Letter From Karachi

The Facebook Fiasco and the Future of Free Speech in Pakistan

Madiha R. Tahir writing for Foreign Affairs Magazine:

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.

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