Pakistan’s encounters with the digital age aren’t going well. Thirty-year-old Taimoor Raza is the latest victim, as the first in Pakistan to be sentenced to death for allegedly committing blasphemy on a social media platform.
According to media reports, he is a Shia Muslim, a minority in predominantly Sunni Pakistan, who got into an argument last year about prominent Sunni religious figures and the Holy Prophet Muhammad and his wives on Facebook with a counter-terrorism agent.
A well-worn etiquette says one shouldn’t discuss religion and politics in polite company. Raza learnt the hard way, that what can be said in private cannot be said on social media, especially because the state is watching and is ready to pounce.
Clampdown on Social Media
But something a little more sinister is happening in Pakistan – the state, whether it is intelligence agencies or the interior ministry – has only lately cottoned on to the dangers of unfettered social media use.
There is, however, no articulated policy, and every few months there are ad hoc crackdowns emanating from the interior ministry.
Some days the axe falls on relatively unknown bloggers who were writing against the state’s Balochistan policy, missing persons or mullahs and mullahism; some days it is political activists making memes about the army; other days it is social media users posting blasphemous content against Islam and its revered personalities.
Moreover, the lack of a consistent policy is compounded by an absence of a proper institutional framework: which law or government department or ministry should and ought to be responsible?
Taimoor Raza, for instance, was charged under Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy laws, and given the death sentence in an anti-terrorism court.
If there is one pattern, it is this – freedom of expression is under threat because of a personal crusade by a minister whose job it is to regulate the factories of intolerance, hate, and false pieties.
Interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has repeatedly, at great and painful length, inveighed against social media undermining Pakistan’s “cultural and religious values”.
Free Reign for Online Terror Groups
Meanwhile, a Dawn investigation revealed that 41 out of Pakistan’s 64 banned militant and terrorist organisations are running amok on Facebook with hundreds of pages, both by groups as well as individuals. These banned outfits include Sunni and Shia sectarians or terrorism groups as well as separatist nationalists.
On these pages, banned groups don’t just incite violence and hate against the state or minority communities such as Shias, but also recruit members. Included in this charming list are Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which have taken responsibility for the more bloody and horrific terrorist attacks in recent years.
This contradiction makes the government’s priorities clear even if the counter-terrorism narrative isn’t: the state’s time and resources are to be spent on hunting down social media dissenters, ghosts as it were, rather than red-blooded ideological extremists.
Three years after the Army Public School massacre, when it seemed that the country was united on which direction the long-drawn-out battle against militancy would take, the government is back to mixed messages of good Facebooker and bad Facebooker.
Pakistan has an estimated population of 200 million. About one-fifth of these use the internet on mobile phones, mostly to access social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp.
This is inevitable and in alignment with a majority of the world, except Pakistan’s unresolved identity issues and unequal power structures mean violence is equally predictable.
University student and self-proclaimed humanist Mashal Khan was subject to a campaign accusing him of online blasphemy. It ended in his murder by the hands of dozens in an orgy of blood and religious frenzy. The mob continued to film the lynching with their mobile phones.
Less than a month later, a 10-year-old boy was killed and several injured when a Hindu man accused of posting blasphemous content online was arrested, and a mob attempted to lynch him while he was detained at the local police station.
Amending Blasphemy Laws
Any calls to amend the blasphemy laws, to at least equally penalise false accusations, have been met with right-wing resistance and threats, and then capitulation.
Even the suspicion of sacrilege, without the police or law or courts, is an informal death sentence. Even if Taimoor Raza is able to successfully appeal his death sentence, his life is now perpetually in danger.
Ultimately, the state’s campaign and encouragement of reporting online blasphemous content is really an invitation to unleash the lynch mobs.
It’s harder to dismiss online trolls when one of them could be armed with more than a mobile phone.
(Amber Shamsi is a multimedia journalist who has worked for international and national media organisations as a reporter and on the editorial desk. She currently hosts a news and current affairs show on Dawn TV. She can be reached @AmberRShamsi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)