To Ban or not to Ban?
It is said that when the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) tried to preach Islam to the people of Taif, their disagreement took the form of physical as well as verbal abuse. Stones were thrown at him and he was called names. As Islamic sources tell us, the Prophet (PBUH) had the power to seek vengeance from the people of Taif, by smiting them off of the face of the earth. But it was his response to those insults that enables Muslims today to declare Islam to be the Religion of Peace and Tolerance. Not only did he forgive his tormentors but he also prayed for their salvation. Today, Taif is a citadel of Islam, a far cry from its past when the Messenger of Islam was ridiculed and tormented on its streets.
It has been approximately 1400 years since that incident in Taif, and a group on a social networking site has revived its memories. Ridicule was hurled at the Prophet, which has resulted in deep distress and anguish for his followers. But his “followers”, despite their passion for his message, forgot the response of the Prophet when he himself was put in a much worse situation. As things stand, facebook has been “smitten” from Pakistan, along with Wikipedia, youtube and many other sites.
Yes, the provoking cartoons were posted on a group on facebook, but the story didn’t end there. In response to that group many groups opposed to it were also formed. These groups were created to denounce the ridicule of the Prophet and aimed to create awareness on this issue.
facebook provides the ideal method of raising that awareness; every time anyone joins these protest groups, all of his friends receive a message that Mr. so and so has joined the group that denounces the caricaturing of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Which means that all of the Non-Muslim friends of that person also find out that their friend is against the idea of making fun of the Prophet (PBUH). This then delivers a very powerful message; because the image created in the aftermath of the Danish Cartoon Crisis, with the bombing of embassies and the torching of properties, was that these reservations are held only by Muslims who are extremists and too full of hate to have Non-Muslims as friends. But when these reminders come from friends, then of course the Non-Muslim recipient is bound to take notice. He/she would be more receptive to reasons coming from their own friends, rather than trying to understand why a mob was burning KFCs and McDonalds. The results of these efforts are already showing; the groups that are against the caricaturing of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) have Non-Muslim members as well, these are people who may not agree with the tenants of Islam but agree with the objections raised by their friends. This is EXACTLY the sort of awareness that Muslims want to raise in the West, and facebook has been an excellent tool for enabling them to do that.
The ban on facebook in Pakistan, has robbed this effort of at least 20 million supporters. The lower revenues of facebook are nothing compared to the loss that the Ummah has to endure; which is the setback to its efforts in convincing Non-Muslims about this issue. It is wrong to consider facebook as an entity that is party to this conflict. It is rather a platform which can be leveraged by each side to its own advantage. Sadly, with this ban, the Pro-Islam camp just delivered a major blow to its own cause.
Reactions such as this one and the one to the Danish Cartoons are providing a big incentive for anyone and everyone seeking quick fame. The formula is simple, say something bad about Islam and Muslims will make sure that your effort gets the maximum hits on the internet and that your name is elevated to celebrity status. There are thousands of groups on facebook that are on topics related to sports, politics, business, religion etc. Each group aims to outdo the other in its membership count, and membership is something that is a function of marketing and advertising. When international media giants such as CNN and BBC are reporting on a random group on facebook, then I leave it for the reader to decide, how big a marketing push the Pakistani emotional outburst is giving to the group ridiculing the Messenger of Islam.
facebook has a fair share of groups that are dedicated to Islam and these range from Pro-Islamic to Anti-Islamic. While we heard so much about this one Anti-Islam group, there are countless other groups that support and propagate Islam. For instance, there are groups where members share and discuss Quran and Hadith. Then there are groups that carry out debates between Muslims and followers of other religions. These groups intellectually pit Muslims against Non-Muslims, and enable them to proselytize from the comfort and safety of their own homes. A permanent ban on facebook would drastically weaken the contribution of Pakistani Muslims to the efforts on that platform. Countless victories would be forfeited and so would be the conversion of potential Muslims. How big a price can the proponents of this ban put on one potential conversion to Islam? Are the lost revenues of facebook sufficient to equal out this potential loss?
The ban on facebook has been followed by a ban on other sites as well. Because of the ease of sharing this content, the people who want this reaction from Muslims are making sure to share it on every website possible. Most notable of the next are youtube and Wikipedia. This then brings to the fore the hopelessness of this “banning” response, which does not take into account the importance of these websites to Pakistan. Take Wikipedia for instance, it is a monstrous source of information to which contributions are made by ordinary visitors, currently the site has more than 10 million articles on a variety of topics. Besides its obvious benefits to students and knowledge seekers, the site also provides ordinary Pakistanis with the opportunity to promote the Pakistani view point to international audiences. For instance, topics such as “the 1947 partition”, “the Kashmir Conflict” etc have their own dedicated pages. As we know, in these issues there are conflicting viewpoints between Indians and Pakistanis. So if an Indian writes something about the 1947 Partition that a Pakistani doesn’t agree with, then that can be contested on the website. The benefit of such disagreements is that, if a third party wants to access the information for further use, then they have the Pakistani rejoinder as well that balances out any potentially controversial claims from the other side. Given the global reliance on Wikipedia for reference and research, Pakistanis risk losing the explanation of their side of the story and by so doing risk a further tarnishing of the national image in the World.
In this day and age, websites such as facebook, youtube and Wikipedia serve as bridges between nations. As history has shown us, no one has ever benefited from isolation, especially those who are confident about the righteousness of their cause.
I would conclude by saying that, if one is to appreciate the wisdom in the way of the Prophet (PBUH), then it should be noted that the descendents of his tormentors in Taif are today vociferously condemning the ridicule that is targeted towards him.
An edited version appeared in The News on the 22nd of May 2010, under the title “Such a needless ban”