Unlike Blasphemy in Video, a YouTube Ban Is Shrugged Off

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- When it comes to YouTube, the government of Afghanistan intends to keep its hand on the switch for now.

More than two months after the Afghan government banned YouTube to prevent the spread of an anti-Islamic video, it has yet to restore access to the popular video Web site. While officials say they hope to lift the block "as soon as possible," they have offered only a vague sense of what must happen before that can be done.

It is a measure of some of Afghanistan's complexities, however, that even as Afghan rights advocates have worried about censorship, a common reaction on the street to the YouTube ban has been praise, or at worst ambivalence, even among some of the younger, Internet-savvy set in Kabul.

"That video dishonored our prophet," said Syed Hamid, 19, a recent high school graduate, in comfortable English. "If YouTube isn't going to remove the video, then our government is right to block access to it."

He added: "I don't need YouTube. I can watch videos on other Web sites."

When a trailer for the video "Innocence of Muslims," which portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a crass thug and a womanizer, began to circulate in September, the Afghan government reacted quickly to stem potential violence as riots broke out in other countries. In a move that senior Western officials in Afghanistan praised, the Afghan authorities reached out to religious leaders across the country, urging them to preach restraint and tolerance.

More controversially, officials also decided to impose the ban on YouTube after the company refused to remove the video from its site.

The country remained mostly peaceful, to the relief of the government and Western officials here. Past demonstrations related to religious insensitivity had quickly become deadly: In February, when NATO personnel were seen burning Korans near the Bagram Air Base, Afghans took to the streets in a violent outpouring of rage that led to dozens of deaths.

While Western countries, including most of the ones involved here, recoil at the idea of restricting free speech, the lesson is less clear in Afghanistan. In this case, censorship worked, and in conjunction with the government's broader strategy almost certainly saved lives.

Still, some are asking the question: Where does the government draw the line on filtering information to its citizens? The answer has consistently been: Anywhere Islam is insulted.

"In the Islamic world, there are certain things that are untouchable," said Jalal Noorani, senior adviser to the minister of culture and information, who initiated the ban. "We won't be patient with anything disrespectful to our religion."

Mr. Noorani said the government had no plans to ban other Web sites, so long as they did not disrespect Islam or incite ethnic violence.

The government had shown a willingness to censor offensive broadcasts before. In 2010, for instance, it shut down Emrooz TV after the local station showed a segment on Shiite Muslims that some Afghans found offensive. And a sustained war of words with Pakistan prompted Afghan officials to ban Pakistani newspapers from eastern Afghanistan in September, claiming they were little more than "propaganda tools for the Taliban."

While Web sites that focus on vices like gambling and pornography have been banned for years, the government had never before blocked an entire media Web site for hosting an offensive video, officials said. Civil rights groups have argued that the censorship undermines President Hamid Karzai's promises of transparency and openness.

But for all the controversy over the ban, it hardly seemed to register with many youths here in Kabul.

On a recent afternoon, hundreds of young men gathered in a plaza off the Pul-e-Khesti market, where a de facto cellphone emporium has taken root. Men waved phones as they barked out prices across the crowd. Merchants seated at makeshift tables charged nominal fees to download music and videos on mobile devices.

The market is just the sort of place the government feared could be a magnet for violence if the video -- or even just news of its contents -- spread from phone to phone. Although most Afghans do not have computers, cellphones have become ubiquitous over the past decade, and an estimated three-quarters of Afghans have access to mobile devices that allow them to watch videos.

"As long as this anti-prophet video is on YouTube, our government should keep their Web site blocked," said Javeed Khawrin, 21, who was shopping at the market. "If I had power, I would have destroyed the whole area where this video was taped."

Subhanullah, 24, an Afghan Army soldier who came to the market to get his phone fixed and who, like many Afghans, uses a single name, said the video "creates more haters among our national army soldiers toward the foreign troops here."

Attitudes were similar at the city's Women's Garden, a sanctuary of roses, leafy trees and swing sets financed by Western aid.

Nilab Khursihid, 18, said she welcomed the government's decision to keep the ban in place, and suggested even extending it to all material that is hurtful or disrespectful, including cartoons that lampoon Mr. Karzai.

"This is how our community is," she said, sitting with friends in the garden. "The Internet has misled many of the youth."

The garden, in the Shahrara neighborhood, boasts a library, a computer lab and a gymnasium for women. Small shops selling toys, lingerie and dresses line the inner wall of the compound. Nearby, a young woman sat uneasily behind the steering wheel of a Toyota, taking a driving lesson, a freedom unknown in the rest of the city.

One shopkeeper, Mariama Ahmadi, 23, who runs a dress store, offered a counterperspective. While she, too, thinks the video should have been taken down, she said, she thinks banning the Web site was a mistake. She said she preferred self-censorship, and the freedom to decide for oneself.

"We can all have our own choices and decide what to watch," she said, her face framed by a black hijab. "The government shouldn't be telling people what to do."

Sharifullah Sahak contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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