Muslim-Majority Nations Stifling Online Expression: Report

A new OpenNet Initiative study has found that Internet censorship is prevalent in Muslim-majority countries... and that the authorities are using religious sensibilities as an excuse for political repression online.

Majority-Muslim countries regularly engage in faith-based censorship of the Internet, according to a new report by prominent watchdog group, The OpenNet Initative. The study, written by Helmi Noman, examined 15 states and territories. Out of these, 14 blocked sites that were considered to be critical of Islam and five blocked “liberal, secular, and atheistic comment.”

The report, titled "In the Name of God," primarily examined Middle Eastern and South Asian states and territories. Some countries, such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, were also found to be enthusiastically blocking religious websites catering to faith minorities such as the Ba'hai's and Ahmadiyyas. The Ahmadiyyas, an Islamic sect who believe the messiah arrived in the 19th century, are persecuted in Pakistan and prohibited from calling themselves Muslims.

Fatwas by clerics closely tied to national governments have targeted software developers and ISPs. Saudi Arabia's state Standing Committee for Issuing Fatwas recently declared the operation of Internet cafes to beharam (forbidden) if the computers inside were used for “false and evil ends,” and the Grand Mufti of Dubairecently demanded that Dubai block access to pro-atheism websites. It is not known whether Dubai took him up on the request.

Even emoticons are getting scrutinized. Muhammad al-Munajid, a prominent Saudi cleric who hosts several widely watched television shows, wrote a fatwa declaring the use of emoticons by women to be religiously objectionable. Writing on his islam-qa.com site, al-Munajid stated that because emoticons display feelings and emotions, they violated the fact that “it is only permissible for a woman to speak to (non-blood relative) men in cases of necessity.” While al-Munajid's statement was not binding on the Saudi government, he is one of the country's most influential religious figures.

Most of the state censorship Noman discovered is more disturbing than individual clerics targeting emoticons or Christopher Hitchens fan sites. Saudi Arabia's infamous state religious police has more than 300 volunteers constantly scanning Facebook and chat rooms for questionable statements by Saudi citizens. The Sudanese government openly acknowledges that it censors the Internet to “protect the doctrine of the ‘Ummah’ [Islamic nation] and its moral values, and to strengthen the principles of virtue and chastity.” In Indonesia, clerics forced the government to block pornographic websites and a Saudi telecommunications proposal issued in April 2011 argued for the public defamation of anyone involved in disseminating web content that “defames Islamic values.”

In many countries, forbidden political, religious, and sexual content can be obtained through the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and various web anonymizers. Unfortunately, the Arab Spring does not appear to be changing the prevalence of web censorship in the Muslim world; Islamist parties in Tunisia are currently demanding that the new government keep in place the prevalent Internet censorship of the old Ben Ali regime. However, instead of censoring the Internet to maintain an authoritarian government, the Islamist parties want the Internet censored for reasons of religious purity.

Muslim and Arab intellectuals are playing an important part in fighting Internet censorship in their home countries, with groups such as Egypt's Arabic Network for Human Rights Information and writers such as Omar Kadour and Hamid Zannar leading the charge. One important complaint is that governments frequently use religious censorship as fig leaf for political censorship--web pages and Facebook accounts for opposition movements, women's rights groups and minority rights groups are often apparently blocked on dubious charges of being “pornographic.”

[Image: Flickr user muslim page]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.

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