How social media became a deadly trap for a minority group in Pakistan

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FEATURE

If you’re one of four million Ahmadis in Pakistan, posting on Facebook can mean exposing yourself to danger.

A photo of Tahir Ahmad Naseem.

Photography by Taylor Glascock for Rest of WorldBy ALIZEH KOHARI 3 AUGUST 2021

How social media became a deadly trap for a minority group in Pakistan

Last fall, in a corporate office in Lahore, 25-year-old Siraj, a fintech professional just two months into his new job, listened in as his colleagues discussed a murder over lunch. Two months earlier, a teenage boy had walked into a judicial complex in Peshawar and shot 57-year-old Tahir Ahmad Naseem several times as Naseem stood trial for alleged blasphemy. Naseem, a U.S. citizen, died on the spot, his blood spattering upon onlookers. 

Naseem had been born into the Ahmadiyya religious community, which emerged in the late 19th century in the Indian subcontinent, and currently counts upwards of four million members in Pakistan. Although Ahmadis identify as Muslim, the state of Pakistan has essentially labeled them heretics, and prejudice against the community is exceedingly common: A 2011 Pew survey found only 7% of Pakistanis considered Ahmadis to be Muslims. (Among those surveyed, 26% had never heard of the group or had no interest in commenting.) 

Born in Peshawar, Naseem had moved to the U.S. in the late 1970s, a few years after the Pakistani state declared his community non-Muslim. In 2018, he was lured back to Pakistan by someone he’d befriended on Facebook, a seminary student who then complained to the police that Naseem was claiming false prophethood. 

As the trial got underway, videos of Naseem circulated on Facebook in which he claimed to be a messiah; on LinkedIn, he reportedly described himself as “Jesus’s Second Coming.” In other videos, surrounded by villagers, clerics, and police, he renounced his claims and his Ahmadi affiliation. “My brain is not well,” he can be heard mumbling in one. 

The teenager who shot Naseem claimed, in a separate Facebook video, that the Prophet Muhammad had appeared in a dream, directing him to “finish off” Naseem. (After Rest of World flagged the video to Facebook, it was removed from the platform.)

To members of the Ahmadi community, the murder of Naseem was terrifying, a reminder that violence is never far. Still, Siraj, who asked to be identified only by his first name, told Rest of World that he was stunned to hear his colleagues speaking of the vigilante teenager with casual admiration. 

“Allah provided that boy with such an auspicious opportunity to prove himself,” one of the men proclaimed. 

Terror coursed through Siraj, and he fought to keep it from seeping into his face. Under the cafeteria table, he frantically twisted the silver ring on his finger, making sure the engraved inscription faced inward. To the discerning eye, the ring’s insignia would give away what he had so far chosen to conceal: his own Ahmadi identity.

Most Ahmadis in Pakistan live shadowy, discretionary lives. Many never reveal themselves to people outside the community: Every Ahmadi, after all, knows someone hounded out of university or work or the country after being outed. In Pakistan, an Ahmadi reading or teaching from the Quran, or referring to their place of worship as a “mosque,” is a punishable offence. The teenager who killed Naseem was hailed as a hero: A provincial parliamentarian changed his Facebook profile picture to the teenager amid a flutter of rose petals; police guards posed with him at the back of a police van — some smiled; one flashed a thumbs-up. Knowing all this, Siraj felt he had only one option after overhearing his colleagues that day: He tendered his resignation several weeks later and left the job. 

A few days later, he received a Facebook friend request — from his former hate-espousing colleague. 

Again that feeling surged through Siraj: a muddle of terror and claustrophobia. “I remember scanning my profile and deleting two recent posts in support of Ahmadis,” Siraj recalled. “And then I think — I don’t know why — I accepted his friend request.”

For the Ahmadi community in Pakistan, social media — and Facebook, in particular — has become a veritable minefield. One wrong step, and you might out yourself, with dangerous consequences. The platform’s features, which are designed to encourage a unified identity — a single timeline, a searchable friends list, a People You May Know widget — conflate worlds some may want to keep separate. For people as maliciously hounded as Pakistani Ahmadis, the erasure of these boundaries, sometimes referred to as context collapse, can be a matter of literal life and death.

An ambulance moves the body of Tahir Ahmad Naseem after he was murdered by a teenager while on trail for alleged blasphemy in July 2020. Hussain Ali/Pacific Press/Shutterstock

Siraj joined Facebook and Twitter around 2011, when he was 16 years old. The internet felt different then: The world was immense, but within reach. He grew up in Rabwah, a town of nearly 70,000 along the Chenab River in Punjab; it had been the Ahmadi headquarters in Pakistan starting in 1948, when the community relocated en masse from Qadian, in what is now India, after the Partition. By almost any other measure, Rabwah is a typical Punjabi agrarian town. Compared to the rest of the country, however, it is a place of relative safety for Ahmadis, Usman Ahmad, a writer, photographer, and advocate for the community, told Rest of World. “Not only [for] those who live here, but also those facing persecution in other parts, who can’t go abroad. There’s safety in numbers here.”

Still, the persecution is palpable even in Rabwah: Ahmadis aren’t employed in government departments or the police, nor can they hold office unless they contest as religious minorities. Every year, the community braces itself for processions led by orthodox Muslim clerics, who trundle through town hurling threats and insults at Ahmadis, declaring them wajib-ul-qatl — worthy of being murdered. In 1989, police registered a case against the town as a whole, for inscribing Quranic verses in the community graveyard. And in July 2021, an online retailer refused to fulfill an order by a Rabwah resident, stating that they do not deliver to “blasphemous areas.” 

For young Ahmadis like Siraj and Usman, the early years of social media offered a flicker of respite. Both recall the early 2010s with a certain degree of wistfulness: chatrooms where Pakistanis debated politics and religion, Twitter before it was overrun by trolls and bots. “When social media first started, Ahmadis were debating religion with other Pakistanis, the finality of prophethood, issues that could get you killed in real life,” recalled Usman, who joined Facebook in 2009 but doesn’t use it anymore.

While atrocities against the community continued offline, online, there was a chance to spread awareness about Ahmadis. Usman remembers how #JusticeForQadoos, a hashtag created to protest the custodial torture and death of a 43-year-old Rabwah schoolteacher, became a top Twitter trend in Pakistan in April 2012. On Facebook, people posted photos holding placards emblazoned with the hashtag. 

If the early years of social media felt emancipatory for people like Siraj and Usman, it might have been because fewer Pakistanis used social media at the time. Mobile broadband (3G internet) only rolled out in Pakistan in 2014, growing from 13 million subscribers to nearly 30 million in 2016. As a result, Facebook usership exploded, from 8.6 million in 2013 to over 40 million today. It remains the social media platform of choice for most Pakistanis; YouTube is a close second with 36 million users, followed by Snapchat, Instagram (11 million each), LinkedIn (6.1 million), and Twitter (2.1 million). 

“When social media first started, Ahmadis were debating religion with other Pakistanis, the finality of prophethood, issues that could get you killed in real life.”

Those early years also seemed to exemplify the “technological liberation” thesis in vogue in Silicon Valley at the time. “It’s this idea that if everyone has access to technology, if we could be free of our immediate social constraints, we might say or do things that would reflect our “true” selves,” said digital researcher Emrys Schoemaker, whose 2016 doctoral thesis examined how Pakistanis enact their religious identities online. 

In hindsight, the philosophy had dangerous failings: “I think this thesis is wrong: philosophically, theoretically, and in practice… I don’t [think] people have ‘true selves’ – our identity emerges from context, and we present or perform different identities according to the demands of the specific context. People may want to be a particular way with their family; they may want to behave differently with their friends,” said Schoemaker. “And that’s not a bad thing or a good thing. It’s just reality. And that’s how we negotiate power and authority: by controlling what people know about us.”

The idea of a single authentic self, fixed over time and across contexts, was the very ethos of Facebook and of Zuckerberg’s professed ideal of radical transparency. “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” Zuckerberg said in 2009. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” 

The platform’s policies — the mandated use of “real” legal names (even when it inconvenienced trans people, Native Americans, and those wishing to remain anonymous) and design (the introduction of the timeline in 2011), turned each Facebook user, in Schoemaker’s words, into a “transparent, archival” subject. In 2015, following complaints from civil rights groups, Facebook relaxed its “real name” policy. Still, the online self was expected to be coherent across contexts as well as time: On the internet, the past is always in the present and users are always accountable for their past. Ahmadis in Pakistan would come to realize this soon enough. 

Most Ahmadis can zero in on the exact point when their community’s relationship to Facebook ruptured irrevocably: In July 2014, an 18-year-old Ahmadi in Gujranwala, about 150 kilometers from Rabwah, logged onto Facebook to announce his team had won an inter-school cricket match. As Schoemaker reported in his thesis, based on interviews with Ahmadis from the region, the rival captain — non-Ahmadi — also logged on, to vociferously dispute the result. As the rival captain scrolled down the Ahmadi boy’s Facebook page, he noticed an older comment, under a doctored, and offensive, image of the Holy Kaaba. Although the Ahmadi teen was condemning the image, it was still perceived as further circulating it, and when the boy showed the picture to his father, a local cleric, he promptly issued a fatwa against the Ahmadi boy. The controversy percolated online and offline, ending in a rampage against local Ahmadi families. Some eight Ahmadi houses were set ablaze. By the time the fires abated, at least three people were dead: an elderly woman, a seven-year-old girl, and an infant.

A mob set fire Ahmadi houses after a cleric issued a fatwa against a local Ahmadi boy over a Facebook post in the city of Gujranwala in July 2014.
A mob set fire to Ahmadi houses after a cleric issued a fatwa against a local Ahmadi boy over a Facebook post in the city of Gujranwala in July 2014. STR/AFP/Getty Images

In the early aughts, the scholar Danah Boyd coined the term “context collapse,” which refers to the possibility of infinite audiences online, and what occurs when a piece of information intended for a particular audience begins circulating beyond it and — stripped of all context — assumes a life of its own. 

Context collapse can occur over space as well as time — think, for instance, of how the resurfacing of old posts and photos can create an uproar, or when a poorly-worded tweet catapults someone with a smattering of followers into Twitter’s Main Character. Over the past decade, researchers have scrutinized how the buckling of contexts affects people’s online behavior. Data ethics researcher Jessica Vitak found, in 2012, that only 17% of all Facebook users surveyed in the U.S. curated their friends list or tailored posts to address specific subsets of their network or employed a lowest common denominator approach. Instead, they posted everything, for everyone. (This figure may have changed in subsequent years, with the rollout of other privacy options.) More recent research on specific groups — queer communities on Reddit, social media users in a town in the Kurdish region of Turkey, gay refugees in Belgium — indicate that context collapse can be a very real concern, prompting people to come up with all sorts of ways to circumvent it: private chats, fake and anonymous profiles, and closed groups. Recent measures by Facebook — nudging users towards more intimate corners of the platform, such as groups and private messaging, to give them more reasons to share — indicate that the company is aware of this problem too. 

In the aftermath of the Gujranwala rampage, the caliph of the Ahmadiyya community, Mirza Masroor Ahmad, issued a directive encouraging Pakistani Ahmadis to use WhatsApp instead of Facebook as a mode of communication. His weekly khutba, sermon, began to be disseminated on WhatsApp too. The platform, by its very design, felt more secure. Schoemaker remembers one Ahmadi woman describing WhatsApp as ghar ki baat, a family affair. Not everyone shuttered their Facebook accounts, of course, but it had become impossible to continue thinking of the internet as an ephemeral, inconsequential thing. 

“You want to be vocal,” said Yawar, an Ahmadi who grew up in Rabwah, but now lives in Karachi and who asked to use a pseudonym, given the sensitive nature of the topic. “But then that’s an extra burden that you carry. And [once you’ve come out as Ahmadi], there’s no way you can go back.” 

“You never know who might be keeping tabs.”

Concealing one’s Ahmadi identity on Facebook can be a challenge. Ahmadi users describe the exhaustion of having to dodge the constant nudges from Facebook to share more and more: untagging themselves from photos, deleting event and page invites, avoiding check-ins with friends, ducking out of livestreams. Yawar, for instance, remembers scrubbing his Facebook profile just before moving to Karachi, deleting any stray information that might give him away. When he’d visit home, he’d practice extra care: no selfies at Eid congregation, for instance. “You never know who might be keeping tabs.” For years, his closest college friends had no idea he was Ahmadi.

Another student told Schoemaker that after posting news about the Gujranwala attack, his college friends asked him why he was sad. “They’re not Muslims, they’re allowed to be killed,” the student recalled them saying in an interview with Schoemaker. “I had to pretend I agreed with them to protect myself. But you get angry within yourself, you know.” 

Yawar has a childhood friend who moved abroad and now runs a Facebook page agitating against Ahmadi atrocities. “I follow the page, but I don’t ‘like’ any of his posts,” he said. “I used to earlier, but some years ago, my non-Ahmadi friends, worried for my safety, told me not to. When you stop liking certain types of posts, they stop appearing in your feed anyway.” What is less difficult to avoid is the anti-Ahmadi content — there’s so much of it. Sometimes he can’t help himself from reading the comments. “It’s so… embarrassing. No, it’s frustrating. I can’t describe the feelings I get.” There’s immense misinformation about Ahmadi beliefs too, but Yawar said he doesn’t “have the courage” to comment. And so he lurks, a digital ghost watching the vitriol gush on and on.

For the past year, 21-year-old Mashal Naseem has been for fighting for accountability for her father’s murder. “My dad was very naive when it came to social media,” she said over the phone from Illinois. “He’d just made a Facebook account; he was just starting to ease into it. And he got convinced by this guy to come to Pakistan and have a religious debate. We told him to be careful. But when we found out he’d been arrested, we were just so confused. Growing up in the U.S., I was never ever aware that there were laws against talking about religious topics.”

In the days following the murder, Mashal made a petition on Change.org asking the U.S. government and the United Nations to pressure Pakistani authorities into taking action against her father’s killer. She also made a TikTok — photos and videos of her father being goofy, on vacation, in the park, blowing out a birthday candle, interspersed with news headlines about his death — and circulated it on other platforms. The petition has over 50,000 signatures; the video has been shared over 60,000 times. But she also received a deluge of online abuse, largely on Twitter: death threats, hateful private messages, anti-Ahmadi slurs — the last especially ironic because, she said, her father left the community when she was a toddler. “This was new to me, advocating for justice,” she said. “My friends were like, ‘Hey, listen, you’ve got to be in work mode now. We have to fight to get justice for him.’ The people that wanted me to stay silent, they tended to be Pakistanis.”

Usman, who grew up in the U.K. and only moved to Pakistan after college to work with the Ahmadi community, said he’s never internalized the warnings that young Pakistani Ahmadis grow up hearing. Online, he posts news of anti-Ahmadi attacks, points out parallels with state-mandated violence against Muslims in other parts of the world — Myanmar, China, Palestine — and makes bitter jokes about living as a member of a minority community in Pakistan. He’s an anomaly in this regard. It helps that he’s a dual national, and has the option to return to the U.K. and live a safer life. Whenever he posts about Ahmadi rights, he receives DMs from teenage Ahmadis asking, can we talk like this too?

Still, he’s careful not to use Islamic terminology — not even inshallah — and when he thinks he’s saying something too edgy, he’ll lock his account for a few days. He’s more vocal on Instagram because he can curate his feed. Instagram stories explaining the decades-long history of Ahmadi apartheid are often interspersed with clips of his youngest daughter, a curly-haired little girl who loves admiring herself in mirrors. “I do that on purpose sometimes,” he admitted. “Because I want people to know we’re regular people — not foreign agents, as online propaganda would have you believe — but also that we’re more than our persecution.” Sometimes it backfires: Some of his followers, unable to comprehend that his messages about the fear and violence that afflicts Ahmadis can be true when he’s posting upbeat images of his daily life, respond with a “gotcha” smugness: How can he talk about persecution when he eats out, follows football, and watches Netflix? “My god,” he marvelled, thinking about the DMs. “Do these people realize there were theater troupes in Nazi camps?

”It’s responses of this sort, more so than the threats or invectives or photoshopped images of Ahmadiyya founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad flooding his DMs and comments, that make Usman want to leave social media. “But I force myself. I tell myself there’s nothing else. In the real world, we have no space, no way of exchanging ideas.” Once, he messaged a Twitter acquaintance thanking him for consistently retweeting his advocacy for Ahmadi rights. To his amazement, the acquaintance admitted he was also Ahmadi. “All this time, I had no idea,” Usman said, wonderingly.

“Clerics infiltrate Ahmadi email lists or community WhatsApp groups, then complain to the police.”

As all sorts of activities moved online during the pandemic, the internet shrank even further for Pakistani Ahmadis. Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the Ahmadiyya caliph headquartered in London, began holding virtual meetings instead of visiting Ahmadiyya missions across the world. Pakistani Ahmadis brightened at this development, said Usman: The leader hadn’t been able to visit the country in decades—now, finally, they would be able to interact with him, if only virtually. But as anti-Ahmadi discourse escalated in Pakistan, online and offline, leadership decided against holding virtual meetings with Ahmadi communities in Pakistan, fearful of inflaming an already volatile situation.

During March and April of 2020, in the first five weeks of lockdown alone, Usman said, there were at least 12 anti-Ahmadi trending hashtags on Pakistani Twitter. In a single day in August 2020, there were nearly 200,000 hate-filled tweets against Ahmadis. One of the problems, Usman thinks, is that platforms like Twitter don’t grasp the local contours of hate speech — he once gave a presentation to a Facebook executive explaining why “Qadiani,” once an innocuous descriptor of people who subscribe to Ahmadiyya beliefs, is now very much a slur. 

It remains unclear whether the word and others like wajib-ul-qatl are classified by Facebook or Twitter as hate speech. A Facebook company spokesperson told Rest of World: “There is no place for hate speech, abuse, or harassment on Facebook, and we will remove any content that violates our policies as soon as we become aware of it.” After Rest of World alerted Facebook to an example of an anti-Ahmadi group, it was removed from the platform, but countless other groups remain. 

Twitter did not respond specifically to the proliferation of anti-Ahmadi hashtags, but a representative stated that the company is “committed to protecting voices from underrepresented communities and marginalized groups and have policies in place to specifically address threats of violence, abuse and harassment, and hateful conduct,” adding that new initiatives, such as more precise machine learning has helped the company crack down on accounts in violation of its Hateful Conduct policy. 

While anti-Ahmadi speech proliferates on the internet, the Pakistani state is also cracking down on Ahmadi content online. Under the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), authorities can review internet traffic and report blasphemous or offensive content to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) for possible removal, or to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for possible criminal prosecution. Last year, the PTA issued new rules mandating data localization — more than 60 countries, including China, Vietnam, Germany, Nigeria, and Russia, have such laws in place. Under these new regulations, tech platforms face a fine of up to $3.14 million for failure to curb the sharing of content that may be religiously offensive, sexually explicit, or a threat to national security. Earlier in 2020, Google, Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies had collectively warned that they would withdraw from the country in protest over these rules — but so far have not followed through on the threat. Asked whether the company intended to comply with the law, a Twitter spokesperson told Rest of World that “We are working with all relevant stakeholders to ensure the platform’s openness nature, protecting the freedom of speech, as well the safety of our people.” Facebook and Google invoked the Asia Internet Coalition’s recent statements on the matter. 

A text message circulated by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) in 2017, warning people about the internet blasphemy law. Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

In December 2020, shortly after the passage of the rules, the PTA sent a legal notice to the U.S.-based administrators of trueislam.com, which provides general information about Ahmadiyya beliefs, U.S. community news such as blood drives, anti-racism campaigns and veteran support, and interviews with prominent Ahmadis such as actor Mahershala Ali. The PTA claimed that the site was in violation of Pakistan’s constitution — a move condemned by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other rights groups. The website is still up but remains blocked in Pakistan. The PTA also sent notices to Google and Wikipedia for what it claimed were misleading search results: When you search “Present Khalifa [Caliph] of Islam,” the Wikipedia entry for Mirza Masroor Ahmad shows up as the first entry. 

“Honestly, that part we found a bit hilarious,” said Usman. “Do they think Google is a person writing answers to these questions? It’s the algorithm, stupid.” In December 2020, however, according to the Ahmaddiya U.S. leadership, there was a concerted campaign “by trolls in Pakistan” to upload 1,000 videos to Youtube, Instagram, and TikTok, instructing viewers how to alter Google’s search results pertaining to the community. Noting that Facebook shut down troll activity originating from Pakistan in September 2020, the community called on Google and Twitter to do the same. According to Google, the company has systems in place to thwart concerted attempts to manipulate search rankings.

Tech companies aren’t immune to pressure from the Pakistani government. In one of the first examples of governments using anti-blasphemy rules to force international tech companies to censor content, Google has removed three religious apps developed by U.S.-based Ahmadis from its store in Pakistan. The apps reportedly contained the same Arabic text found in all versions of the Quran, accompanied by commentary from an Ahmadi perspective. 

According to Google, the company expressed concerns about these removal requests as a human rights matter, including in a letter sent to the PTA in 2019. “Our services make search results, videos, apps, and other content broadly available, subject to local laws, taking into account human rights standards like the Global Network Initiative Principles,” a Google spokesperson told Rest of World. “We challenge government orders whenever appropriate, and when we’re required to remove apps and other types of content that don’t violate our policies, we try to do so in the least restrictive way possible.”

The PTA is also pressuring the company to remove four other apps: one of which is a FAQ on Islam, another a weekly Urdu-language news magazine. Apple also reportedly removed an Ahmadi app in May 2019. The company did not respond to a request for comment. 

Even the platforms that Ahmadis gravitated towards after the Gujranwala attacks no longer seem safe. Recent arrests under Pakistan’s electronic crimes law have involved blasphemy allegations in private exchanges. 

“Clerics infiltrate Ahmadi email lists or community WhatsApp groups, then complain to the police,” explained Usman. “We’re trying to come up with workarounds, but until then I can only communicate about community matters in person or by exchanging USBs.”

Just before lockdown, a high school student in Rabwah was jailed for blasphemy: He’d written a religious essay and, in a WhatsApp group, asked if someone could proofread it for him. Unbeknownst to him, the person who volunteered was an undercover Sunni cleric. Spooked once more, on yet another platform, Ahmadis are now wary of WhatsApp groups too.

“You never know who might pick up the phone and swipe through,” Yawar told Rest of World. “I also make sure I’m not part of any unnecessary groups. No religious groups, for instance — in fact, I don’t think there are many left.” Yawar still uses Whatsapp for routine communication, but has been advised not to share anything relating to the Ahmadiyya community. He has a WhatsApp group to keep in touch with his primary school friends. “Recently, we received a message from a friend who’s still in Rabwah. “I’ve been told to leave all WhatsApp groups,” he said. “I am only available for in-person conversations now.”

source http://www.restofworld.org

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