During four days of demonstrations in different cities of Pakistan over what many Muslims regard as a blasphemous contest on sketches of Prophet Mohammad sought to be organised by one of the users of Facebook--his controversial page which sparked the anger in Pakistan has since been removed by Facebook -- religious parties and jihadi organisations associated with Al Qaeda and the Talibans have directed the anger against the US and Sweden because of the alleged caricatures of the Holy Prophet by a Swedish and an American national. It is alleged that it was their caricatures which inspired the person who called for blasphemous contest on Facebook
During the demonstrations, slogans were shouted against the US and Sweden, US and Swedish flags were burnt and calls were issued by religious clerics for the death of the Swedish and American cartoonists. A ruling by the Lahore High Court calling for blocking the site of Facebook also added to the anger of pro-Al Qaeda elements because it sought to project the US as partly responsible for the perceived insult to the Prophet. It claimed that Facebook operates from the US and is subject to US laws and regulations. The US had, therefore, a responsibility to act against it.
The ruling, which was delivered by Justice Ijaz Ahmed Chaudhry said:
"As per laws of commerce and business, Facebook is governed by legal jurisdiction of the United States of America and this global social networking has deliberately or recklessly been responsible for hurting feelings and causing discomfort to the majority of Muslim population of Pakistan. Facebook has deliberately or recklessly not taken effective measures for preventing, stopping or blocking blasphemous contest to which it has complete and autonomous authority and a built-in mechanism to block such profane misbehaviour or misconduct. These mechanisms have either been deliberately or recklessly not administered for preventing, stopping or blocking this blasphemous content taking place on Facebook. The announcement of this very blasphemous contest has caused an immense furore and enraged millions of majority Muslims of Pakistan and around the globe, who attach an immense sanctity to the holy status granted to prophet of Islam, Prophet Muhammad .”
Al Qaeda and its associates including the so-called Punjabi Taliban organisations such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the front organisation of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), which were already exploiting the anger against the US over the Drone (pilotless plane) strikes in the tribal belt, have now been exploiting the anger against Facebook for adding to the anti-US feelings in the Pakistani religious circles.
Fears of acts of street violence after the Friday prayers on May 21 did not prove correct. There were angry demonstrations outside many mosques and madrasas and the flags of the US and Sweden were burnt, but beyond that there were no other incidents. Al Qaeda has not yet come out with a statement on the issue, but some clerics known to be close to Al Qaeda have called for deaths to the American and Swedish cartoonists, who have allegedly emulated the Danish cartoonist who in 2005 drew up cartoons of the Holy Prophet in a Danish paper.
There has been no reaction so far in Pakistan to the alleged publication of a cartoon of the Holy Prophet by a South African journal. The cartoon shows the Holy Prophet as lamenting that Muslims have no sense of humour. This cartoon has already caused protests in South Africa. Since many Muslims in South Africa are of sub-continental origin, reactions in the Indian sub-continent could happen.
While Pakistani newspapers have refrained from playing up photographs of the anti-Facebook demonstrations in Pakistan, some have carried photographs purporting to show protest demonstrations by some Muslims in Mumbai after the Friday prayers. Attention has been drawn to the fact that the government of India was the first to act against Salman Rushdie's book Satanic Verses in the 1980s. The insinuation seems to be that while India acted against Satanic Verses, it has not against Facebook. We should not allow this to make us act against Facebook. Anyhow, since Facebook has already removed the controversial page, the issue should be treated as closed. Mischievous elements in Pakistan are trying to keep it alive to serve their anti-US agenda. Unless this controversy dies down, it has considerable scope for mischief which could overflow from Pakistan and give a fresh impetus to organizations such as the LET. There is a need to closely monitor the goings-on in Pakistan on this issue.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies