, the real story behind this post is to discuss whether campaigns like “Draw Muhammad Day” are really more attempts at increasing the divides in the world or again a celebration of freedom of expression. Furthermore, the response by Pakistan and other Muslims around the world, is it a response legitimate enough or are there other ways of handling situations? Lastly, what does that say about internet technology and the world we live in.

The “Draw Muhammad Day” Campaign

20th May 2010 was publicized as ‘Draw Muhammad Day’ where caricatures and cartoons of Prophet Muhammad were invited by participants. Apparently, it was a cartoonist Molly Norris whose satirical idea sprung into the “Draw Muhammad Day” campaign. After a US channel refused to play an episode of South Park that displayed Muhammad as a cartoon figure, Molly Norris drew a cartoon of Muhammad as a form of protest and even proposed the idea of May 20th as “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” However, given the response towards Facebook by Muslims around the world, Molly Norris apologized to the Muslim faith and asked for the day to be called off – (perhaps too late since it was already after May 20th).

Response by Muslims to the Draw Muhammad Day Campaign

The Campaign which started as a single page on Facebook was quick to produce many spin-offs all inviting caricatures of Muhammad. Muslims around the world were infuriated by the Campaign and students as well as general public came out in protests in Pakistan too. As a response to the hurt feelings of Muslims, Pakistani government temporarily banned Facebook via all internet providers. Soon after this ban, Youtube was also banned because of its ability to share videos with similar depictions. It has been said that these sites will be blocked in protest until May 31st.

Access to wikipedia and Flickr were also found to be denied but it is unclear if that is going to last for as long as the ban on Facebook. At the same time, many Muslim Facebook users had either changed their status (at some point) to call for a 10 day personal ban on using Facebook or forwarded messages informing of this campaign and how blocking Facebook for 10 days could hurt Facebook financially. SMSes were also circulated informing people of speaking up against this hurtful act.

As a Result of Muslim Pressure

As a result of Muslim pressure it was claimed that only in the first 2 days of bans Facebook lost 40b Euros and could lose up to 400b Euros. There are however conflicting reports about these figures and could very much be a rumor spread via SMSes. Note that SMSes claim BBC to have quoted these figures but I have not verified it elsewhere. However, news articles and news channels have caught on these figures and are being circulated amongst audiences in Pakistan and by the Muslim diaspora around the world.

Is it Blasphemous or More?

Is it just a question of blasphemy? The response by Muslims is that any pictorial depiction of any of the Prophets or of God is blasphemous. Picking a Prophet that is specific to Islam, however, implies an intent that is not necessarily intended at goodwill towards Muslims. It all started or perhaps became big with the (in)famous Danish cartoons series which was followed by public protests, and bans by Muslims around the world of Danish products and companies. Given that context, an “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” campaign is not just a brave attempt at inviting freedom of speech but also perhaps an attempt at provoking the same feelings as before. Is it really a lesson to teach Muslims to appreciate freedom of speech or an attempt to test the limits. The response towards Facebook is then not a surprise – given the context above, it should be an “expected” response. And if it is expected, then to hold such a campaign means that it has malicious intents behind it. In this light, it does not remain a question of blasphemy for a group of people anymore, it becomes a question of instigating hatred, provoking mistrust and hurting a group of people.

Why is it Important to Understand the Intent Behind “Draw Muhammad Day”

Perhaps if we were living in a world where nations and countries, races and religions were clearly confined within unquestioned borders it would have been easier to say that “if it hurts you learn to deal with it, it is our freedom of speech” (not that I am quoting or claiming to have heard any one actually saying this) but in the world we live in today the reality is much different. Facebook was initially looking into the controversial page and was quoted to have said in The Times that “While the content does not violate our terms, we do understand it may not be legal in some countries,” the company said in a statement. “In cases like this, the approach is sometimes to restrict certain content from being shown in specific countries.” It is surprising however that a company, whose users, could alone form one of the top 5 countries of the world in terms of population, can so easily undermine the impact of communications beyond borders, diaspora and the diversity of the world today. It is no surprise then that Facebook ultimately took the page down.

Is the Ban on Facebook The Best Remedy

The question though that comes up is that the Facebook company might have learnt a lesson and will perhaps now start thinking up of ways of how to avoid such a loss again, but does the world really care? Perhaps reading about the Facebook ban just reiterated the world outside of Pakistan’s belief that the the developing countries have their issues with authoritarianism and lack of freedoms and if they were to find out the sentiments of the Pakistani public standing behind the government’s step it would just re-confirm their belief that every Pakistani, like every Muslim, is an extremist. (Okay – an exaggeration perhaps but a reality for many too.) It might be pertinent to add here that the issue of censorship in one way or another is practiced in all countries of the world and cannot be purely seen in the light of democracy vs authoritarianism, secular vs non-secular and North versus South.

Because there are plenty of businesses that depend on online marketing or communications via Facebook, some did raise concerns about whether a ban will help. On the flip side, some may be content with backing the bigger cause and sacrificing the Facebook space for 10 days. Of course, techy youth created proxy sites to host Facebook and apparently even Blackberry users could access it. So if it did really have an impact on any of the businesses within Pakistan is questionable.

It is important to bring up here that there were many alternative pages and groups that sprung up on Facebook in response to the “Draw Muhammad Day” campaign. These ranged from “Celebrate Prophet Muhammad” to “Draw Muhammad’s name” or “Against Draw Muhammad Day” and so on. Many groups came up with the belief that banning Facebook or the page is not the solution but to initiate positive pages and groups is the best remedy. The philosophy is to pretend it did not hurt, will be suffice to frustrate those who want to hurt the Muslims. However, in all of this underlying is the belief that we are one and the other is the enemy, whether it is from the viewpoint of the cartoonists and their supporters or the hurt Muslims and their sympathizers. It brings to question that if this does not increase the divide, then what is it really doing?