Courtesy Reuters

Laying Down the Law in Pakistan

What the Facebook Ban Says About Pakistan's Judiciary

On May 19, news spread that Pakistan was blocking many open-content Web sites -- including Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, and Flickr -- after users complained about a Facebook page that was holding a competition encouraging users to draw caricatures of Muhammad. Before the ban, supporters used Facebook status updates to declare their intent to boycott the site. Many of those who were opposed updated their pages with messages that they would not be visiting the Web site until their government changed its mind. On the streets, the mood was darker. On one side, activists marched in favor of the move and called for even wider restrictions. On the other, another group demonstrated for the ban's immediate reversal.

In one sense, these events can be read as a sign of Pakistan's growing Islamization and the government's fear of social unrest. Acting at the behest of a group of lawyers called the Islamic Lawyers Movement, the Lahore High Court, the highest court of Pakistan's most populous region, argued that the courts had a responsibility to act against such a blasphemous offense. The government, which had favored blocking only the Facebook page in question, was apparently driven less by religious concern than by the desire to avoid a replay of the violent riots that shook the country following the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy.

Beyond the issues of religion and freedom of speech, however, lies a deeper story -- that of Pakistan's changing power structure and the shifting roles of the country's three institutional pillars: the government, the judiciary, and the military. Rather than simply a sign of creeping Islamism, the Facebook ban is an outgrowth of the power struggle that has consumed the judiciary and the government since 2007, when Pervez Musharraf's military dictatorship crumbled. Should these struggles persist, the third pillar might very well make a comeback.

Previous battles among Pakistan's three institutional pillars are evident in the nation's much-amended constitution, and the revisions to this document set the scene for the recent Lahore High Court ruling.

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