Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Controversial Facebook Page is Back

The controversial Facebook page is back since Saturday, although some users in India have found it difficult to access it somehow. According to PC World, “the Facebook users who created the page put it back up.” On Saturday it had 108,000 fans and over 11,700 photos posted on it (you can read additional reporting on Pro Pakistani).
So it isn’t over yet. Muslims who think that the whole issue is childish and beneath the dignity of response, and therefore should be ignored may have a point but they also need to address that overwhelming majority who thinks otherwise.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Quit Facebook Day: May 31

“Facebook page that led to Pakistani ban removed,” said the latest from Associated Press (read it at Yahoo! News) this morning. If through some hurriedly viewed news on TV you got the impression that Facebook took down the page, apologized or retracted, then please be corrected: “Facebook said Friday it has not taken any action on the page,” the Associated Press tells us. "So it was possible the creator took it down Friday because the page had served its purpose.”

This may not be the end of troubles for Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook. May 31 has already been declared "Quit Facebook Day". No, not by Jamaat-i-Islami (nor by Imran Khan neither). Quite unrelated to the recent controversy over the hate festival, a website has been set up to explain why Facebook may be risky not only for you personally but also for the future of humanity:
"For us it comes down to two things: fair choices and best intentions. In our view, Facebook doesn't do a good job in either department... For a lot of people, quitting Facebook revolves around privacy... but we also think the privacy issue is just the symptom of a larger set of issues. The cumulative effects of what Facebook does now will not play out well in the future, and we care deeply about the future of the web as an open, safe and human place. We just can't see Facebook's current direction being aligned with any positive future for the web, so we're leaving.”
12,677 people have joined the Quit Facebook Day Campaign by "committing" to quit it on May 31 on the website (there were 12,666 when I started writing this post about 15 minutes ago, so the number is increasing by the minute).

This is not even among the bigger troubles that have started surrounding the CEO of Facebook during the recent weeks. Here are some randomly selected headlines to give you an idea (embedded links take you to details):
  1. Facebook CEO’s latest woe: accusations of securities fraud
  2. The Social Network Depicts Facebook CEO As 'Sex Maniac'
  3. Facebook Could Predict When Your Relationship Will End
  4. Facebook Privacy Issues Spark Internal Disagreement, Challenges To CEO
  5. Facebook Alternatives: Other Secure Social Networks You Could Switch To
  6. As Facebook Takes a Beating, a Brutal Movie Is Set to Make Things Much Worse”
  7. 'Social Network' script: A meaner take on Facebook
Some of these things are tough. Nick Summers on the blog of Newsweek (listed as #6 here) describes a recent Q&A session between a Facebook VP and readers at as "insincere at best and Orwellian at worst" and foresees even worse consequences when the movie gets released on October 1, portraying Zuckerberg as "a borderline autistic, entirely ruthless conniver." Other problems faced by him since April 21 and listed in this article include “a letter of concern from four U.S. senators, a filing with the Federal Trade Commission by 15 privacy groups, grave op-eds from the influential people at TechPresident, Wired, Thomas Baekdal, GigaOM, and elsewhere, helpful information to make sense of Facebook's evolution, including a timeline from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a clever infographic from an IBM researcher, and the launch of an idealistic NYU startup, Diaspora.”

Arguably, the role of Facebook in the recent controversial cartoon campaign was also different from YouTube and Wikipedia — and hence the general resentment among Muslims is mainly directed against Facebook and not so much against the other two websites that got banned in Pakistan in this context. 

If the conclusion on which Muslim users of Facebook have arrived is similar to what the webmasters of Quit Facebook Day are stating on their website (“We also don't think Facebook has much respect for you...”), one wonders how it would seem if millions of these Muslims also join the campaign and unanimously quit Facebook on May 31 — especially if they seal their lips about the offensive cartoons, blasphemy and all other matters at least until then and unanimously start chanting, “Just like the webmasters of Quite Facebook Day, we just can't see Facebook's current direction being aligned with any positive future for the web, so we're leaving. Nothing more to say (at least till May 31)!”

Such a thing would require extraordinary self-control, discipline and goodwill. Faith has produced such qualities on certain occasions but even if Muslims miss the opportunity, other problems surrounding Mr. Mark Zuckerberg are not pointing towards a very bright future either. Remember what James Bond says to the bad guy in The Living Daylights? “If the Russians don't get you, the Americans will!”

Thursday, 20 May 2010

The latest from the Facebook

As reported in Herald Sun (Australia), "Facebook is disappointed at being blocked in Pakistan over a contest that encourages users to post caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed and may make the offending page inaccessible to users there."

Either it has been reported that way or it is really so lame. "We are very disappointed with the Pakistani courts' decision to block Facebook without warning, and suspect our users there feel the same way," Facebook said according to the news report. Maybe some users feel that way but most I know are appluading the ban (a good place to get an idea of general reaction is one of the recent posts on Teethmaestro Blog).

I also happily accepted the ban at least till May 31 but there is something about this recent statement from Facebook which makes me feel I can go along with a permanent ban. The Facebook representative is reported to have said, "We will take appropriate action, which may include making this content inaccessible to users in Pakistan."

Wow! So it is wrong if my own government prevents me and it is right when Facebook does the same! If it's going to be someone else's decision how I access the Internet then I prefer it to be my government rather than Facebook.

Facebook still did not agree to remove that "offensive page". It is simply offering, oh so graciously, to make the page invisible for Pakistani users. Worse than having that page in the first place, actually, because it means that the page stays there but only Pakistani users become unable to notice it. That is a huge concession Facebook people are asking for themselves and yet making it sound as if they are offering a favor.

Something else in the Facebook statement is even more dubious. Reportedly the statement from the Palo Alto, California-based social network said, "We want Facebook to be a place where people can openly discuss issues and express their views, while respecting the rights and feelings of others..." (Sounds like Ms. Anne Patterson announcing before the world that the US authorities have "no definitive knowledge" about Dr. Aafia Siddiqui's children). The statement goes on to say, "We don't typically take down content, groups or pages that speak out against countries, religions, political entities, or ideas."

But sometimes they do. Not very long ago they took down the page of People's Resistance, a broad-based Pakistani group working for the restoration of judiciary in Pakistan. Facebook removed that page (not just making it inaccessible in Pakistan). It also sent warnings to the group. (Read about this on Teeth Maestro).

So, Facebook does not "typically" do that but "a-typically" it removed a page that was calling for peaceful restoration of judiciary in Pakistan. That stupid contest of May 20 is a big deal but restoration of judiciary in Pakistan is a trivial matter that Facebook team did not even mention it while making these blanket statements?

Facebook might be disappointed with the Pakistani courts' decision but many Pakistani users were disappointed with Facebook already, and after reading this statement I feel: social media network, my foot! Is this the kind of people I would like to trust for my social media networking?

Understanding Freedom of Expression

One of the regular visitors to this blog has asked me a question that must also be in the minds of many others:
"I get stuck- when non-Muslims say that a cartoon is just a cartoon, and why are you taking it seriously. You can draw images of us and also of our gods.To them i reply that Islam teaches love and respect to all religions and prophets. But... they keep saying that draw our cartoons and we will publish them."
No, they will not. Ask them to read the laws regarding libel and patents that exist in their country. Unrestrained freedom of expression has neither been advocated nor found desirable anywhere in the world so far. There are always certain limits even in US. The issue is how to define those limits.

Here are a few examples:

  • Facebook itself deleted the official page of People's Resistance, a broad-based Pakistani group formed for a peaceful struggle for restoration of judiciary sometime ago. I am told that not only their page got deleted but they even received warnings from FB administration just because they had invited for an event involving protest in favor of judiciary in their own country. Read more on Teeth Maestro

  • When Satanic Verses of Salman Rushdie was published, Pakistani filmmaker Shehzad Gul responded by making a film called International Guerillay that depicted Salman Rushdie in a negative manner. While Rushdie's book had been allowed to circulate in UK, the film was initially banned because Rushdie could have filed libel suite not only against the film producer but also against the British authorities! Read details on Wikipedia.

  • Recently, there were news about Megan Fox taking some legal action against an advertisement of baby milk that used just her first name "Megan" in a funny conversation (you can search it on the Internet).
So, the freedom of expression does not mean that everything goes. Now, it may be that most people in the West do not mind if their prophets and deities are mocked, so it has been allowed in their law. Many people in the East seem to mind that (and it's not just a Muslim thing: Christians sought ban on Da Vinci Code movie and Hindus protested against the exhibition of paintings by M F Husain disrespecting Hindu goddesses.

Why people in the West are more tolerant about ridiculing religion (when they are not equally tolerant about defamation of living citizens) than in the East may be because whenever a civilization is going down it shows these kinds of symptoms - it was the same with ancient Rome, the later Mughal Empire and so on. 

So, the bottom line is that while the contemporary Western societies seem to be in favor of protecting only their living citizens through laws against defamation, most Eastern societies today seem to be extending that cover to religious personalities long dead also. Again, this is not an essentially East-West thing: Western societies in their better days were also like this, for instance about 150 years ago when "the sun did not set on their empire"!

In this situation, what we all need to learn - the West as much as the East - is that in a world that has practically become a global village, one cannot go on behaving like the village idiot anymore. We need to show some ettiquettes.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Freedom of expression and genuine artists

So you think that a great poet or artist never compromises and pays very little attention to commercial considerations? Factual evidence suggests otherwise. Consider three of the greatest poets of all times.

With one possible exception, William Shakespeare wrote all his plays for the box office. In his own lifetime and for more than a century after his death, he was not as much recognized for being a masterful playwright as he was for being a successful one. His colleagues who compiled the authoritative collection of his plays after his death complied with the latest censorship policies: several expressions from Shakespeare's work were struck out and many of those have never reached us. Still, that has not prevented us from appreciating the genius of Shakespeare..  

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, on the suggestion of his publisher, self-censored several words and phrases in his greatest masterpiece Faust ("very characteristically", accordng to the scholar Walter Kaufmann).

Almost all the greater Urdu poems of Dr. Sir Muhammad Iqbal were written with the aim of collecting money for orphanages and other philanthropic causes - yes, these include 'Tasveer-i-Dard',  'Shikwah', 'Jawab-i-Shikwah', 'Khizr-i-Rah' and 'Tulu-i-Islam'. Moreover, when certain portions of Iqbal's first Persian book were severely criticized by his audience, he happily deleted them from the next edition. His famous prayer was, "May my pen never hurt any heart...":

مری زبان قلم سے کسی کا دل نہ دُکھے
گلہ کسی سے نہ ہو زیرِ آسماں مجکو 

These artists used the feedback of their societies as reality check. We know what they - Shakespeare, Goethe and Iqbal - have offered to humanity. As compared to them, the other kind of artists who whine about freedom of expression and regard petty egoism to be more important than love, what have they offered? Please ask this question to yourself.

Also, if you have the time, do a simple exercise. Pick up the work of a typical "high culture" artist who claims to be oh so far above his or her society. Then scan the work for a single theme: hypocrite. I promise that you shall be amazed at what comes up (some examples can be offered on this blog if readers are interested).

Saying 'No' to Blasphemy

On June 1, 2006, the Christian community of Pakistan launched protests against the expected release of the Da Vinci Code in theatres in Pakistan. Four days later, the government banned the movie although the book and the DVD continued to be sold (see reports on IBN Live and BBC News). While announcing the ban, the Culture Minister Ghulam Jamal said that Islam taught respect for all prophets and disrespecting any of them was to disrespect all of them.

Perhaps there was a lesson to be learnt: Muslim clerics had actually encouraged the Christian community to take a stand against the movie that had offended many Christians around the world (at least seven states in India had also banned the film). When the protest was launched, it received active support from Muslim clerics and hence the prominent Pakistani Christian leader Shahbaz Bhatti said that it would go a long way to ensuring sectarian harmony (see Atlas Forum).

This incident stands apart from many others because it is about action and not just talk, talk and more talk. Something happened - something got done.

That is what Pakistan needs to do now: it should offer alternatives through practice and not just preaching. Not only Muslims but many sensible people from all religions are upset about the way the forces of ridicule and darkness have been smashing the bastions of respect for more than a hundred years now. Can we not come up with laws that respect the freedom of expression and encourage it but at the same time also prevent abuse of that freedom for creating dissension and spreading hatred?

We are free. We have a country. We own it - all of us Pakistanis. In our country, we can make any law we want. Let's not wait for Western countries to show us what laws need to be made. Let's lead the world by initiating such beautiful legislation in our own country that other peoples in the world, even in Western countries, feel inclined to follow it.

The world needs such laws and the nation founded by a barrister should be the most well-equipped to take the lead. For that we shall need to understand the issue at hand: freedom of speech. As correctly pointed out by two young readers of the previous post, Free speech doesn't mean that you start abusing and humiliating others. The challenge is to translate this idea into a philosophy that can then be turned into law. At least in Pakistan, it can be done.

یہاں ہر ایک شخص کا بلند تر مقام ہو
مٹیں دلوں سے نفرتیں، سبھی کا احترام ہو
اِس احترام کے لیے ہماری جنگ ایک ہے 

Note: The Urdu couplets mean, "Everyone should be venerated here, there should be no hatred in hearts and everybody respected - for the sake of that respect, our war is a common one."

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The May 20 Thing

The hype about 'Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!' (check Wikipedia entry) may not be as much as it is presumed by some - despite the fact that a few big names of mainstream media have given coverage to this now-anyonymous call for drawing images of Prophet Muhammad and uploading them on the Internet on Saturday, May 20 (the act may be called "now-anonymous" because both the Seattle cartoonist to whom the idea is attributed as well as the person who started the Facebook page have backed out). Also, the original Facebook page calling for the event has been surpassed in popularity by pages demanding ban on it such as Against 'Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!'.

The other kind of response is exemplified by Honour the Prophet Muhammad Campaign page suggesting, "No boycott of facebook on May 20th, rather it will be a day of activity! posting hadiths, Quranic verses, videos, and whatever you can!" Apparently this page is associated with a 22 year old student from UAE, Sami Zaatari, who has also uploaded a video on YouTube called Draw Muhammad Day - the Muslim Response. The video has been subsequently copied on Pakistan Youth Forum channel on YouTube (from where it is embedded here, since the comments on this version are more relevant to the debate).

The video has also been copied on the home page of the Seattle cartoonist who originally called for the event - hence a "news update" caption on Zaatari's video announcing, "The artist who started who started draw Muhammad Day has joined this campaign!!!!". However, it may not be as much of a victory: since the whole idea behind "Everybody Draw" was to avoid becoming target of Muslim extremists, it is uderstandable if the originators renounce it once it has taken roots. Secondly, as highlighted in some of the comments on the YouTube video (PYF version), the issue is something else.

Dispelling some of the misconceptions about Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is a good thing but even if some non-Muslims become convinced that the Prophet was a great role model, the question will still remain whether like other good role models he can also be mocked or not. For instance, look at two of the comments posted on the Zaatari video on PYF channel:
He has the right to be mocked just like every single other thing on this Earth including Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Thor, Shiva, and all the other imaginary friends people have.

You seem intent upon missing the point. The issue isn't the Muhammed and his character. And it isn't that we're "haters" (although I'm sure there are a few out there.) No, this is an issue of FREE SPEECH. The whole point is that NO PERSON, NO IDEA, and NO IDEOLOGY has special privilege. EVERYTHING is open to scrutiny and criticism. Muslims have no right to expect their faith to be treated differently. It's time for Islam to quit whining and grow up.
This is the mood in which the so-called "Muslim Response" is being met. It seems that no matter how we handle the matter, we cannot avoid the central question: what is and what is not the freedom of speech. Perhaps a two-pronged Muslim response is needed. Firstly, there should be lawful protest against the May 20 event and such activities. Secondly, we need to probe deeper into the whole issue of the freedom of speech, and that is what I shall try to do on this blog in the next few days.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Arberry's Mistake

In his preface to the translation of Iqbal's Mysteries of Selflessness in 1953, the Cambridge scholar A. J. Arberry proposed a course of action for the Western academia which appeared very desirable on its face value:
If the threatening and so unnecessary conflict is to be avoided, it is imperative that we should make a renewed and unremitting effort to understand each other’s viewpoint, and to study what possibilities exist for, first, a diminishing of tension, next, a rational compromise, and, ultimately, an agreement to work together towards common ideals.
Who would not agree with such an idea? Arberry was asking to (a) understand each other's viewpoint; (b) study the possibilities for (i) diminishing of tension; (ii) rational compromise; and (iii) working together towards common ideals.

Unfortunately, before arriving on this proposition in the preface, Arberry practically demolished the entire intellectual premise on which the Muslim society was standing in those days, not only in Pakistan but also elsewhere. The premise was what I have tried to explain in some other posts as "Philosophy of Muslim Nationalism." Arberry discarded it rather hastily as an "apologist" reaction and considered it to be even a threat to world peace. According to him, Iqbal was a reactionary whose thought was not to taken seriously except as an example of typical mistakes made by bonafide representatives of modern Muslim thought.

Could this summary condemnation of the entire intellectual output of Islam in the preceding one hundred years be regarded a first step towards "a renewed and unremitting effort to understand each other’s viewpoint"? In what ways was Arberry helping his reader "to study what possibilities exist for... an agreement to work together towards common ideals?" Far from that, he had actually preached that no common ideals existed between Islam and the West in the first place.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Pakistan 1953

A. J. Arberry was a renowned Orientalist from Cambridge who is best known for his English translation of the Quran. In 1953, he also translated the second part of Iqbal's Persian work Secrets and Mysteries as 'Mysteries of Selflessness'.

Arberry started his preface by drawing attention of his readers, especially the Western academics, to the significance of Pakistan as a flagbearer of democracy and freedom in the modern world. By comparison he  found the rest of the Muslim world to be in the grip of intolerant ideologies. 

Then should it not surprise us that in his final analysis in the same preface, Arberry did not suggest even remotely that Pakistan should be upheld as a role model and its ideology popularized in other Muslim countries. Quite the contrary, Arberry advocated that the worldview of Iqbal as well as the idea of Pakistan was based on a faulty premise and should be debunked. Was it prejudice or mere delusion? How does one resolve such contradiction in an esteemed scholar?

On these questions there can be a long debate but what I want to offer here today are two excerpts from Arberry's preface. The first is his portrayal of the young Pakistan (only 6-year-old at that time) and the second is his general perception of the Muslim world.
"...even the most indifferent reader of the newspapers must by now have begun to grasp something of the impact of Pakistan’s creation upon the main tendencies of world-politics. Pakistan’s spokesmen in the debates of the United Nations have attracted so much attention and respect, whether in their Kashmir arguments or in their championship of Moroccan or Tunisian aspirations, that it would be a singularly dull-witted observer of the international scene who would still fail to realize that this new country is destined to play a very leading part in the coming drama of world-history."
The Muslim World
" is impossible to live intelligently for a single day in any part of that large stretch of the earth’s surface extending from Morocco to Indonesia, without becoming uncomfortably aware that Islam and Europe stand poised against each other, and that the choice between peace and war may not be far off. Whether we like it or not, be we Europeans or Africans or Asians, we live in dangerous times, and may well be heading for the greatest collision since Richard fought Saladin. Are we justified in pretending that the facts are otherwise?"
We can clearly see the contrast between Pakistan and the rest of the Muslim World as it appeared to Arberry in 1953. It is besides the point whether these perceptions were true or not. The question is: if this is how Arberry saw the difference between Pakistan and the rest of the Muslim World, then why did he suggest in the rest of the preface that the idea of Pakistan needed to be debunked as effectively as possible?

Monday, 10 May 2010

What is Muslim Nationalism?

While writing the second part of Secrets and Mysteries (1915-18), Iqbal felt especially excited about expounding "the philosophy of Muslim nationalism in a manner it has never been stated before." What is this philosophy, then? Perhaps we owe it to Iqbal to at least know it.

In fact, apart from its association with Iqbal, there are two other reasons why it is important to be at least familiar with this concept (whether one agrees or not). Firstly, Iqbal's concept did not arrive in a vaccum but was merely the best articulation of various trends that had been developing in the Muslim world since the previous century. Secondly, the thought of Iqbal as well as those trends themselves had a deep impact on the masses in Muslim societies and it remains doubtful whether any subsequent movement has sufficiently replaced these concepts in the collective consciousness of the Muslim world — at least among the masses (the renowned Cambridge scholar A. J. Arberry also had to admit both these points in 1953, even when urging the Western academia to try making these concepts less popular among Muslims).
Iqbal's philosophy of Muslim nationalism can be divided into two sections: the "pillars of Muslim nation-hood" and "special features of the Muslim nation."
1. The Pillars of Muslim Nation-Hood
According to Iqbal, Unity of God and Prophet-hood of Muhammad (peace be upon him) are the two pillars of Muslim nationhood. The implication of the first is that there should be no fear or despair. The second implies liberty, equality and fraternity, since that was the mission of the Holy Prophet:
  • Unity of God;
  • No fear or despair
  • Prophet-hood of Muhammad (peace be upon him)
  • Liberty
  • Equality
  • Brotherhood
Special Features of the Muslim Nation
Iqbal goes on to list nine special features of the Muslim nation, elaborating each in a separate chapter:
  • The Muslim nation is timeless, since its survival has been divinely promised
  • A nation is organized only through a constitution, and the constitution of the Muslim nation is the Quran
  • In times of decadence, conformity is better than speculation
  • The national character acquires power by following the Divine Law
  • The national character acquires beauty by following the manners of the Prophet
  • A nation requires a physical center, and the center of the Muslim nation is the Holy Kabah
  • True solidarity comes from adopting a common ideal, and that the ideal of the Muslim nation is preservation and propagation of Unity
  • The expansion of national life depends upon controlling the forces of the universe
  • The perfection of national life is when a nation becomes aware of its selfhood just like an individual, and that the propagation and perfecting of this awareness is only possible through preservation of national history
In a nutshell, this was the philosophy of Muslim nationalism as stated by Iqbal in Secrets and Mysteries (1915-18). Needless to say, it was further developed in subsequent writings, especially the famous Allahabad Address (1930) where he explained the concept of Pakistan, and his greatest masterpiece Javidnama (1932), which culminates on a grand definition of "nation" coming from "the Voice of Beauty": "A nation is a thousand eyes seeing together. Attain this unity of vision, so that you may possess authority in the world."
In the revised online version of The Republic of Rumi, the pillars of nationhood are presented in Chapter 23 and the special features of the Muslim nation in Chapter 26.