Social Media and Pakistan’s Rising Intolerance

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Former Pakistani musician Junaid Jamshed was assaulted on Sunday by a group of dozen men at Islamabad airport who accused him of committing blasphemy in a TV sermon in December 2014. Image Courtesy Faisal Baig

By Omar R Quraishi

Social media increasingly seems to be setting the mainstream agenda these days and no more so than in Pakistan, which has around 30 million Facebook users and around 3-5 million who have accounts on Twitter.

Events, especially those captured on video and then uploaded on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, quickly reach millions bypassing the mainstream media and its censoring/editing capability altogether.

Take for example, the story this Sunday in this country of around 200 million people when people woke up to a video that had gone viral overnight. In it, a former rock star and musician turned televangelist Junaid Jamshed is shown being assaulted inside the heavily-guarded Islamabad International Airport by a near-mob of around a dozen whose violence against him was preceded by allegations that he had committed blasphemy. It was only because airport security whisked him away to safety that Jamshed managed to come out physically unscathed. However, no effort was made to arrest any of those involved in the attack or those who chanted slogans calling for him to be killed—these too were made inside the airport terminal.

Jamshed was accused of making “blasphemous” comments in a televised sermon against the Prophet’s (pbuh) wife Ayesha and a criminal case was registered against him in December 2014. Jamshed released a video in which he apologized for the comments and sought forgiveness.

Within a few hours, however, of Sunday’s incident a video made by someone using a mobile phone quickly found its way on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter and went viral, and later mainstream media and several TV channels picked it up.

It was because of this process—of social media helping spread the news and footage of the attack on the televangelist—that society’s increasing intolerance and penchant for violence is almost immediately brought to people’s mobile phone screens (as opposed to television screens and living rooms in the past when the digital media had not yet overtaken mainstream in dissemination of news and information).

As information filtered in through the day—mainly on social media and in large part through Facebook posts made by some of the attackers—it became evident that the attack, which last less than 90 seconds—had made a mockery of Pakistan’s laws given that even under the blasphemy laws no one is allowed to take the law into one’s own hands. Some of those who took part in it in fact were flying back to Karachi after paying their respects at the grave of Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed just under a month ago for the 2011 assassination of then-Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer. Qadri had justified the killing by saying that he had found Taseer’s defense of a Christian woman jailed for alleged blasphemy a “blasphemous” act.

Much of the response to Jamshed’s assault came on social media with many people, including those who tend to disagree with the former pop star because of his conservative views coming out in his defense. There were some people, however, who were of the view that Jamshed simply deserved what he got because his views are seen by many people on the progressive end of the spectrum in Pakistan as contributing to growing intolerance and extremism, especially his views on women, including comments where he had implied that women should not drive on their own.

It now remains to be seen what action law-enforcement will take given that the incident was recorded on video and there would seem to be enough documentary evidence to provide investigators pointers to finding the perpetrators. Having said that, Pakistan’s record at prosecuting those who indulge in such acts of vigilantism is very poor.

The writer is Editor, Online and Web at ARY News and tweets @omar_quraishi

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