What is to be made of the ban on the social networking website Facebook by the Lahore High Court? Acting on the court’s orders the site is to be blocked by the PTA till May 31 because of a page on it deemed sacrilegious to Muslims. The issue seems to be that of freedom of expression and opinion, but we are constrained to ask why this becomes an issue only when Islam is concerned. For instance, a page denigrating the Holocaust was removed by the site, so if the sentiments of millions of people are being offended then surely there should be similar grounds to consider removing this page. Why the double standard? Germany, for instance, has laws barring the display and use of Nazi symbols and expressions while Britain still has a blasphemy law. America, perhaps the one country in the world which prides itself on its freedom of expression, even has laws restricting speech and literature that incite others to violence. In a series of judgments, their Supreme Court has ruled that such speech is not protected by the much-heralded First Amendment (which explicitly bars Congress from making laws abridging the freedom of speech.)
Having said that, one has to question the way to counter such hate sites. Bans can be circumvented through proxy servers. Plus, as someone pointed out in a well-argued blog, Muslims should not be visiting such sites in the first place and by launching such a protest they are reacting in precisely the way that those behind the controversial web page would have wanted them to. Many users of the social media website have put up their own pages expressing their admiration for the Holy Prophet (PBUH) — surely this is a better response. Furthermore, the said page is one of millions on Facebook and blocking it entirely means that millions of users in Pakistan will be unable to access a site which has become part of their daily life. A better way would be to block the offensive web page but allow users in this country access to the rest of Facebook.
Published in the Express Tribune, May 20th, 2010.