Facebook blocks popular rationalists’ group that wins religious zealots’ ire

How much does Facebook care about Freedom of Expression?

This is the question a group of liberals in the southern Indian state of Kerala are pondering over after their ‘Free Thinkers’ group has been ‘made unavailable’ by Facebook repeatedly.

The group was among the top 20 or so from India until it was blocked by Facebook to users in several countries, including India, about two months ago.

The original group, created by a Bangalore-based techie, had about 42,000 members when it was made unavailable by Facebook.

The social network, owned by billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, offered no particular reasons for making the group unavailable, except saying that ‘technical difficulties’ were preventing it from displaying the page.

The ‘Free Thinkers’ Facebook group was perhaps the most active Facebook groups in India, with hundreds of posts each day, and tens of thousands of comments. The rules urged members to engage in creative discussions on philosophy, religion, politics, books etc..

Most of the discussions were conducted in the local language, Malayalam.

The group was the online manifestation of the ‘rationalist movement’. The rationalists challenged religious dogma, and urged people to question long-held beliefs.

It was particularly popular in the southern part of India, which already had a dormant rationalist culture thanks to its Buddhist and Jain heritage. Kerala, which was home to the first elected Communist government, was also the home of Joseph Edamaruku, one of the leading lights of the Rationalist movement in India.

His son, Sanal Edamaruku, is now head of Rationalist International.

The blockage of Free Thinkers was followed by an exasperating wait by thousands of fans of the Facebook group, and a frantic search by the admins to figure out what went wrong. Interestingly, ‘Right Thinkers’, a group floated by religious minded people to counter the impact of ‘Free Thinkers’, continued to function normally.

Finally, after about two weeks, the ‘Free Thinkers’ decided to float another group. The rationalists soon populated the group again, and were about 16,000 strong in a little more than a week.

The group too met the same fate, with Facebook claiming that technical difficulties were preventing it from displaying the group’s page.

Another three weeks later, in May, the rationalists again started a ‘Free Thinker’ group for the third time. This time, the group lasted for two weeks, until it was made ‘unavailable’ by Facebook today.

The ‘Free Thinkers’ group was closely associated with a group of people trying to prevent religious obscurantism in Kerala. Some of the members of the group have even held public debates with religious scholars in front of audiences in Kerala.

Not all the confrontation between religious fundamentalists and rationalists have been so diplomatic. TJ Joseph, a college professor, had his hand cut off by fundamentalists, who quoted Islamic law, for using what they held was a blasphemous extract from a book in a ‘punctuation exercise’ in a question paper.

KP Naser, who was instrumental in the formation of the online groups, has expressed his exasperation at the turn of events. Naser’s own profile, along with those of the nearly dozen co-administrators of Free Thinkers, was similarly ‘made unavailable’ by Facebook for a few hours.

“There seems to be no value placed on the freedom of expression,” Naser posted on his Facebook wall after the second group was taken down.