Courtesy Reuters

Letter From Karachi

The Facebook Fiasco and the Future of Free Speech in Pakistan

More than 30 people have been murdered across Karachi this week in politically motivated violence between Mohajirs and Pashtuns, but it is Facebook -- or rather the controversy raging over its ban in Pakistan -- that draws a crowd. When Facebook hosted a page encouraging users to submit cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in mid-May, many Pakistanis reacted by denouncing the Web site as blasphemous on the grounds that Islam prohibits images of Muhammad as part of a wider edict against idolatry. Some have taken to the streets.

On May 20, my rickshaw puttered alongside a large rally organized by the religious party Jamaat-e-Islami. Hundreds of young male protesters moved in knots behind an overstuffed bus adorned with a banner reading: "To protect our Prophet against blasphemy, we will even sacrifice our lives!" In other times, these young men might have protested the countrywide ban on Facebook, which lasted from May 19 to 31, but last week they were marching resolutely in support of blocking the site. For them, Facebook had insulted their religion and community; for the country's leaders,the ban was political currency. Even as five bomb blasts shook Lahoreand U.S. drones attacked the Federally Administered Tribal Areas last week, Pakistan's Islamist organizations pressed ahead with demonstrations against Facebook.

The Jamaat-e-Islami rally came to a halt outside the gates of the Karachi Press Club. Inside, a press conference was getting rowdy. "Contempt of court!" shouted a rotund reporter interrupting Awab Alvi, a dentist known in the Pakistani blogosphere as Teeth Maestro. Alvi was one of four speakers attempting to reframe the debate about the ban as a question of free speech rather than of blasphemy, but the reporters shouted him down.

At first, the Pakistani journalists who fought mightily during Pervez Musharraf's presidency against curtailments of press freedom seemed the likeliest group to reject the Facebook ban. In late 2007, they had marched in the streets and were physically beaten; many of those who reject the Facebook ban today marched with them. But late this month, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists announced its support for the ban, leaving its former allies feeling betrayed. "Freedom of speech doesn't give anyone a right to play with religious and sacred feelings of others, or to play with the societal norms," PFUJ declared in its press statement.

The journalists assembled at the Karachi Press Club on May 20 did not seem to mind that there had been irregularities in the legal process, such as petitioners misleading the judge to believe that Facebook, rather than its users, had created the competition and that other Muslim countries had also blocked the Web site. They were much more concerned with what they perceived as Facebook's insult to the Muslim community. "Pakistani sentiments are involved, and you're saying that you're siding with them!" bellowed one in Urdu. Alvi's arguments about free speech seemed to confirm what they already believed: anti-ban activists are elitists who care more about poking their friends on Facebook than protecting the honor of their fellow Pakistani Muslims.

Although only a fraction of Pakistan's 170 million people have regular access to the Internet, the ban -- which was repealed here on May 31 -- has exposed the broader battle over how to define the fraught relationship between religion and citizenship in Pakistan. It is a fight that the defenders of individual rights are losing.  

The Facebook controversy is no longer a laughing matter, but it actually began as a joke. For its milestone 200th episode on April 14, 2010, Comedy Central's South Park depicted the Prophet Muhammad as a cartoon character. A few days later, the New York-based group Revolution Muslim -- which was founded by an American Jew who converted to Islam after attending rabbinical school in Israel -- published threats against South Park's creators on its Web site. In response, Comedy Central quickly removed all Muhammad references in the sequel. The Seattle artist Molly Norris reacted to the network's move by drawing a Muhammad cartoon dedicated to the co-creators of South Park and declaring May 20 "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day." Following her announcement, Facebook user Jon Wellington created a fan page where users began submitting content.  

On May 19, the Lahore High Court instituted a blanket ban on Facebook until the end of the month. Government telecommunications regulators took the ban further, widening the censorship to include other social networking sites such as Flickr, Twitter, Wikipedia, and Youtube; even Gmail and Google suffered sporadic blocks. Nearly one thousand sites were banned throughout Pakistan until yesterday, when Judge Ejaz Ahmed Chaudhry, who was responsible for ordering the ban, asked authorities to lift it. Yet, at the same time, Chaudhry urged the government to institute a "mechanism" for banning blasphemous material in the future, effectively lending further legal cover to government censorship. Mudassir Hussain, the director of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, reportedly volunteered to continue blocking links to blasphemous content associated with the "Draw Muhammad Day" contest. 

The issue has pitted those who speak the language of individual rights against those who use religious rhetoric to air community grievances. Pakistan's largest demographic -- the young, urban middle class born during the Islamization campaigns of former General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq's U.S.-backed dictatorship -- has in recent years adopted the second narrative. They are bound together by a sense of membership in an aggrieved Muslim community that they feel is under attack from both the West (in the form of drone strikes, the broader U.S. war on terror, and Washington's efforts to influence Pakistani political and military decision-making) and from the militant Islamists who regularly bomb their fellow Pakistanis.

These frustrated youth are not Taliban-style Islamists who want to do battle with the state. They are nationalists with grandiose visions of Pakistan as a potential leader among Muslim nations if it could only be saved from the extreme forces trying to destroy it. This national narrative has found eager supporters, from celebrities such as the televangelist Zaid Hamid to the fashion designer Maria B., who imagine the Pakistani nation not as a community of individuals with inalienable rights and autonomous choices but one that is based on an ideal: Islam. As in France, which banned the burka in the name of French secular republican values, Pakistani critics of Facebook sought to block the site in the name of defending community ideals.  

Meanwhile, those who speak about individual rights find themselves dismissed as unpatriotic Pakistanis. It does not help their message that the most prominent faces in the anti-ban camp belong to the largely English-speaking, upper class that appears to be more culturally tied to the West than the Pakistani masses. As one exasperated journalist exclaimed at the May 20 press conference, "We are a roomful of intelligent people, and you can't even explain to us what you mean! How will you explain it to the court?"

The prevalence of a communal narrative that privileges Muslim identity and anti-ban activists' inability to clearly articulate their case in an idiom that the average Pakistani understands explains why none of the usual groups one might expect to reject the ban -- students, journalists, and lawyers -- actually opposes it. 

In fact, it was a lawyers group that first invoked the notion of an aggrieved community to demand the ban in court, asserting that Facebook was "insult[ing] the emotions and feelings of Muslims." Shifting between religious justifications and constitutional reasoning, the Islamic Lawyers Movement petition protested "unlawful activities towards the constitution and Islamic injunctions and values."

The Islamic Lawyers' ambiguity is partly the legacy of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a secularist who nevertheless rewrote the constitution in 1973 to appease Islamists. As in Israel, the only other country intended as a secular homeland for a religious group, it is unclear in Pakistan whether the state acts in the name of its citizens or the global Muslim community. The Islamic Lawyers' petition refers repeatedly to "Muslims of the world," on whose behalf they claim to act. "The role of religion in the state and the relationship of Islam with law has never been debated in this country," says the lawyer and newspaper columnist Babar Sattar. "Consequently, the only people speaking in the name of religion are those belonging to the religious right."

And the religious right has been speaking the language of the masses: Urdu. Although opinion in the English-language press has decried the incendiary nature of the "Draw Muhammad" campaign, it opposed the ban for its violation of individual rights. Comments in the Urdu press -- which outstrips English circulation by about seven to one -- have reinforced the idea of an Islamic community expressed in terms of kinship. Aamir Liaquat Hussain, a former minister of religious affairs, a televangelist, and a columnist for the largest Urdu daily, Jang, has employed familial analogies to argue for the ban. If children are expected to make sacrifices on behalf of their parents, he asked in a column, then how can Pakistanis as a community "be unwilling to give up Facebook for our beloved Prophet who taught us how important family is in the first place?" Ban supporters such as Hussain have deftly painted those arguing against censorship as hopelessly self-interested and a threat to the larger Muslim "family."

For their part, political parties have either steered clear of the controversy or openly supported the ban. The secular Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which governs Karachi, faulted the Web site but remained silent about the ban; the party of the former cricket superstar Imran Khan, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which tends to attract younger idealists, supported it; and President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan People's Party has allowed government regulators to widen censorship beyond the court order. This suggests that the government is interested in tamping down social networking sites, which have been effective organizing tools in the past.

On May 31, the court provided further legal cover to do just that. Even as it struck down the ban, Judge Chaudhry declared that telecommunications authorities could be charged with contempt of court if they do not block blasphemous material in the future, a handy excuse for overeager regulators who have already interpreted the Facebook ban in broad terms. Chaudhry did not institute any judicial oversight or procedural safeguards to govern such censorship, and he legitimized his stance in the name of public opinion. "It is the government's job to take care of such things, which spark resentment among the people and bring them onto the streets," the judge said. "They should take steps to block any blasphemous content on the Internet." Chaudrhy's statement is essentially a bow to the religious right -- the group that has been on the streets in droves -- and consequently, an endorsement of their view that the honor of their imagined Muslim community comes before individual freedoms.

And the legal battle is not over: a second petition has now been filed in court demanding Internet censorship based on Pakistan's blasphemy laws. The Lahore High Court is expected to hear the case on June 15.

The anti-censorship movement has an uphill struggle in Pakistan, and those in the West who claim to believe in individual rights and free speech are not helping. The "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" Facebook page was set up in defense of "freedom of speech," but it misconstrued a concept that refers to government curtailments, not to the actions of private corporations such as Comedy Central, which constantly make editorial judgments for various reasons. The page also quickly became a forum for extremist comments. "There was a lot of calling Muslims 'vermin' and 'savages,'" says Arsalan Khan, a doctoral candidate, who debated with commenters on the site. After attracting more than 85,000 users and precipitating an actual free speech battle in Pakistan, the page was voluntarily shut down by its administrators. Facebook, which, according to one of the page's own administrators had received complaints "like 100,000 times" from users across the globe, did nothing.

Another "Draw Muhammad" page has since surfaced with even more derogatory content; some of its users have cautioned commenters to keep the page clean, "[u]nless of course we want this page to disappear and give Islam another victory?" Like the defenders of the ban in Pakistan, many in the West also imagine a monolithic Islamic community. Incendiary Facebook pages, the French burka ban, and the anti-Islam advertisements placed on New York City buses by the right-wing blogger Pamela Geller and the Stop the Islamization of America campaign are just some of the West's reactions to that community. All of this -- combined with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and drone attacks in Pakistan -- has led many young Pakistanis to understand that they are being attacked because they are Muslims. 

"If we do something they don't like, they kill us. Look what they did in Iraq, look at Pakistani deaths," said a shy teenager who had joined the May 20 Jamaat-e-Islami rally outside the Karachi Press Club. "And you're saying we can't ban them?"

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.

Continue

Close We are offering free and open access for a short period of time. Read more about why we are doing this.

Days
Hrs
Min
Sec