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Pakistan Bans Facebook Over Muhammad Images

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A Facebook group showing images of the Prophet Muhammad led the Pakistani government to block the site

The Pakistani government has blocked Facebook until the end of May, over what it describe as “sacrilegious” content – a Facebook group posting images of the prophet Muhammad, which are currently forbidden in many strands of Islam.

As well as Facebook, the government also temporarily blocked in-country access to YouTube for a few hours on May 20, accusing both Websites of sacrilege. A Facebook group titled, “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!” prompted protests across Pakistan, because depictions of the prophet are forbidden to strict Muslims – and because the group revived memories of cartoons of the prophet which had been posted in the Danish magazine Jyllands-Posten in 2005.

“Not a Muslim hate page”

Images of Muhammad have been allowed in the past, as in this 17th century manuscript (Wikimedia)

That Facebook group asked users to draw and submit images of the Prophet Muhammad on May 20. “We are not trying to slander the average Muslim, it’s not a Muslim/Islam hate page,” the group’s moderator wrote. “We simply want to show the extremists that threaten to harm people because of their Muhammad depictions that we’re not afraid of them.”

Some 99,754 people had clicked to “Like” the Facebook group by the afternoon of May 20. In Pakistan, however, anger over the depictions of the prophet led to the blocking of not only Facebook, but also YouTube for a few hours.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority cited “growing sacrilegious contents” as the reason to act against YouTube, according to the Associated Press, as well as “derogatory material” on both the video-sharing site and Facebook. By midday May 20, though, the Wall Street Journal reported that the ban against YouTube had been lifted, apparently after unspecified offensive material was removed.

The ban on Facebook will stay in place until May 31, according to a Pakistani High Court ruling.

Reactions within Pakistan seem mixed, according to news reports, with many suggesting that the specific Facebook group should have been banned instead of the entire Website; but other opinions range across the spectrum.

“Such malicious and insulting attacks hurt the sentiments of Muslims around the world and cannot be accepted under the garb of freedom of expression,” Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abdul Basit told the Associated Press May 20, in reference to the Facebook group.

Facebook’s response to the matter seemed cautious.

“While the content does not violate our terms, we do understand it may not be legal in some countries,” the social networking site said in a statement widely disseminated online. “In cases like this, the approach is sometimes to restrict certain content from being shown in specific countries.”

Meanwhile, a Facebook group titled, “Against ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!'” had been “Liked” by more than 106,781 people.

Social media and Web 2.0 sites have come into conflict with governments before: China blocks Google searches for political reasons, and Google has threatened to pull out of the country as social media sites rely on a lack of censorship to thrive.

Smaller political groups have also weight in. In December, Twitter was hacked by a group calling itself the Iranian Cyber-Army.

Additional reporting by Peter Judge