“You are free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan”. These visionary lines by the founder of Pakistan, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, reflect the real meaning of the formation of Pakistan. He was the first who recognised the rights of religious minorities as equal to any other Muslim citizen in Pakistan.
Pakistan was created so that every individual lives with dignity and has access to all the basic human rights. But unfortunately, our religious minorities have not been treated well from the time of independence till today. From being victims of target killings to false allegations, they are still asking for the protection of their lives and beliefs.
The vision of Pakistan at the time of Partition was very different from what Pakistan has now become. The representation of Pakistan’s 7.5 million citizens from non-Muslim religious minorities — who are largely unheard, unknown, and mostly sidelined in the national debate — is fundamentally stereotyped on the Pakistani media.
Hate speech on social media directed towards religious minorities, as well as their online harassment, are becoming increasingly dangerous to freedom of expression in a country where free speech is celebrated. Even though the internet is heavily regulated, hate speech and threats, particularly against religious minorities, continue unabated.
According to research titled ‘Desecrating Expression—An Account of Freedom of Expression and Religion in Asia’, social media and other websites are frequently restricted and filtered, because they are hurting the religious sensibilities of the majority.
According to the report, rights to freedom of assembly, human rights defender associations, and minority groups or sects are also abused. Apart from that, the threats of violence or brutal attacks by extremist groups push journalists and media outlets to self-censor on problems relating to religious beliefs. The media has a limited amount of space to address minorities’ challenges.
The report claimed that religious minorities’ viewpoints were not represented in the mainstream media. A considerable number of people are fleeing the state as a result of attacks based on religion or for expressing their opinion.
While talking about the online hate speech against the minorities in Pakistan, social activist Sorath Sindhu said that in Pakistan, we have an unfiltered online speech for minorities. “I’ve observed that a Muslim can abuse any religion openly and some of the events in past are proof of that, but Hindus, Christians, or Ahmadis can’t reciprocate with the same type of hatred language,” he maintained.
Some of the laws are protecting only one religion and no law is for the protection of other religions. This gives an open platform for hate speech.
One of the recent propagandas against one of the religious minority groups was aroused from social media. Shia-Sunni conflict is much common in Pakistan. As per Pakistani media, the initial Covid-19 cases last year were pilgrims from Iran, especially those who returned after crossing the border at Taftan. Soon, many Pakistanis took to social media to blame the Shias who returned from pilgrimage for spreading coronavirus. Some even said that more than China, the country where the deadly virus originated, Shias are responsible, and the Chinese virus should be called ‘Shia Virus’.
Therefore, along with some positive aspects, social media is also spreading negativity and hate against religious minorities.
A social media user Adnan has revealed that Christians have been barred from receiving food in Karachi’s Korangi area. “A cleric named Abid Qadri, who heads one of the well-known welfare organisations in Korangi, instructed workers to give rations to Muslims only,” he said. A Christian woman confirmed that an organisation, which she didn’t name, refused to give food to Christians until they recite the kalima, a declaration of the Islamic faith.
Such incidents and their videos on social media create conflict among different religious groups living together peacefully in a certain area.
But along with fear, social media is also the biggest platform of hope and change as it highlights the issues faced by the religious minorities of Pakistan.
With the advancement of digital media, and its different applications, issues like forced conversions and missing persons are getting highlighted, which were not being shared before. Indeed, with negativity, social media is also playing a positive role in pointing out heinous crimes against the religious minorities of our country.
On August 5, 2021, Dozens of people reportedly vandalised a Hindu temple in the town of Bhong and blocked the Sukkur-Multan Motorway after an eight-year-old Hindu boy, who had allegedly urinated in a local seminary, was granted bail by a local court on Wednesday. The video of the temple went viral on social media and after that action by the authorities has been taken against that mob. Apart from that the temple also has been completely restored to its original shape and handed over back to the minority community.
Another video went viral on social media where a man named Abdul Salam Abu Dawood could be seen grabbing a teenage boy by his collar and insisting that he praise the Almighty and curse his Hindu deities. The users of social media condemned this unethical and violent behaviour and demanded immediate action against the culprit. An FIR was lodged against the perpetrator and that man was arrested by police under the section 295-A, which criminalises “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” and Section 298, which prohibits citizens from saying anything with the deliberate intent to hurt religious sentiments.
To promote peace and harmony, Pakistan also took an initiative by opening the Kartarpur Corridor, allowing Sikh pilgrims from around the world to visit Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, one of the holiest shrines in Sikhism. In early 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that Christians would be able to register their marriages with an official marriage certificate. Similarly, a judge nullified the free-will marriage of a Hindu girl, Mehik Kumari, and confirmed that she was underage when she embraced Islam and married a Muslim man. Activists had argued Kumari was abducted and forcibly converted to Islam. Social media has played a significant role in raising awareness about such issues and spread a message of tolerance towards each other’s religious beliefs.
Online hatred aimed at minority faiths in Pakistan has been pushing them to the periphery of the society, and creating impediments for them to be able to contribute fearlessly and productively in the socio-economic development of a pluralistic society.
To combat hate speech and hate crimes against minorities, the authorities must create a comprehensive legislative and administrative framework in conformity with international human rights legislation, as well as provide an effective redressing mechanism for victims of hate crimes. These include assurances of rigorous action against abusers and a balanced approach to these systems so that legal expression is not curtailed under the pretense of hate speech.
It calls for a multi-stakeholder approach to combat the threat of hate in online spaces, with participation from the government, civil society, the media, and social media corporations. It also emphasises the importance of keeping an eye on social media firms to closely monitor and advocate against difficulties that arise as a result of social media algorithms that promote religiously incorrect content for social media users.
Other essential measures against hate speech on social media include obtaining support for improved cybercrime control and the suppression of online hate speech. Human rights organisations are being contacted in this regard.
The discrimination against minorities will obstruct Pakistan’s prosperity. Their rights and interests will be protected by the constitution and the law not just as a matter of right, but also as a safeguard for the state’s integrity.