[Originally published in The Nation Opinion page]
The Facebook event ‘Draw Muhammad Day’ indeed came as an offensive shock not only to Muslims around the world; but to all those who believe in tolerance and respect of others’ beliefs. Islamic tradition disallows the representation of the Prophet Muhammad in any state, but a special event to draw caricatures of a revered and respected religious figure is tantamount to hate speech, and was most certainly bound to provoke a strong reaction across the globe, especially from followers of Islam. In Pakistan, the courts reacted by blocking access to Facebook on May 19, and to YouTube on May 20, owing to the presence of blasphemous material on these mass sharing and communication portals. However, it is pertinent to discuss the dynamics of this issue before concluding the extent of its effectiveness.
Facebook is a social networking site where millions from all over the world can interact with anybody with a Facebook page anywhere in the world through his/her own page, known as a profile.. Photographs are shared, messages are sent, one can write on another’s ‘Wall’, and there are millions of groups and fan pages for varying interests for people to interact and discuss different topics on. Another useful component of Facebook is events, which can be made by any user for any purpose, and people can be invited to it. Events range from art exhibitions to school functions, protest demonstrations, book readings, parties, concerts, charity drives, business meetings, etc., and reminders are given to users on the home page once an RSVP is given.
However, the question that arises here is whether the blockage of Facebook by official Pakistani authorities is useful and effective.
The chances of a Pakistani participating in this event are very slim. Rather, Pakistanis were one of the most active in creating and spreading awareness about, and making groups and events to counter this event considered blasphemous by Muslims. One such event declared May 20 as ‘Respect Muhammad Day’ and encouraged users to share and talk about the sayings of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. Other reactionary groups were also made calling for the deletion of ‘Draw Muhammad Day’ event and page. Another movement titled ‘Boycott Facebook on May 20’ was also initiated that encouraged users not to use Facebook on May 20 in protest of the ‘Draw Muhammad Day’ event. This was a viable option as users could boycott the page upon their own discretion, but a ban on access to page in the entire country becomes too imposing and borders draconian.
This is a time where Muslims should exhibit strong faith and be unmoved by any attacks on their religion; and take peaceful and constructive steps to avert such offensive outbursts. The state blocking the site makes it seem like it is fearful of its citizens losing faith and averting to blasphemy. Furthermore, the ban, in effect, alienates the Pakistani people from Facebook users all over the world. These people could have been made aware of the sensitivity of such an event rather than being cut off!
It is also pertinent to explore the effects the Facebook ban has had on Pakistanis. Facebook is a much cheaper and quicker medium for mass communication and interaction purposes. Its interactive features make it all the more useful for people to meet others with similar interests, and makes networking for all purposes very convenient. Many developmental projects have their grounding in Facebook where social activism and community service, as well as awareness programmes are made popular. It is a place for many Pakistanis, especially the younger lot, to meet and discuss ideas, and mobilize resources for different causes. Examples of youth organizations with a mass purposeful presence on Facebook include Future Leaders of Pakistan (FLP), Pakistan Youth Alliance (PYA), Thali, Zimmedar Shehri, among others. There are many religious groups as well where religion is actively discussed, and information is exchanged. Many businesses use Facebook to appeal to prospective customers and have pages that have become alternatives to more costly websites.
With a plethora of crises mounting in intensity and causing discontent in society, Facebook is a world of its own that acts like a welcome distraction as well as hope for the internet-using Pakistani. However, the blockage of Facebook is only increasing this discontent and discomfort amongst the public, acting as an infringement of personal freedoms. Hence, these factors must be considered and explored by the Pakistani authorities before such a ban with wide repercussions is imposed. Moreover, the state should concentrate on solving more pressing issues that the Pakistani is facing; such as loadshedding, inflation, unemployment, and illiteracy, and lack of proper healthcare facilities.