It was a music video meant to depict a young bride’s joy: Actress Saba Qamar, in a flowing white wedding gown with a golden hem, was twirled by the singer playing her groom in front of the mosaics of a 17th-century mosque in Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore.
As soon as the video emerged earlier this month, it went viral — but for the wrong reasons. It infuriated religious radicals who inundated social media with claims that Qamar’s dancing sullied the historic Wazir Khan Mosque.
The uproar was the latest example of how trolling has surged online in Pakistan since a lockdown, imposed in March over coronavirus concerns, confined tens of millions to their homes, leading to a 50% increase in internet use in this conservative Muslim nation of over 220 million people.
Minority rights activists and social media trackers say they’ve seen a sharp rise in online sectarian attacks, hate speech and cries of “Blasphemy!”
“It is unprecedented,” Shahzad Ahmad of Bytesforall, an Islamabad-based social media rights group, told The Associated Press.
Toxic trending on Twitter has also taken aim at minorities, blaming the ethnic Hazaras for allegedly bringing the coronavirus to Pakistan from neighboring Iran. Like most Iranians, Hazaras are Shiites, and traditionally make pilgrimages to holy sites in Iran, which has the deadliest virus outbreak in the region. Some Pakistani pilgrims returning home were among the first reported cases of COVID-19 in Pakistan.
After #Shiavirus began trending on Twitter in April, Hazaras say they were denied jobs, service at stores — even treatment in medical facilities.
Claire Thomas, deputy head of the Britain-based Minority Rights Group International, said minority Ahmadis and Hindus have also been targeted.
Sunni militant groups often target Ahmadis, also known as Qadianis, named after the birthplace in northern India of their sect’s founder. The militants consider them heretics because they believe a prophet after Muhammad arrived more than 100 years ago by the name of Ahmad.
In 1974, Pakistan declared Ahmadis non-Muslims — and any Ahmadi claiming to be Muslim can land in jail. In a single day this month, #AhmadisAreNotMuslims registered 45,700 tweets; #QadianisAreInfidel 50,600 tweets; #QadianisAreTheWorstInfidelsInTheWorld 32,600 tweets while #Expose_Qadyani_ProMinisters had 50,600 tweets.
“Since the lockdown began … there have been over half a dozen concerted hashtag campaigns against the community, either describing the community as worthy of death, or non-Muslim or traitors to Pakistan,” said Saleem Uddin, an Ahmadi community leader.
Extremists recently also attacked the construction site for a Hindu temple in Islamabad and warned Muslim faithful online that it would be blasphemy to support the temple.
In an ominous video on social media, a man introduces a young boy as his son. The child then speaks into the camera, delivering a message to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan that he “will kill each and every Hindu” if the temple is built. The video got nearly 100,000 clicks.
Particularly worrisome is the unprecedented number of claims of blasphemy that Ahmad, from the rights group, says have driven some of those accused into hiding. The onslaught has continued even after the pandemic lockdown was lifted in early August.
Under Pakistani law, the charge of blasphemy, or insulting Islam, carries the death penalty. But even mere allegations of blasphemy can cause mobs to riot. Any attempt to amend the law to make it more difficult to bring charges, has brought angry radicals out on the street.
Last month, a gunman shot and killed Tahir Naseem, a Pakistani-American, in a courtroom in the northwestern city of Peshawar. Arrested two years ago, Naseem was on trial for blasphemy for allegedly declaring himself Islam’s prophet. Rights activists said he was mentally challenged.
The U.S. State Department said Naseem had been “lured to Pakistan” from his home in Illinois and entrapped by the blasphemy law.
Within days of the fatal shooting, religious radicals demonstrated across Pakistan in support of the killer, praising his actions. Selfies surfaced online of police guards smiling as they transported Naseem’s killer to his arraignment hearing — smiles meant to show support for the killer.
Qamar, the actress who danced in the promo video with popular singer Bilal Saeed in the Lahore mosque, apologized online.
“If we have unknowingly hurt anyone’s sentiments we apologize to you all with all our heart. Love & Peace,” she tweeted.
But the trolls were unmoved and last week, Qamar and Saeed appeared in court, charged with blasphemy. The two have not responded to AP requests for comment.
The same radical religious party that assailed them over the dancing — Tehreek-e-Labbaik, which won three seats in the 2018 local elections in Sindh province — also claimed a young entrepreneur’s soccer ball design was “satanic.”
The list goes on: a university professor whose views are seen as too liberal; a poet who defended him; a lawmaker who said no religion was superior to another.
Sunni Muslim cleric Muhammad Ali Mirza was targeted after one of his sermons went viral condemning vigilantes and clerics who incite them to kill anyone suspected of blasphemy.
This unleashed a vitriolic attack and eventually, blasphemy charges were brought against Mirza. The court rejected them.
Haroon Baloch, also of the Bytesforall rights group, said he’s been using sensitive software that tracks not only hashtags involving a specific name or extraordinarily heavy use of a particular word, but that also identifies some of the underlying emotions behind the postings.
Such tracking can offer early warnings of “an escalation from online threats to physical threats,” he said.
Facebook said it has increased its “content review team, including in Pakistan, and we now find and take action on more than 95% of hate speech before anyone reports it to us.”
“We’re also in close contact with partners on the ground to identify and remove misinformation that has the potential to incite physical harm offline,” the company told the AP.
Twitter said it does “not tolerate the abuse or harassment of people on the basis of religion.”
Journalist Marvi Sirmed was targeted after tweeting about forced disappearances of activists in southwestern Baluchistan province, many believed to be in the custody of Pakistani security agencies. Her Urdu-language “tongue-in-cheek” tweet mentioned Jesus, setting off a flood of threats.
Amnesty International on Tuesday cited Sirmed’s case and that of Qamar and Saeed, noting that “Pakistani authorities need no more evidence to see how dangerous the blasphemy laws are” and urging for their repeal.
Hassan Javid, a history professor in Lahore, blamed the government for its silence and for allowing rampant abuse on social media.
“Levying allegations of this kind — to intimidate, control, and endanger the accused — has become a national pastime in Pakistan, abetted by a state that continues to watch on in deliberate silence,” he said.
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