Pakistan bans Facebook over Prophet page

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The Independent Online

Pakistan pulled the plug on Facebook yesterday, angered by its hosting of a "blasphemous" competition to draw the best portrait of the Prophet Mohamed.

Within hours of the ruling from the High Court in Lahore, attempts to update statuses and upload photographs failed across the country as internet service providers hastened into compliance.

Most browser screens perfunctorily informed users that they were "unable to find" the website; others were more specific, citing the court ruling and adding that "access would remain blocked till 31 May 2010 or further orders".

At the heart of the controversial shutdown is the "Everybody Draw Mohamed Day!" page. Organisers were asking people to draw their image of Mohamed – an online response to violent threats made against a Danish newspaper that published caricatures of Islam's Prophet in 2006 and more recently against the creators of South Park over their depiction of the Prophet in a bear suit.

"We are not trying to slander the average Muslim," the Facebook page creators wrote. "We simply want to show the extremists that threaten to harm people because of their Mohamed depictions that we're not afraid of them. That they can't take away our right to freedom of speech by trying to scare us into silence."

Austere interpretations of Islam forbid the drawing of human images. Mocking the Prophet is seen as a graver offence by a broader array of Muslims.

While there were few supporters of the actual page, the decision to shut down Facebook altogether has divided opinion in Pakistan.

In Karachi, the largest city and commercial hub, around 2,000 female students rallied to demand that Facebook be banned for merely hosting the "offensive" page. A much smaller contingent of men gathered nearby went as far as to declare jihad or holy war against those that blasphemed the Prophet.

But elsewhere there was incredulity at the court ruling. "The Lahore High Court has gone totally loco," wrote prominent columnist Mosharraf Zaidi on his Twitter page. Will the court next challenge 'how Bugs Bunny's carrots taunt the judiciary and its moral uprightness?'"

With the mushrooming of an educated, urban and liberal middle-class, social networking sites have been embraced by millions of Pakistanis. Facebook is routinely used to organise social events, record memories of weddings and birthdays, and even serve as a virtual political base.

The former military ruler and president General Pervez Musharraf, now languishing in gilded exile in London, fitfully emits Facebook messages to his dwindling ranks of followers. A popular joke doing the rounds yesterday was that now the court had shut down Facebook, Mr Musharraf had lost his entire constituency.

The government did not oppose the court ruling. Hamid Saeed Kazmi, Pakistan's minister for religious affairs, said that the ban was temporary. It is set to be lifted at the end of the month. The minister also floated the idea of a conference of Muslim countries to resolve how to prevent future publication of the "offensive" cartoons.

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