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Pakistan Needs More Facebook Friends

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Pakistanis -- despite what you may hear these days -- are not without senses of humor. A few months ago, Pakistan's version of the Onion, the Maila Times posted about China not being Pakistan's BFF anymore on Facebook, because of all the wall posts by U.S. diplomats. Little did they know what that post portended. Now with the Pakistan government's ban on Facebook due to an offensive cartoon contest page about the Prophet of Islam (and it is offensive to denigrate another's religious symbols, no matter who's doing the denigrating) many both within and outside of Pakistan are mocking what they see as Pakistan's over reaction to the contest. And it really is too bad, this ban, because Pakistan could have used the kind of image overhaul that Facebook can facilitate. As some Pakistanis have written and tweeted, former president Pervez Musharraf is using Facebook to change and improve his image vis a vis Pakistanis by trying to mimic President Obama's popularity rise through "social networking" sites. So much so that with Facebook banned, "he's lost his constituency," as someone recently tweeted.

This month especially, Pakistan really needed to look cool, and quick, to the international community. They should have forgotten about the debate over Facebook privacy issues and posted awesome pictures of K2, the scenic North, and perhaps a couple of those crazy party scenes that people could 'like' and that could do wonders for the nation that is now only equated with terrorism in western minds. Instead, they're becoming caricatures of themselves, acting zealously and emotionally over an admittedly offensive site, counterproductively attracting more publicity and members to the site.

And instead they disable Facebook, after protests that urged the government to do so. They've also just banned Youtube and Wikipedia. And while going without viral videos of one penguin smacking another might be good for the soul, one wonders if banning Wikipedia is wise in a country that already has high illiteracy rates.

Banning anything that contains offensive content is a slippery slope for the court because, well, what about pornography? According to Tariq Ali the highest sales of pornography are in Peshawar and Quetta ("Taliban strongholds), and Pakistan's own porn production industry is apparently growing. As one comedian joked, now that Facebook is banned, all that free bandwith has certainly made downloading porn a lot easier for him.

But in all seriousness, the Prophet, the one about which this was all started, was the subject of slander and ridicule by opponents while he was alive. And still, he stressed Quranic directives that people should "speak well" and "debate in a beautiful manner." And as the cultural critics say, Facebook and other social networking sites are effective means for dialogue these days. Isolating the website, the group, and the two million Pakistani Facebook users isn't the best use of the privacy setting options. The offended parties should have set up their own counter-page, or chatted online, or even merely written on the wall of the cartoon site. But banning Facebook in Pakistan? That's like publicly putting the entire country on Limited Profile. And with Pakistan's reputation in the international community these days, it needs all the Friends it can get.