By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 21, 2010; A08
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- A simmering clash between free speech and religious sensibilities in Pakistan burst from the streets onto the Internet on Thursday, as the government blocked the video-sharing site YouTube and other pages it deemed "sacrilegious" to the nation's Muslim majority.
The move followed a similar shutdown Wednesday of the social-networking site Facebook, which had drawn the ire of Islamist activists over a page inviting people to post drawings of the prophet Muhammad. At least 450 sites, including Wikipedia, were also cut off by midday Thursday, and the government said more blockages could come as its newly created "crisis cell" scoured the Web for inflammatory content.
The bans, which sparked raucous debate, removed hugely popular outlets from what has become a vibrant and freewheeling media scene in recent years. In doing so, the prohibitions also underscored that debates over religion remain forbidden in a nation where Islamists exert power by regularly -- and sometimes menacingly -- condemning actions they view as blasphemous.
"If Facebook and other such tools continue to be used for blasphemy by the Western nations, then we will target their embassies," said Faisal Javed, 21, a student at an Islamabad rally where demonstrators hoisted signs emblazoned with slogans such as "Death to Facebook."
The site shutdowns came after a lawyers group successfully petitioned a Lahore court for an injunction against Facebook, arguing that a page titled "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day!" was offensive. The page has been promoted as an exercise in freedom of expression, and it was developed after creators of the Comedy Central program "South Park" complained that network executives had edited out their attempts to render Muhammad. According to some interpretations of Islam, any depiction of the prophet is considered blasphemous.
The government, which is secular, said its efforts were aimed at blocking "derogatory" references to Islam and reflected the "will of the people."
"Such malicious and insulting attacks hurt the sentiments of Muslims around the world and cannot be accepted under the garb of freedom of expression," Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit told reporters.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington that the United States respects Pakistani efforts to protect the public from offensive images and speech but that Pakistan must also respect freedom of expression online.
Scott Rubin, a spokesman for YouTube, said that the site is working with Pakistani telecommunication officials to resolve the issue and that "we hope we restore service soon." He added: "This is up to Pakistan telecom authority."
Cartoons of Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper triggered deadly protests across the Muslim world in 2006, including in Pakistan. There was no indication Thursday that the sort of bans seen in Pakistan had been imposed in other nations, though countries such as China and Iran routinely block Web sites to control the flow of information.
In Pakistan -- a country of 180 million where the vast majority are poor, many are illiterate and just a tenth of the population has Internet access -- the crackdown highlighted tensions between two vocal constituencies: religious extremists and an urban, Net-connected middle class. A major difference between the two, commentators here said, is that the former is willing to take to the streets while the latter dukes it out online.
As bearded fundamentalist clerics roused protesters to wage jihad if the government did not cut ties with the West, Internet and e-mail debates about the topic swirled. Several of Pakistan's prominent bloggers and tweeters condemned what they said was an intimidated court's infringement of free expression.
"We're actually just drawing attention to something that could have slid by notice in Pakistan," said Awab Alvi, a Karachi dentist who hosts the popular current affairs blog Teeth Maestro.
Although Alvi joined with other bloggers to publicly condemn the Web site bans, he said they held divided opinions about the Muhammad caricatures themselves. And in several online forums, supporters of the Facebook shutdown slammed what they said was an unnecessary provocation of Muslims by Westerners who gave little thought to poking fun at deeply held beliefs. Among the backers was former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, an avid Facebook user who posted his support for the ban on his profile.
"We are not addicts, you know," Rida Fatima, a 17-year-old in a head scarf, said of her Facebook use, which she said she happily gave up to "defend" Muhammad.
Pakistan restricted access to YouTube and other Web sites in 2007, the same period during which a pro-democracy movement, led by lawyers pushing for an independent judiciary, staged protests that led to Musharraf's eventual ouster. The courts have since become aggressive arbiters of a wide range of policy issues, earning public esteem but also spawning worry in some quarters that judges are too willing to cater to religious populism.
"On what basis can a judge ban this? They don't have jurisdiction. They don't have anything but a few hurt feelings," said Sundas Hurain, a law student in Lahore who was a youth leader in the lawyers movement. "We fought for them because we want our rights protected. . . . Them doing this is a huge step back."
Hurain said her progressive student organization would wait to determine whether it would protest the ban. But she said many of her peers would be afraid to take on such a sensitive topic.
"Once something like this is decided, it becomes a measure of defending religion. It would be very hard even for a liberal judge to strike it down," said Babar Sattar, a lawyer and columnist in Islamabad. "It suggests that you're changing God's law."
Special correspondents Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.