Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Monday, February 04, 2008

About 80,000 people have petitioned Wikipedia to remove its images of Muhammad. These run the gamut from polite, respectful requests to (a very small minority) crazy threats of violence.

It's possible it could have been nipped in the bud if the top of the Muhammad article linked to a version without images (instead of to a page telling people to edit their custom server-side javascript file. sigh.).

Also, here's the on-wiki censorship request page.


pfctdayelise said...

whoa. :o

Milos Rancic said...

When comics were made, after a long discussion, we (on sr.wp) realized that the best way for dealing with such issues would be templates/tables hidden-by-default.

We didn't implement that because the most of Muslims from Serbia are generally secular (heh, an oximoron; in Former Yugoslavia a part of your cultural heritage is your religion, while it doesn't necessarily mean that you are religious; which implies paradoxes like: 99% of Serbs are Orthodox Christians, while 3% of Serbs believe in some basic Christian beliefs, like that God created human etc.)... So, the most of Muslims from Serbia are not religious and we didn't have any kind of pressure to do this and we simply forgot that. But, it may be a good solution for English Wikipedia.

Draeton said...

They ( </we> ) have no obligation to entertain their superstitions.

Ben Yates said...

No, but Wikipedia does have an obligation to respect its readers' sensibilities if it's possible to do so without censorship and without violating other core wiki ideals.

I imagine for a religious muslim seeing an unwarned-against likeness in the Mohammed article is like seeing an unwarned goatse in the Human Sexuality article.

draeton said...

Or, for a religious Christian, seeing two men holding hands in the Gay Marriage article.

Milos Rancic said...

Did you check how Russian Wikipedia solved this issue? Of course, we shouldn't censor such pages, but we should take care about widely spread taboos.

European based civilizations has taboo of presenting sexual intercourse. On English Wikipedia sexual intercourses are illustrated only with images, even there are photos on Commons.

So, we even didn't solve our taboo and we are arrogant toward others' taboo.

Ben Yates said...

Okay, Draeton; this is the central issue: what's the difference between the goatse (which you wouldn't want to see) and the gay hand-holding picture (which neither of us has a problem with)?

Is the mohammad picture more like the former (in which case we should mask it) or the latter (we shouldn't)?

Draeton said...

Okay, Draeton; this is the central issue: what's the difference between the goatse (which you wouldn't want to see) and the gay hand-holding picture (which neither of us has a problem with)?

Revulsion based in instinct versus that reasoned too from religious convictions. I would almost say first-order, as opposed to second-order revulsion. Think about this in terms of Catholicism: should Wikipedia censor the works of the painter, Francis Bacon?

I would be less opposed if it was a recently drawn picture of Muhammad--but these are centuries-old painting. This is history. It belongs on Wikipedia, and if the community cannot come to a consensus to remove the images, I don't think zealots should be granted special veto-rights over any particular entry.

llywrch said...

Milos, I had the same thought: let's make the images in question be hidden-by-default. However, when I had a look at these images, it was obvious that this would not be an appropriate solution.

All of them are Islamic artists portraying Mohammed in an Islamic way. In at least one case, Mohammed is portrayed without a face -- which was one devout way to observe the spirit of the rules without violating the letter of them.

I think the problem here is not that Wikipedia is being disrespectful to Muslims, but that one group of Muslims is attempting to impose its restrictive beliefs on everyone else.

Lastly, I wouldn't be surprised if most of the people signing this petition had never even seen the images used on Wikipedia. I think this incident is analogous to the situation where Fundamentalist Christians complain about the Harry Potter books & their protrayal of witchcraft -- yet had never read one page of them.


Milos Rancic said...

Geoff, did we make any relevant analysis about this issue? I may see that one far-of-extremist Muslim community, such Bosnian Wikipedian community is, didn't show those cartoons (while they are giving a link to the cartoons).

Reading something and seeing something are very opposite actions. If taboo is not to read -- then don't read. But, you can't say "if taboo is something -- then don't look". What about a Muslim who wants to read the article about that incident to be informed?

But, let's try the next... I need your help.

I am living in Serbia, far a way from the centers of world business. Because of that, I am not able to make contacts with people from pornographic industry in real life. But, you are able. (I contacted Sasha Grey and Kylie Ireland via email -- as they made edits on Wikipedia, the first one is editing on Commons, too -- but, Kylie is annoyed by Wikipedians (usual things related to WP:AUTO) and Sasha didn't answer to me (I suppose that she is getting hundreds of emails per day).)

We need appropriate illustrations of the articles about sexual intercourse between humans. If we are really so strictly against censorship (actually, as a libertarian, I would be very proud of Wikipedia if it is so), I suppose that we should have such articles well illustrated.

So, any of you who are living in USA may go to some pornographic fair, makes contacts with people and I am sure that at least a couple of performers, producers or publishing houses will give some of their photos and video clips under some free license.

And after we do that, we should start to think further. There is a photo of raped and killed woman. I expect that this image will illustrate the article "Rape".

Or the last one is too much? And if it is so, why? Because of our cultural taboos or because of some "ultimate morality" or "ultimate truth"?

Ben Yates said...

There is an important distinction: intent. There's a difference between a picture that's added with the intent to inform, and one added with the intent to piss people off (even if those two are the same picture).

Anyway, this all seems to be splitting hairs at this point -- the story's at the top of digg and reddit and still gaining steam; Wikipedia is in danger of becoming a flashpoint in what extremists on both sides like to see as a clash of civilizations.

The more popular muslim outrage there is, the more important it becomes for Wikipedia to follow its own ethical code and not cave to threats. But: the more outrage there is, the more it is met with corresponding "fuck you, here's our freedom of expression" on the other side (see Vallywag and Fox's choice of illustratory image). And that makes it that much more difficult to convince muslims that Wikipedia was not using the image solely to piss them off (which most of the signatories seem to think already).

Basically, this is a little petri dish showing everything that can go wrong when societies intersect. And that's dandy, except that Wikimania is coming up. (I didn't realize how much that fact changed the way we're reacting to this whole thing until I slept on it.)

The worst-case scenario, the lower limit on how badly the conference could go, just got a million times worse. If it actually becomes necessary, it's obviously better to call off Wikimania than change Wikipedia's policies under pressure. But local organizers could be at risk even if the event is canceled.

That's total speculation, obviously, and assumes a worst-case scenario. It's frustrating: nobody wants to talk about Alexandria because of WP:BEANS -- that may be legitimate, and I won't hesitate to delete this comment if someone asks me to -- but it also means that we're not getting answers to things like like "What's the political climate in Alex.?"

llywrch said...

Milos, I'm not entirely sure that you aren't pulling my leg about those photos you want to obtain under a free license, but I'm going to take your comments at face value and respond as such.

First, & to my surprise, there have been a number of sex-related photos sent to Wikipedia & the commons from people in the pornography industry. For example, a few years ago a photographer in Australia sent a series of photos illustrating various bondage positions. (I remember this because I took the time to thank him for his generosity.)

However, in the vast number of cases, I personally think that a line drawing would work better to illustrate a sexual position than a photograph. I do know that medical textbooks still extensively use drawings and artistic depictions instead of photographs, so modesty is not the only consideration here. On the other hand, there are clear cases where a photo is needed, such as in the article on autofellatio: in this case, the article needs a photo to prove that although very uncommon, this is possible. (And my back hurts just envisioning someone performing this variant of masturbation.)

Then there is the consideration that pornography is almost always sex performed for money; the people with the rights to the media are not interested in making it free. So I doubt anyone in the pornography industry is interested in providing us with free examples. (For the record, although I live in the US, I have no contacts inside this industry that I know of.)

As for your other examples, adding a photograph for the article on rape is possible, but I doubt anyone on en.wikipedia will allow it. The intent of rape is to sexually humiliate the victim, & having a photograph of this will only further humiliate the person in the photograph. Cultural norms or modesty play no part in this choice -- unless one belongs to a culture where vicious humiliation is overtly acceptable, something I cannot believe exists.

I hope no one asks Ben to delete his comment because he makes an insightful point; this controversy can't help but have an effect on this year's Wikimania. I don't think mentioning it is a case of WP:BEANS because now that I've thought about it, this controversy can't help but be exploited by some groups who would prefer us Westerners (who expct would include Milos, whether he thinks so or not) to stay on our side of the cultural divide -- as well as embarrass the Egyptian government, and prevent people in the Islamic world from talking with outsiders like us.

However, causing a riot at Wikimania over this would be very short-sighted because it may be they are right in this instance, and only by being in Egypt and talking to educated Muslims there will we learn that. If they recruit a gang of goons to attack a bunch of Wikipedians/Wikimedians, we will never know.

I would hope instead that there is a panel discussion about this matter, so that both sides can understand each other better. Sadly, due to a recent change in my life, I may not be able to attend Wikimania, even if someone were to provide me with the money. (It's something I need to document on my blog, but has kept me offline most of this week.)


Ben Yates said...

I think I might have been too pessimistic -- it looks like the tone of the debate's cooled down. (In years hence, this will be known as the Wikipedia strategy of conflic resolution: CRUSH YOUR ENEMIES UNDER A WALL OF TEXT)