On Wednesday, Pakistan's Lahore High Court ordered the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) to ban Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia until May 31, when the court will conduct a hearing on whether to make the temporary ban permanent. The ban is a response to "growing sacrilegious content" on these sites, including most prominently the Facebook group "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!"
This group is itself a response to the recent South Park debacle involving a depiction by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, South Park creators, of the Prophet Muhammad wearing a bear suit in one episode. The depiction elicited a warning by the members of RevolutionMuslim.com, "that what [Matt and Trey] are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them." In response to the warning, Matt and Trey placed the Muhammad character under a 'Censored' graphic in the following week's South Park episode.
Yet this self-censorship was not enough for Comedy Central, which decided to take additional steps, adding audio bleeps throughout the show. It was this subsequent censorship of the show that has led to the present furor. Molly Norris, a Seattle artist, drew a cartoon protesting the censorship. The drawing declares May 20, 2010, as "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!" Beneath this declaration are a number of portrayals of "Muhammad": a teacup, a domino, a box of pasta, a spool of thread, a handbag, and a cherry--drawings which she attributes to a fictitious group called "Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor." Norris's drawing, in turn, inspired the Facebook group, "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!", and its counterpart, "Against Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!", each of which have a following 100,000 strong. Interestingly, Norris herself has joined the latter group.
The blatantly blasphemous nature of the "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!" group is shocking for Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim nation that has laws on the books punishing blasphemy with life imprisonment or death. Article 295A of the Pakistani Penal Code punishes "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs." Specifically regarding the Prophet, Article 295C states, "Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine."
As well, the Lahore High Court ruling was issued out of fear of what happened with the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published offensive depictions of the Prophet. The political disaster that followed this publication, coupled with the republication of the cartoons by several European states, spurred extremist groups to riot and commit acts of violence across the world.
But should the Pakistani government limit constitutional rights for fear of what extremists might do? For one, if the government is concerned about public disorder, why hasn't it issued statements warning potentially violent actors that acts of violence will be severely penalized by the government? The government is focusing on the blasphemous depictions as the underlying problem rather than the individuals who react to them violently. The idea is that blasphemy - real or supposed, intentional or unintentional - would anger some Muslims, who will then cause destruction or otherwise act violently.
Yet Pakistan's approach is deeply flawed as it protects the wrong party and provides the wrong incentives. The Facebook ban appeases rather than controls violent extremists, giving them license to react violently. Instead of penalizing the speaker in order to prevent violence, the government should compel potentially violent actors to regulate their own behavior. Violence is far more effectively controlled if states enforce those laws which punish criminal behavior.
The human rights implications of the ban are not lost on Pakistanis. While the ban has been met with some support--crowds protesting against Facebook formed Wednesday outside the Lahore courthouse and in other cities, like Islamabad and Peshawar--the ban is resented by many, if not most, Pakistanis, who fear its slippery slope consequences. In a widely circulated email that I myself received, one person who opposes the ban writes, "Which sites will be next? Local sites where the government is criticized for politics and policy? This is a wrong and dangerous step and we should not in any case accept government censure of the internet in Pakistan."
This writer, and others like him who oppose the ban, do so despite their frustration with Facebook's allowing the "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!" group. They recognize that while blasphemous speech is offensive and socially problematic, the better way to counter such speech is through dialogue and peaceful discourse; that is, through the pen and not the sword. Pakistan should similarly take the high ground, and not only warn violent actors that their actions will be penalized, but also encourage these and other individuals to express their frustration through peaceful, productive means.
Asma T. Uddin is a legal fellow at ISPU and the founder and editor-in-chief of altmuslimah.com. She is also an international law attorney with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit, non-partisan, public interest law firm based in Washington, D.C.
This article was published by the Washington Post on May 21, 2010: