Facebook in Pakistan: Islamists vs. Liberals

By Adam B Ellick and Ahmad Ziadi for The New York Times

When Facebook was recently banned in Pakistan for hosting a “Draw Muhammad Day” fan page, one thing became very clear: Islamists here operate with organized precision, able to mobilize the masses in an instant, while the liberal voice remains paralyzed by fear and passivity.

Some media experts predicted that the ban – which a Pakistani court has now ordered the government to lift – might motivate the nation’s deeply disconnected liberal elite to take on the Islamists. After all, while members of the urban elite have been largely immune to the recent rise of violent militant attacks, the Facebook ban presented them with a personal vendetta.

In a nation without bars, and where entertainment options such as music concerts are rare, Facebook serves as a precious tool for the elite to organize discreet private events with music, drugs and alcohol. It has also helped mobilize social movements, including the lawyers’ march in 2009.

But the fervor that has followed the Facebook ban has been entirely one-sided in favor of the Islamists.

As the rest of Muslim world remains largely indifferent, tens of thousands of anti-Facebook Pakistanis protested in urban centers by burning American flags. A poll conducted by an IT portal called ProPakistani showed 73 percent out of about 8,000 voters favor a permanent ban on Facebook.

How did it get to this? There has been a widespread SMS campaign perpetuating a false narrative that Pakistan’s ban has brought a behemoth anti-Muslim company to its knees. One SMS attributes the recent fall in the Euro to the ban. Here’s another SMS I received:

THE BOYCOTT MADE BY MUSLIMS AGAINST FACEBOOK SINCE LAST 2 DAYS

CHARGE DEM A LOSS OF 2 BILLION EUROS..AND IF ITS CONTINUED AFTER 7 DAYS IT WOULD

REACH AROUND 40 BILLION EURO…. PLZ SPREAD AS MUCH AS U CAN.

Facts suggest otherwise. Facebook is not a publicly traded company, therefore, its earnings are not published. Still, some venture capitalists have valued Facebook at about $8 billion. Its annual revenue is estimated between $500 to $800 million.

In addition to the SMS campaign, this week, two new Muslim-friendly alternatives to Facebook have been launched. One of them, www.millatfacebook.com, was inaugurated by the bar association of the same Lahore court that banned Facebook. Millat means “Nation” in Urdu.

The site wooed more than 20,000 users with its slogan: “A site for Muslims by Muslims where sweet people of other religions are also welcome!!” Members are asked to specify if they drink alcohol. The founders are enraged at Facebook for curtailing Nazi-related hate speech while refusing to curb the Muhammad cartoons.

Their website says “Let’s prove to the world that if we can generate revenue for Facebook.com then we can also run our own website. Prove to the world that we are independent Muslims…” The other alternative site, www.Buddyflick.com , aims to “create/build/run our own network.” But where are Pakistan’s liberal and moderate voices?

Speaking out against the ban can be as hazardous as the forbidden cartoons. When those against the ban held a small news conference, the press mostly ignored it. After the press conference, several anti-ban activists were aggressively confronted by a large crowd of opposing activists as they left the venue. As tensions escalated, the anti-ban activists retreated into the building and waited for the crowd to dissipate.

One friend who is especially furious about the ban wouldn’t dare to speak out. “Nobody has the guts to go out and do something about it. The issue of Muhammad is so sensitive that you just never know.”

Instead, liberals are hashing out their frustrations in the low-traffic comment sections of liberal blogs and leftist newspapers, and, ironically enough, on their actual Facebook pages. Some have hacked into the banned site from the confines of their gated homes. Among the comment section in one newspaper is the latest joke: What’s the difference between Facebook and Lashkar  e Taiba? Answer: Facebook is banned!

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  1. Hi, nice post! I enjoy reading it.
    Thanks for sharing. Keep it coming!

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