Thursday, February 07, 2008

Should Wikipedia Remove Pictures of Muhammad?

As the International Herald Tribune has reported, Muslims around the world are protesting against a Wikipedia article on Muhammad for depicting pictures of the Prophet - which is prohibited among most Muslim communities. So which is the overriding principle: the Web 2.0 ethic that people should be able to create content without needing editors' approval, or the socio-political need to be respectful of cultural sensitivities?

Despite an online petition with over 80,000 "signatures", Wikipedia has decided emphatically NOT to remove the images. It offers its explanation, stating:

"Wikipedia recognizes that there are cultural traditions among some Muslim groups that prohibit depictions of Muhammad and other prophets and that some Muslims are offended when those traditions are violated. However, the prohibitions are not universal among Muslim communities, particularly with the Shi'a who, while prohibiting the images, are less strict about it. Since Wikipedia is an encyclopedia with the goal of representing all topics from a neutral point of view, Wikipedia is not censored for the benefit of any particular group...

The traditional reason given for the Islamic prohibitions on images of prophets is to prevent the images from becoming objects of worship as a form of idolatry, where the image becomes more important than the subject it represents. However, Wikipedia uses the images of Muhammad as examples of how Muhammad has been depicted by various Islamic sects through history and not in a religious context. Therefore, there are no concerns that the presence of the images on the articles will result in the practice of idolatry among Muslims."

Furthermore, Wikipedia has a content disclaimer in which it makes clear that for all of its entries, "no content or images will be removed from Wikipedia because people find them objectionable or offensive".

Think about that for a second.

And yet, while Wikipedia is obviously demonstrating some thoughtfulness on the subject, one can't help but cringe and feel at least mildly uncomfortable with the precedent this sets. Will the same reasoning be used next time when a Neo-Nazi article is submitted in which it freely professes its anti-semitic beliefs? Perhaps one from the Ku Klux Klan showing images of lynchings?

The whole idea behind Web 2.0 is to take power away from elite media editors and put it into the hands of ordinary people who can make decisions over content for themselves. This is truly a noble idea, however as this case demonstrates, such websites are still private spaces, and the buck still ultimately stops at an elite level. Wikipedia unquestionably has the power to decide whether or not to allow culturally insensitive materials on its website - and it has made its decision, sticking by it even in the face of a strong public backlash.

The question is whether it made the right one.


At 1:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think they should just take the pictures off. Why does anyone need there pictures to be on anyway? This isn't censorship this is respecting other people.

At 9:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, I was shocked to read your thoughts on this one. I totally support wiki and I think this is just a blip to them. I mean 80,000 people is a peanut shell compared to the one and half billion referrals a month they get from Google alone.
I think wiki is sticking by their principal that they will not take down offensive material; therefore putting it into the hands of ordinary people who can make decisions over content for themselves. I know of an instance at the high school where I teach where the two vice principals were caught having an affair with each other; both were married. After one was forced to resign, the information was posted on wikipedia. It started a war with the techs and kids, every hour it was removed only to have it added within the next hour. This went on for a while, until our school blocked wiki and like most teenagers do; they forgot about it. But occasionally you will see it pop up, only to disappear within a week. Wiki refused to do anything.
Yes they ultimately have control but it seems they only use this when legality issues are questioned. I think looking deeper into “the elite level/ who is the man” becomes a philosophical debate anyway.

At 2:40 PM, Blogger Robert J. Domanski said...

Beardutch - I agree that Wikipedia has been consistent in only taking down material when it raises legal issues. But it should be noted that Wikipedia has actually "protected" the Muhammad page, meaning that now nobody is capable of making any further changes. That hardly sounds like enabling people to make decisions for themselves.

This is a tricky issue. Even as a staunch free speech advocate, I must concede that free speech laws only apply to public spaces - which Wikipedia is decidedly not. It's probably in their best interests not to provoke the "peanut shell" of 80,000 Muslims (I don't know where you got this number), as opposed to keeping the images up to appease the much smaller number of people who probably couldn't care less whether the images are visible or not.

At 10:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My view definitely changes knowing that wiki blocked page modifications, never knew they did that. I got my numbers from USA Today, which I posted below. So I still think that 80,000 users protesting is "peanut shells"

"Wikipedia is the 12th most visited web site in the US with around 10.65 million users visiting the site daily and a total reach of just shy of 39 million of the estimated 173.3 million Internet users in the USA.

The average daily page views per user is 4.8.

At 2:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The blocking of the page is a completely standard Wikipedia procedure to a page with an edit war going on. The alternative is a page constantly changing back and forth, which also disrupts the normal editing process. Wikipedia does have various ways of dealing with contested content. While you can of course disagree with the procedures in place, your surprise over the existance of page blocks gives the indication that you have not even bothered to investigate what the procedures are, why they are needed, and what it takes to enable them. Hopefully this is only an impression I get due to my misunderstanding of what you write - after all it would be pretty sad if you "definitely change your mind" based on something you have not bothered considering seriously.


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