Islamabad: Pakistani students took to the streets on Thursday as the backlash grew over “sacrilegious” Internet depictions of the Prophet Mohammed that saw the authorities block Facebook and YouTube.
Dozens of members of the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, the main Islamic opposition party in the country of 170 million, protested in Islamabad, calling for a boycott of Facebook and supporting a government ban of the website.
Chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) and “We love Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him,” they carried placards demanding the boycott and urging people to “sacrifice their lives for the glory of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed.”
The protestors originally planned to march on the US embassy, but riot police armed with shields and batons prevented the crowd from moving towards the heavily guarded diplomatic enclave and they dispersed.
Several hundred students also demonstrated in the central city of Multan, where they set alight a US flag and temporarily blocked a road, calling for a blanket ban on Facebook before dispersing peacefully, said an AFP reporter.
The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) blocked access to Facebook on Wednesday and YouTube on Thursday in a growing row sparked when a private Facebook user asked people to send in drawings of the Prophet Mohammed.
Islam strictly prohibits the depiction of any prophet as blasphemous and Muslims all over the world staged angry protests over the publication of satirical cartoons of Mohammed in European newspapers in 2006.
In June 2008, a suicide car bombing outside the Danish embassy in Islamabad killed eight people. Al-Qaeda claimed the attack, saying it was to avenge the cartoons.
Facebook expressed disappointment at being blocked but said it was considering whether to make the offending page inaccessible to users in Pakistan.
The PTA said it had blocked more than 450 links to derogatory material on the Internet, defending the move “in view of growing sacrilegious content.”
The regulator called on Facebook and YouTube to resolve the matter as soon as possible in a manner that “ensures religious harmony and respect.”
Wahaj us Siraj, a spokesman for the Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan, said blocking Facebook and YouTube would slash up to 25% of all Internet traffic in Pakistan.
In the northwestern city of Peshawar -- gateway into the tribal belt where the military is fighting the Taliban and the border areas with Afghanistan that Washington calls an Al-Qaeda headquarters -- the ban was widely supported.
Asim Malik, 40, who works for a local human rights organization, called on Facebook to respect religion and steer clear of controversies which can be exploited by radicals.
“I think this was the best step to block it,” he told AFP. “These sort of things create people like Faisal Shahzad. You see that a liberal man like him was forced to become an extremist,” Malik said.
Shahzad, a Pakistani-American from a middle class family, is the chief suspect arrested over a plot to blow up Times Square in New York on May 1.
The YouTube and Facebook bans also sparked debate about freedom of expression in a country with a relatively free media, an estimated two to 2.5 million Facebook users and a sizeable, largely Western-educated elite.
“It is certainly an issue of freedom of expression but at the same time it involves people’s emotions, which have to be taken into account,” said IA Rehman, secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
In Karachi, the financial capital on the Arabian sea, some members of the moderate elite disapproved, saying censorship could encourage extremism in a country already hit hard by Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked violence.
“Pakistani people have the right to know about what is happening in the world. The extremists want to snatch this right from the people and this move will certainly help extremism,” said Aslam Khwaja, a writer.
In Lahore, often dubbed the cultural capital of Pakistan, Romaan Baloch, a 26-year-old studying chartered accountancy, agreed.
“Draw Mohammed Day is wrong. It hurt Muslims. But the government and the court should have blocked only that link,” she told AFP, referring to the Facebook page asking for drawings of Mohammed.
“We Pakistanis are too emotional,” she said. “Facebook has nothing to do with it. It is just that one page,” she added.
Pakistan briefly banned YouTube in February 2008 in a similar protest against “blasphemous” cartoons of Mohammed.