The Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI) on Thursday reserved all fiery comments when thousands of Facebook users across the globe uploaded images of the Prophet Muhammad on the popular social networking site.
MUI chairman Amidhan said the clerics would not issue an edict banning Facebook, which has millions of users and is ranked the top website by Alexa in the world’s most populous Muslim country.
“Facebook is only a tool. It’s neutral,” he told The Jakarta Post. “But the government must be able to shut down the web page hosting the Prophet drawing competition.”
As of Thursday afternoon, the Facebook page “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” had been tagged by 77,946 people who “like” it.
More than 6,000 pictures have been uploaded, mostly using a cropped image drawn by a Danish cartoonist that sparked violent protests in 2006. Some of the uploaded images are considered offensive and disturbing enough to draw the ire of even moderate Muslims.
The page was created by Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris in support of the creators of satirical TV show South Park, who received death threats from militant Islamists for depicting Muhammad in one of the cartoon’s episodes. Muslims believe their prophet, a strict monotheist, had ordered them not to make any icons of him to prevent idol worship.
The government has sent a letter to Facebook asking it to shut the page, which remained accessible as of Thursday night. Facebook said Wednesday it was investigating the controversial page, The Associated Press reported.
“While the content does not violate our terms, we do understand it may not be legal in some countries,” the company said in a statement. “In cases like this, the approach is sometimes to restrict certain content from being shown in specific countries.”
Muhammadiyah chairman Din Syamsuddin called on Muslims to remain calm and not be provoked by what he said appears to be the biggest online movement to anger Muslims, even moderate ones.
“This is a deliberate provocation. Muslims should control themselves. We should not be emotional and angry as this provocation will go on incessantly,” Din said.
Muslim scholar Azyumardi Azra dismissed the notion that the recurrent collision of values between the liberals and the Muslim world underlined the failure of the many interfaith dialogues held by the two sides to ease conflict. “This only shows that we need more dialogue.”
There were no major rallies by Muslim groups denouncing the cartoon competition in Jakarta or other major cities in the country on Thursday. The situation here was in stark contrast to that in Pakistan where Muslims flaunted banners calling for the deaths of those they said blasphemed the Prophet.
Pakistan’s government has also ordered Internet service providers to block Facebook and YouTube on Wednesday amid anger over the controversy, the AP reported. Pakistan took the decision after a group of Islamic lawyers won a court order Wednesday requiring officials to block Facebook until May 31.
While clerics appeal for calm, journalists and activists are wary the new cartoon fracas would be used as an excuse by the government to control the Internet, currently the most effective tool to organize and social political movements to keep a check on authorities in the past two years.
Communications and Information Technology Minister Tifatul Sembiring said this latest controversy highlighted the need for a ministerial regulation to control the online world. The proposal has been strongly rejected by bloggers and journalists, who fear it would serve as a censor.
The Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) stated Thursday that it was against any abuse of freedom of expression, but it was also against any “efforts to use the Facebook controversy to pass anti-democratic regulations”.
“Internet content that offends Muslims does not justify [Tifatul’s] move to control the Internet,” AJI chairman Neza Patria said.