By: Riaz Osmani
This article is aimed at Mark Zuckerberg as well as the Facebook authority in general. I wish to highlight the fact that Facebook has been knowingly or unknowingly deactivating accounts of numerous atheists, ex-Muslims and freethinkers in Bangladesh. It is conceivable that a similar situation exists in other Muslim majority countries. Facebook has become almost indispensable for the young and tech savvy population of Bangladesh, due to the availability of cheap smartphones and the ability to post and comment in the Bangla language. This has given rise to a vibrant online world in the country, where people can now connect and converse in a way that was never possible.
One phenomenon of this vibrant Facebook world is that Islamic preachers have found a new medium to spread their word. Equally, the previously silent group of atheists, ex-Muslims and freethinkers have also found a new way to challenge some of the deeply held ideas of Muslims. These Godless heathens have taken it upon themselves to discuss various verses from the Quran and Hadith with the following in mind. Muslims believe the Quran to be the absolute word of God whereas Hadith is a compilation of various sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. In countries like Bangladesh, both the Quran and Hadith are sacrosanct. One must not question but instead believe and obey.
To add a twist to all this, most Bangladeshis have not read the Quran or Hadith in a language they understand. Both the Quran and Hadith were written in Classical Arabic and there is no social endeavour to concentrate on Bangla translations. Children from a very early age are taught to recite Arabic letters and words, and thus learn to pronounce and recite the whole Quran over time. Many are even encouraged to memorize the whole thing. Missing from all this is any comprehension of what is being read. Most Muslims in Bangladesh and indeed many non-Arabic speaking countries do not have comprehensive knowledge of what they are reciting day in and out.
Knowledge of the contents of these books is limited to what various Islamic priests known as Imams regularly sermonize to a congregation either in a Mosque or in another type of religious event. These priests, teachers or scholars selectively translate and explain the message of Quran and Hadith in a way that maintains good PR. It is those selective verses that followers of Islam, both and young and old, take to heart and regurgitate at the earliest opportunity. It is this selective knowledge that forms the basis of the faith for most Muslims in Bangladesh and it is not strongly encouraged to look deeper into the scriptures. That is left to the capabilities of the preachers and scholars.
Atheists, ex-Muslims and freethinkers in Bangladesh have found Facebook an opportunity to highlight verses from both the Quran and Hadith that are skilfully pushed aside by the preachers. Verses that have been used over 1400 years by the male dominated Islamic societies to subjugate the status of women, the LGBT community and non-believers, have been brought to light and discussed. This has given rise to anger among many Muslim Facebook users who have reported such posts to be demeaning of Islam and the Muslim community. Since most of the posts and discussions regarding the above are in the Bangla language, Facebook does not have enough resources to investigate the complaints of the angry Facebook users. If posts by an atheist, ex-Muslim or freethinker regularly receive a certain number of reports from Muslim members, then Facebook eventually deactivates the account of the one who made those posts.
On the other hand, whenever we have reported posts by Muslim fundamentalists calling for death to all homosexuals and atheists in Bangladesh, we received a canned response back stating that the posts in question did not violate Facebook’s community standards. Really?
I think Mark Zuckerberg will agree with me that discussing various verses from the Quran and Hadith, as to how they have been used to subjugate women, gays and non-believers, as well as in recent times to conduct some of the worst terrorist atrocities in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries, does not tantamount to Islamophobia or denigrating a particular religious group. Instead, it is a legitimate discussion that is incidentally forbidden in Islam. And yet we, the Bangladeshi atheists, ex-Muslims and freethinkers now find our voices stifled and our freedom of speech curbed, because Facebook deactivated our accounts upon receiving numerous complaints from believers.
I hope Mark Zuckerberg will also agree with me that it is a legitimate discussion to have, regarding how religions like Islam have in general suppressed free thinking, flourishment of individuality, freedom of sexuality, and the attainment of knowledge through science. Islam is a highly textualized faith based on ground realities of Arabia over 1400 years ago. It itself declares that it forms a complete and immutable way of life and disallows its followers to pursue a non-prescribed way of being. Most Muslims however cherry-pick the aspects of this complete way of life that suit their current circumstances and then claim to be pious and righteous Muslims. It is a legitimate discussion to condemn this hypocrisy especially when it is used to judge people anywhere from Muslims who observe even less, to non-Muslims, apostates and LGBT people (Muslim or otherwise).
It is a legitimate discussion to highlight systematic boy rapes and other forms of physical torture that are inflicted upon poor and orphaned young male students in Islamic schools called Madrasas. These are inflicted by the teachers of the same-sex residential Madrasas as well by older male students. It is a legitimate discussion to highlight the fact that many Imams themselves are involved in rapes of young girls and women. Physical violence against children and women need no further mention.
It is a legitimate discussion where the life of Prophet Muhammad is brought to light, even aspects of his life that veer towards his personal matters of marriage and sexual relations as narrated in the scriptures. All aspects of Prophet Muhammad’s life, and not just a select few, should be up for discussion since most male Muslims in Bangladesh (and elsewhere) openly express their desire to follow his footsteps in their entirety (including personal grooming).
It is a legitimate discussion to question the very authenticity of Islam and its history as narrated in the Quran and Hadith. It is legitimate as a freely thinking human being to question the very authenticity of the Quran and Hadith and how those books came about. It is equally valid to question the very idea of a belief system, as prescribed by Islam or any other organised religion. It is valid to point out that such a belief system that maintains the notion of “I blindly believe and hence it must be true”, is against all forms of rational reasoning and proof.
Mr. Zuckerberg, many of our Facebook accounts have been deactivated including my own. We also think Facebook is succumbing to requests from the government of countries like Bangladesh to muzzle our voice. This is where Facebook is failing in its commitment to protecting free speech and connecting people across the globe. And Facebook is doing this to us against the backdrop of numerous atheists, ex-Muslims, free thinkers, writers, bloggers, leaders of non-Muslim faiths, cultural activists and gay rights activists that have been killed in Bangladesh by Islamic terrorists, all in the name of Islam, a few years ago. Muslims in the country, generally speaking, did not lament these incidents, since it was their faith that was supposedly criticized by those who lost their lives or was tainted by the incongruent lifestyles of the latter. This was also the overall political position of the government. And Mr. Zuckerberg, do you know where these murders were encouraged into fruition? On Facebook itself.
I hope you and your team will look into this matter seriously. Our Facebook accounts must be reactivated, and procedures be put in place so that legitimate discussions on, and criticism of Islam, are not suppressed. Moreover, Facebook needs to hire enough experts in the Bangla language so that it is possible for members of your team to analyse the posts and comments carefully and be able to make more appropriate decisions about them.
Thank you very much Mr. Zuckerberg. My best wishes go to all the atheists, ex-Muslims and freethinkers in Bangladesh and around the world.