Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2008-02-11/Muhammad image
Petition seeks to remove images of Muhammad
An online petition trying to get Wikipedia editors to remove images from an article made headlines in the mainstream news media after continued pressure failed to bring about the desired result. The effort focused on pictures of Muhammad, based on the notion that this offends Islamic tradition.
Story of the petition
The petition in question is hosted on ThePetitionSite.com, which allows anyone to create free online petitions (it is hosted by Care2, a social network with roots focusing on environmentalism and human rights). The stated purpose of the petition was "To request wikipedia editors to respect other peoples religion [sic]". It called for the removal of illustrations depicting Muhammad. Noting that some of the images show Muhammad's face while others leave the face blank or veiled, it said these would still be "offensive to Muslims."
In a little over two months, the petition has attracted well over 100,000 signatures. While this undoubtedly includes duplicate signatures, and some of the accompanying comments don't necessarily support the premise, the volume of participation is impressive. Over time it helped prompt a steady influx of attempts to actually remove the images, as well as a growing number of emails to the Wikimedia Foundation. Ultimately it also came to the attention of the media and the story was covered in such publications as the New York Times.
The petition was started in December by Faraz Ahmad, who edited Wikipedia as User:Farazilu and identified himself as a Pakistani programmer living in Glasgow. He initially got involved in the debate over images of Muhammad in April 2007, saying "I think we should remove all images showing imaginary portraits of Muhammad". Similar requests had been made off and on over the years. Shortly before Ahmad started the petition, the suggestion was renewed by an unregistered editor apparently located in Kenya, but generally dismissed by other editors.
Ahmad did not immediately rejoin the discussion after launching the petition. He did get into a renewed debate a few weeks later, after the petition had begun steadily attracting signatures. The debate turned acrimonious, and his account has been blocked indefinitely since December 26. Initially he was blocked because of a comment that if the petition and a request for arbitration were rejected, he might "take Wikipedia into court to resolve this issue", which some editors interpreted as a legal threat. Although the block was quickly reconsidered, Ahmad thereafter made a few posts to talk pages for The Holocaust and Adolf Hitler, suggesting that sections be added to cover Holocaust denial (currently linked only as a "See also") and to discuss the view of "some people in this world" that consider Hitler a hero. This prompted another indefinite block.
Debating the issue
Whether the religion of Islam really would require the removal of the images has been the subject of some debate. One oft-claimed position is that Islamic tradition forbids all images of humans or even animals. Academic experts consulted by reporters generally indicated that images, especially of Muhammad, might be "discouraged" but are not universally prohibited. In Shia Islam, the predominant faith in the Persian culture that produced the images (most come from medieval Persian manuscripts), the prevailing attitude tends to be more relaxed on the issue. Perhaps reflecting this, the Farsi Wikipedia is one of 37 Wikipedia languages displaying one of the images in question, while other languages such as Arabic or Turkish limit themselves to illustrating the article with a calligraphy of Muhammad's name.
Since the attention drawn to the issue by coverage of the petition, the Muhammad article and its talk page on the English Wikipedia have been the focus of intense activity. The talk page now has a FAQ explaining the situation and a separate subpage for discussion of the issue. Meanwhile, ThePetitionSite.com also ended up hosting a counter-petition, which has gathered over 300 signatures so far.
Muhammad is not the only founder of a world religion whose image has generated controversy on Wikipedia. In the Bahá'í faith, displaying images of Bahá'u'lláh is avoided except in a context of veneration. The Wikipedia article nevertheless includes an actual photograph taken of him, although the compromise was reached to display it at the bottom of the article, with a note to that effect near the top so that readers can avoid it if they wish.
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