Arab Atheists Decry Facebook Censorship on Posts Critical of Islam

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, arrives for a keynote speech during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 22, 2016.
Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, arrives for a keynote speech during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 22, 2016. | (Photo: Reuters/Albert Gea)

Atheist groups in the Middle East and North Africa region are demanding that Facebook, which has deleted numerous pages with more than 100,000 members for criticizing Islam, change the way it addresses violation claims so that members' freedom of speech is preserved.

In April, Facebook removed more than six Arabic-speaking atheist pages due to "violations" of Community Standards, after deactivating 10 of the largest Arabic-speaking atheist groups with a total of about 100,000 members, in February, according to The News Hub.

The censorship is a result of organized efforts by "cyber jihadist" groups to get anti-Islamic groups or pages removed, atheist groups say.

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"We may very well be the next page to get banned by FB," says the group Afghan Atheists on social media using the hashtag #FacebookVSFreeSpeech, created by the Atheist Alliance – Middle-East and North Africa.

AA-MENA has also petitioned Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg demanding reactivation of the removed groups.

"While Arab atheists, with absolutely no exaggeration, already face all kinds of oppression, torture, restriction of speech and even sentences to death in their countries, Arab atheists are facing a huge risk of losing the remaining freedoms that are practiced secretly or online, which are, including the freedom and the right of thinking and discussing freely, a basic right of a human being, hence being alive!" the online petition says.

In April, an activist in Yemen, identified as Omar Bataweel, was abducted, shot and left to die on the street for Facebook posts criticizing Islamic clergy and heritage.

AA-MENA says its freedom of speech campaign has three goals: Reactivate the pages that were removed due to intensive, unfounded reporting activities; convince Facebook to respect the rights of irreligious individuals and groups in the MENA region as well as respect the freedom of thought and expression; and convince Facebook to reform its standard procedures in collecting and addressing reports in a way that ensures a just evaluation of any alleged violation of Community Standards.

Earlier this month, the editor of a Germany-based magazine, Gaystream, said that Facebook blocked its page after an article published by it criticized Islam in the wake of the recent massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The magazine's editor-in-chief, David Berger, said the social media website did that because of a published article that sharply criticized his country's Green party activists who "played down the causes of the attack." An article in the magazine highlighted a radical Imam who had spoken out about homosexuality in Orlando and advocated the death penalty for LGBT individuals prior to the mass shooting.

Last month, American actress Patricia Heaton's post with a pro-life message went viral on social media, but Facebook editors characterized it as "anti-abortion."

The post, which didn't use the word "abortion" even once and was apolitical, became the top trending story on Facebook. But Facebook editors featured the post with these words: "Patricia Heaton: Actress Shares Anti-Abortion Message, Says 'Support Life.'"

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