Smarter than a seventh grader?

Published: June 1, 2010 - 13:35 Updated: June 1, 2010 - 13:37

"What would you do if they banned facebook here?" I asked Zainab, 13, whose parents, old friends from Pakistan, are posted in Delhi. I was here for an Aman ki Asha conference of Indian and Pakistani CEOs and entrepreneurs, where high-powered delegates affirmed the need for economic cooperation between the two countries. 

The Lahore High Court order had banned facebook in Pakistan, in response to a petition ahead of May 20, which some juvenile minds had designated as 'Everybody Draw Mohammad Day' (EDMD) - an idea floated by a Seattle-based cartoonist in support of a TV cartoon in which Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) was disguised in a bear suit. The cartoon had drawn the ire of some Muslim groups in America. The EDMD group, formed subsequently on facebook, attracted thousands of members - all geared up to draw the Prophet of Islam. 

There are shades of opinion within Islam on the issue of representation. One end of the spectrum does not allow representation of any living thing, not even photographs, as idolatrous and/or a prerogative of the Supreme Being. Others allow representations of animals or landscapes, even people, but not holy personages. A few even allow idealised representations of holy personages including the Prophet. 

Facebook, which has a policy against hate speech or offensive material, belatedly removed the provocative group, which had no restrictions on the type of representations being sent in, including caricatures. Other pages have cropped up, which are also likely to be removed. But the damage has been done.

"I would raise a petition against the ban," pronounced Zainab. "Why should they ban facebook anyway? Facebook is not the culprit, it's the people who created the group who should be stopped."

Clearly, those upholding the facebook ban are not smarter than this seventh-grader, who immediately grasped the essence of the fact that facebook was just a vehicle for an offending group. Certainly, facebook should have been quicker to take action - and perhaps would have - had it had been a group lampooning a sacred cow, like the Holocaust.

The initiators of the provocative EDMD group arrogantly asserted their right to 'freedom of expression', expecting a level of maturity from the 'other' side that was missing in their own actions. They must have known the offense their initiative would cause. The reaction, unfortunately, was totally predictable: demonstrations, speeches, and 'death to facebook' threats. 

All this puts people like me in a difficult position. I believe in freedom of expression, but I also believe in respecting others. Smokers uphold their right to smoke, but a non-smoker should not have to inhale second-hand smoke. The EDMD folk had no business initiating something that essentially lampooned what millions hold sacred. But those who disagreed could have simply stayed away from the offending page - and many did.

The bottom line is that the facebook ban (and subsequent bans on other websites) is counterproductive and illogical. If I use my cellphone to promote hatred in the name of 'upholding my right to free expression', will I be stopped from using my cellphone? 
The Prophet of Islam was above petty retaliations. He does not need such a 'defence' that only serves to reinforce negative stereotypes, which run counter to the very meaning of the word Islam or 'peace'. 

Many of the estimated two million facebook users in Pakistan are using alternative proxy servers to connect with friends and family, to reach out to the world, and to like-minded groups - ranging from inter-faith dialogue to support for the disabled, to poetry appreciation and India-Pakistan peace. There was also a lot of 'subversive' political content on facebook that the authorities may only be too happy to find an excuse to stop.

In the end, as Lahore-based advocate Ahmad Rafay Alam argues, there is "simply no justification - legal, ethical, moral, religious - for the High Court to have ordered (this) ban. Our law is crystal clear: A person's rights cannot be impinged upon without notice... As a lawyer, I fail to understand both the petition and the High Court's order" ('The facebook shame', The News, May 21, 2010).At the time of writing, a petition to overturn the court's ruling is in process, with witnesses and litigants volunteering to appear as paying consumers of services (internet, blackberry etc.) who have been deprived of their privileges. 

Zainab is too young to join them, but she's with them in spirit. 

The writer is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker

This story is from print issue of HardNews