Religious Extremism on Social Media in Pakistan

M. Suleman Khan & Wajahat Khalid – May 13, 2019

Pakistan has an estimated 37 million active social media users, which amounts to 18% of the population. The number of users has spiked by 5.7% over the last year, as per the Global Digital Report by ‘We Are Social and Hootsuite’ in Feb 2019. Those who use mobile internet in Pakistan account for 21% of the total population. Social media have unlocked incredible opportunities for individuals and entities to network with other peoples and organizations around the globe. Public and private entities use social media to reach out to their customers and audience with ease. The access to social media is indiscriminate which means that even those individuals or entities that seek to use the cyber platforms for illegal and criminal purposes also get space and voice in this ever-expanding online world.

In recent years, worries have grown about the promotion of hate speech and other extremist contents on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube etc and there has been an increased debate about whether the social media should be regulated by states to check the spread of cyber violence. The governments’ inability to control contents on social media sites has caused considerable frustration in many countries. In 2017, Pakistan warned of imposing a blanket ban on social media sites like Facebook if the latter did not remove sacrilegious materials from its pages.

The Christchurch tragedy drove the Australian government to introduce a sweeping legislation to punish social media companies for failing to check hate speech and extremism on their platforms. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison argued that social media sites have a responsibility to ensure that they are not serving as vehicle for terrorist agendas.

In March 2017, Pakistan’s former interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, threatened to block all social media sites over the issue of blasphemous contents allegedly propagated by some Facebook pages[1]. Earlier in Sep 2012, Pakistan imposed a ban on YouTube after an anti-Islam film was uploaded to the site. The film had triggered violent protests across the country. The site was allowed to return only after it introduced a localized version which allows the Pakistani authorities to request removal of illegal or violent contents[2].

On 15 Mar 2019, a terrorist stormed a mosque and opened indiscriminate firing at the Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. The terrorist, identified as a white supremacist by media, livestreamed on Facebook the massacre of innocent people[3]. The incident was shocking, but hardly surprising since social media have been used by many individuals and groups for propagating violence in the past. The Christchurch tragedy drove the Australian government to introduce a sweeping legislation to punish social media companies for failing to check hate speech and extremism on their platforms[4].

The proposed legislation aims to punish social media giants if they do not “expeditiously” remove abhorrent violent content produced by perpetrators, such as terrorism, kidnapping, and rape. If found guilty, a company could not only face fines of up to 10% of their annual turnovers, but its executives imprisoned for up to three years[5]. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison argued that social media sites have a responsibility to ensure that they are not serving as vehicle for terrorist agendas. Critics of the proposed law have warned of unforeseen consequences and reduced international investment in Australia[6]. The Australian government is, nevertheless, determined to go on with the legislation.

In Pakistan, online extremism is a growing problem. Hundreds of pages on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter propagate hate speech and sectarian extremism. Many extremist groups broadcast violent content and propaganda through their social media accounts. Pakistan’s PMLN-led government passed a controversial law called ‘Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act’ (PECA) on 11 Aug 2016 with the purpose to curb hate speech on cyber space. The opposition political parties initially resisted the proposed law, but after some cosmetic amendments supported it. The PECA imposes a fine of rupee 10 million, or an imprisonment for up to 5 years to anyone found guilty of promoting religious hatred or sectarianism[7].

In Dec 2018, a study by the Rand Corporation found that ISIS mobilized around 40,000 people from 110 countries to join the terror organization through the strategic use of social media[8]. Sectarian extremist groups in Pakistan are likely using similar cyber strategies for mobilizing potential followers around sectarian causes. It is hard to provide authentic statistics on the actual recruits gained by such groups through the internet. However, given the deep-running religious and sectarian extremism in the country, it is safe to assume that social media platforms do serve as effective vehicles for extremist propaganda. Through social media platforms, many extremist groups attempt to create a mob mentality, and urge their followers to fight for a given cause. The followers of such groups are predominately male.

Pakistan is home to an alarming number of militant and extremist groups. The interior ministry has banned over 70 outfits, most of them associated with extremism[9]. There is a well-established pattern in the country that whenever an outfit is officially banned, it simply adopts another name and resurfaces to carry out its business as usual. Many of the banned groups operate social media accounts and propagate their message to their audience unhindered. In the first half of 2018, the government of Pakistan reported over 3000 accounts to Twitter for allegedly violating the country’s laws. During the second half, the number of reported accounts dropped to 2349. The government has often complained that Twitter has been slow in responding to its requests for action against social media accounts. According to Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), Twitter has responded only to 5% of the complaints forwarded by the government.

On 13 Feb 2019, Pakistan’s then Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry announced the government’s plan to launch a crackdown against hate speech on social media. A working group of intelligence agencies reportedly led by the federal investigation agency (FIA) has been set up to help regularize expression on social media platforms. Chaudhry claimed that hate speech was not a problem on mainstream media. The challenges lied with the social media, he added. As expected, many people view the government’s planned clampdown on social media with suspicion, fearing that it might lead to a curtailing of freedom of expression in the country. The country already stands at 142nd out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index. The situation of press freedom has worsened by 3 points since last year. Details are also scant about the nature of accounts that have been reported to Twitter by the government. It is unclear if the reported accounts were involved in promoting religious extremism and terrorism.

A study by daily Dawn in Sep 2017 found that 41 banned outfits in Pakistan openly operated accounts on Facebook. Some of the key extremist groups on the social media were Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), Sipah Sahaba, Sipah Mohammad, Lashkar Jhangvi, Tehreek Taliban Pakistan, Tehreek Taliban Swat, Tehreek Nifaz Shariat Mohammadi, Jamaatul Ahrar, 313 Brigade, and many Shia outfits[10]. According to the report, around 160,000 people have subscribed to the pages of banned outfits. The leading group with most followers is Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat. Below are some of the hundreds of Facebook accounts that propagate religiously extreme contents on their pages:

Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ):

ASWJ runs about 200 pages and groups and spread anti-Shia hate material. Formerly known as Sipah Sahaba, ASWJ was banned in 2012. However, the outfit routinely operates in the country by holding public rallies and spreading sectarian hatred. ASWJ leaders have also been participating in mainstream politics.

Taajdaar-e-Khatm-e-Nabuwat:

With over 500,000 followers on Facebook, this page proudly glorifies extremists like Mumtaz Qadri, the police officer who assassinated Punjab’s governor Salman Taseer for blasphemy allegation in 2011. It openly instigates violence against the Supreme Court judges who exonerated a Christian woman Asia Bibi of blasphemy charges.

Twelver Shia.net & Forum:

This explicitly anti-Shia Facebook platform claims to offer true history of Shia Muslims which involve hate speech and instigation for violence. It was created in October 2014.

Ahlulbait [A.S] (shias):

This Facebook page, with over 2500 followers, propagates hardcore extremist content against Shia Muslims, and abuse Shia religious leaders. The identity of its administrator is unknown.

Jago Sunni Jago:

It has over 158,000 likes on Facebook. It spreads religious hatred and incites violence against the Shias and Ahmadis in Pakistan. Created in Sep 2014, its admin’s identity is as usual unknown.

Sunni killing:

Apparently linked to ASWJ, this page is liked by 11,657 people. It propagates extreme anti-Shia contents and promotes religious extremism.

X-Shia Exposes Shiaism:

Created in Feb 2013, this Facebook page spreads hatred against Shia faith and Sufi rituals. It projects Shias as proxy of Iran in Pakistan.

Sunni Defense & Media Cell .Kashmir:

It has a more global tone as it claims to raise a voice against the alleged injustice to Muslims around the world. At home, it specifically targets the followers of Ahmadi faith. It is liked by more than 1400 people.

Sunni Rights:

It has been involved in sharing extremist religious content. The page is liked by nearly 6000 people.

AHL E Sunnat (SunNi Brelvi):

This page is particularly anti-Ahmadi. Created in Sep 2012, it is liked by over 39,000 people. The page shares extremist religious content and incites sectarian violence.

HAQ SUNNI HAQ:

This page is apparently administered by Pakistan Sunni Tehreek. It promotes sectarian hatred against Shias and Ahmadis, with some criticism also directed at Wahabis.

True Sunni Defender:

This Facebook page promotes violent narratives of Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) – an extremist group led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi. The account propagates hate speech and instigates violence against the Supreme Court justices who set Asia Bibi free in the blasphemy case. Bibi, a Christian woman from Punjab, was in death row for years on charges of blasphemy.

Sipah-e-Sahaba Kohistan:

A hardcore anti-Shia platform, this page shares extreme hatred against Shias. Its motto is to expose what it calls non-Muslim Shias. Apart from Shias, it also targets Barelvi sect.

Qadianis & Ahmadis are Kaf***:

As the name suggests, this Facebook page with over 900 likes openly calls for the violence against the Ahmadi community which was declared non-Muslim in Pakistan through a constitutional amendment in 1974.

Anti Ahmadiyya, Difa-e-Risalat:

This page also promotes hatred and incites violence against the Ahmadi community. It is liked by 1200 people.

Shia Help-Refrences:

Followed by over 11,000 people, this Facebook page promotes sectarian content against followers of Sunni Islam.

Shi’at Is The Right Faith:

Created on in 2011, this Shia page has been involved in sharing religiously extreme content. Its admin is unknown, while its followers are over 2000.

Basij-e-Pak Watan BPW (official):

This pro-Iran and anti-Saudi page promotes sectarian content, portraying Iranian clerics and Saudi sheikhs in good and bad light respectively. The page is liked by over 11,000 people. It also shares anti-Israel and anti-Jewish content.

Political Shia – Pakistan:

The sectarian tug of war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is the focus of this page. It propagates content in favor of Iran, and against Saudi Arabia. Its followers are over 40,000.

I AM MALANG:

This Shia page promotes hate speech against the Sunni sect. It is liked by over 6000 people.

Open Letter کُھلا خط:

It’s a Shia page with over 17,000 likes. It specifically shares abusive content about Pakistan’s former President Ziaul Haq. It also shares pictures of Hezbollah militants. Some of its contents are extreme in nature.

– Image credit: The National

 


References:

[1] https://www.ucanews.com/news/pakistan-warns-of-social-media-ban-for-blasphemous-posts/78634

[2] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pakistan-youtube/pakistan-lifts-ban-on-youtube-after-launch-of-local-version-idUSKCN0UW1ER

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/03/16/why-social-media-terrorism-make-perfect-fit/?utm_term=.b6fbf0c3a906

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/media/2019/apr/04/australia-passes-social-media-law-penalising-platforms-for-violent-content

[5] https://www.engadget.com/2019/03/30/australia-laws-could-imprison-internet-execs/

[6] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/australia-social-media-law-violent-video-streaming-illegal-facebook-new-zealand/

[7] https://www.boell.de/en/2018/02/07/pakistans-cybercrime-law-boon-or-bane

[8] https://www.rand.org/blog/2018/12/isiss-use-of-social-media-still-poses-a-threat-to-stability.html

[9] https://nacta.gov.pk/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Proscribed-OrganizationEng.pdf

[10] https://www.dawn.com/news/1335561