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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.

Note:
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.

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?
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