QALQILIYA, West Bank — A mysterious blogger who set off an uproar in the Arab world by claiming he was God and hurling insults at the Prophet Muhammad is now behind bars — caught in a sting that used Facebook to track him down.
The case of the unlikely apostate, a shy barber from this backwater West Bank town, is highlighting the limits of tolerance in the Western-backed Palestinian Authority — and illustrating a new trend by authorities in the Arab world to mine social media for evidence.
Residents of Qalqiliya say they had no idea that Walid Husayin — the 26-year-old son of a Muslim scholar — was leading a double life.
Known as a quiet man who prayed with his family each Friday and spent his evenings working in his father’s barbershop, Husayin was secretly posting anti-religion rants on the Internet during his free time.
Now, he faces a potential life prison sentence on heresy charges for “insulting the divine essence.” Many in this conservative Muslim town say he should be killed for renouncing Islam, and even family members say he should remain behind bars for life.
“He should be burned to death,” said Abdul-Latif Dahoud, a 35-year-old Qalqiliya resident. The execution should take place in public “to be an example to others,” he added.
Over several years, Husayin is suspected of posting arguments in favor of atheism on English and Arabic blogs, where he described the God of Islam as having the attributes of a “primitive Bedouin.” He called Islam a “blind faith that grows and takes over people’s minds where there is irrationality and ignorance.”
Claims about what God wants
If that wasn’t enough, he is also suspected of creating three Facebook groups in which he sarcastically declared himself God and ordered his followers, among other things, to smoke marijuana in verses that spoof the Muslim holy book, the Quran. At its peak, Husayin’s Arabic-language blog had more than 70,000 visitors, overwhelmingly from Arab countries.
His Facebook groups elicited hundreds of angry comments, detailed death threats and the formation of more than a dozen Facebook groups against him, including once called “Fight the blasphemer who said ‘I am God.'”
The outburst of anger reflects the feeling in the Muslim world that their faith is under mounting attack by the West. This sensitivity has periodically turned violent, such as the street protests that erupted in 2005 after cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad were published in Denmark or after Pope Benedict XVI suggested the Prophet Muhammad was evil the following year. The pope later retracted his comment.
Husayin is the first to be arrested in the West Bank for his religious views, said Tayseer Tamimi, the former chief Islamic judge in the area.
The Western-backed Palestinian Authority is among the more religiously liberal Arab governments in the region. It is dominated by secular elites and has frequently cracked down on hardline Muslims and activists connected to its conservative Islamic rival, Hamas.
Husayin’s high public profile and prickly style, however, left authorities no choice but to take action.
Husayin used a fake name on his English and Arabic-language blogs and Facebook pages. After his mother discovered articles on atheism on his computer, she canceled his Internet connection in hopes that he would change his mind.
Instead, he began going to an Internet cafe — a move that turned out to be a costly mistake. The owner, Ahmed Abu-Asal, said the blogger aroused suspicion by spending up to seven hours a day in a corner booth. After several months, a cafe worker supplied captured snapshots of his Facebook pages to Palestinian intelligence officials.
Officials monitored him for several weeks and then arrested him on Oct. 31 as he sat in the cafe, said Abu-Asal.
The case is the second high-profile arrest connected in the West Bank connected to Facebook activity. In late September, a reporter for a news station sympathetic to Hamas was arrested and detained for more than a month after he was tagged in a Facebook image that insulted the Palestinian president.Gaza’s Hamas rulers also stalk Facebook pages of suspected dissenters, said Palestinian rights activist Mustafa Ibrahim. He said Internet cafe owners are forced to monitor customers’ online activity, and alert intelligence officials if they see anything critical of the militant group or that violates Hamas’ stern interpretation of Islam.
Going fishing on Facebook
Both governments also create fake Facebook profiles to befriend and monitor known dissidents, activists said. In September, a young Gaza man was detained after publishing an article critical of Hamas on his Facebook feed.
Such “stalking” on Facebook and other social media sites has become increasingly common in the Arab world. In Lebanon, four people were arrested over the summer and accused of slandering President Michel Suleiman on Facebook. All have been released on bail.
In neighboring Syria, Facebook is blocked altogether. And in Egypt, a blogger was charged with atheism in 2007 after intelligence officials monitored his posts.
It seems that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is under investigation by Pakistani legal authorities for violation of that country’s anti-blasphemy laws surrounding the recent Draw Muhammed contest.
The penalty for violating the Pakistani anti-blasphemy law can be death.
Section 295-C of the Pakistani penal code reads: “Use of derogatory remark etc, in respect of the Holy Prophet, whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable for fine.”
The Draw Muhammed Contest was started in response, in part, to Comedy Central’s censoring of an episode of “South Park” that dealt with violent Muslim reaction over the depiction of the Prophet Muhammed in the West. A Danish newspaper and cartoonist have also been under violent threat because of a cartoon depicting Mohammed with an exploding turban.
The idea of the Draw Muhammed Contest was that it would be a response to violent, Islamic extremists to show that freedom of expression in the West applies to everyone and every subject. Muslims do not get to tell non-Muslims what to do and what to say.
It appears that Pakistani law enforcement disagrees with this sentiment. The Pakistanis actually expect Interpol to arrange for the arrest of Mark Zuckerberg and his handing over to the Pakistani authorities for trial and presumed punishment. A complaint to the UN General Assembly is also being contemplated.
The situation seems to derive in large part from cultural insensitivity on the part of Pakistanis and many other Muslims. Muslims may feel somewhat sensitive about depictions of their Prophet, especially unflattering ones. This has been known since the Salman Rushdie affair. On the other hand, Muslims need to realize that the right to express oneself, on any subject, with any point of view, is held as sacred in the West as Islam is considered in their own countries. Religion and the religious are scrutinized, criticized, and ridiculed frequently. This applies to all religions, not just Islam.
The difference is that Christians, Jews, and so on seem to be secure enough in their particular faiths that any assaults on them get relatively mild complaints in response. Not so with Muslims. It seems that many Muslims just want to kill people for disdaining Islam. This not only demonstrates a somewhat shaky religious faith, but also tends to reinforce the image of the Muslims as violent extremists.
Coddling or giving into this attitude, as Comedy Central did, is somewhat counter-productive. Self-censorship only enables violent extremists and ensures that the threats of violence will continue.
Thanks to JT Hundley for the link
A court in Pakistan has ordered the authorities temporarily to block the Facebook social networking site.
The order came when a petition was filed after the site held a competition featuring caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
The petition, filed by a lawyers’ group called the Islamic Lawyers’ Movement, said the contest was “blasphemous”.
A message on the competition’s information page said it was not “trying to slander the average Muslim”.
“We simply want to show the extremists that threaten to harm people because of their Muhammad depictions that we’re not afraid of them,” a statement on the “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” said.
“They can’t take away our right to freedom of speech by trying to scare us into silence.”
The information section of the page said that it was set up by a Seattle-based cartoonist, Molly Norris.
It contains caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad and characters from other religions, including Hinduism and Christianity, as well as comments both critical and supportive of Islam.
Publications of similar cartoons in Danish newspapers in 2005 sparked angry protests in Muslim countries – five people were killed in Pakistan.
Already the Pakistani press has reported protests against Facebook on Wednesday by journalists outside parliament in Islamabad, while various Islamic parties are also reported to be organising demonstrations.
Correspondents say that the internet is uncensored in Pakistan but the government monitors content by routing all traffic through a central exchange.
Justice Ejaz Ahmed Chaudhry of the Lahore High Court ordered the department of communications to block the website until 31 May, and to submit a written reply to the petition by that date.
An official told the court that parts of the website that were holding the competition had been blocked, reports the BBC Urdu service’s Abdul Haq in Lahore.
But the petitioner said a partial blockade of a website was not possible and that the entire link had to be blocked.
The lawyers’ group says Pakistan is an Islamic country and its laws do not allow activities that are “un-Islamic” or “blasphemous”.
The judge also directed Pakistan’s foreign ministry to raise the issue at international level.
In the past, Pakistan has often blocked access to pornographic sites and sites with anti-Islamic content.
It has deemed such material as offensive to the political and security establishment of the country, says the BBC’s M Ilyas Khan in Islamabad.
In 2007, the government banned the YouTube site, allegedly to block material offensive to the government of Pervez Musharraf.
The action led to widespread disruption of access to the site for several hours. The ban was later lifted.