Twitter Spaces allow individuals to hold audio conversations. The microblogging website rolled the feature out to millions of its users having 600-plus followers in May. Khalid Imran Khan, a Pakistani Twitter user, has been hosting Spaces since the day he got the option in his account. Earlier this month, he hosted a Space session on feminism, which is considered a foreign agenda in Pakistan. Somehow, the discussion led to Ahmadiyyat, and a female speaker said that Muslims had made a mistake that they must admit: She said the leader of Ahmadiyya should have been killed and cut into pieces.
The remark would have gone unnoticed if Ahmadi rights activist Dr. Kashif N. Chaudhry had not tweeted a recording from the Space on this Twitter feed, accusing the speaker of “expressing regret over Muslims not killing Ahmadi Muslims.” The woman later changed the name and bio of her Twitter account.
Chaudhry often calls out hateful content against Ahmadis on his Twitter feed. On Eid al-Adha, he posted images of banners and screenshots of forwarded WhatsApp messages urging people to report Ahmadis to the police for partaking in Eid rituals.
Ahmadis are members of the Ahmadi movement, or Ahmadiyyat, which originated in the 19th century from British-controlled northern India. Ahmadis regard the founder of the movement, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, as a follower prophet and a messiah. Muslim communities around the world consider it a breach of the Islamic tenet that the Prophet Mohammad was the last prophet and messenger of Allah. In 1974, the Pakistani Parliament declared Ahmadis to be non-Muslims and in 1984, an amendment in the penal code restricted them from impersonating Muslims.
Ahmadis make up 0.09 percent of Pakistan’s population and are subjected to different forms of discrimination including hate speech. That has long been true in offline settings, but now has become prevalent in online spaces as well.
Talking about hate speech against Ahmadis, Chaudhry said it has become common practice. He says people against Ahmadis are divided into two groups. The first group consists of people who hate Ahmadis for their beliefs and often express their prejudice wherever they get the opportunity. The other group is those people who use hatred against Ahmadis to garner public support and ride the populist wave of anti-Ahmadi sentiment in Pakistan.
Social media platforms in Pakistan are flooded with anti-Ahmadiyya content. There are videos on YouTube in which Islamic scholars discuss whether Muslims can reply to the greetings of Ahmadis, or befriend them or do business with them, or let them live in the same community. Some of these videos have thousands of views and their comment sections are full of hate speech against the members of the Ahmadiyya community.
“Recently, we have seen a rise in populism the world over. And populist leaders usually exploit public sentiment in hopes of increased popularity. We have seen the same in Pakistan, where many TV anchors, politicians, religious figures, and celebrities have played the Ahmadi card to garner support from right-wing masses,” Chaudhry said.
Ehsan Rehan is the founder and editor of Rabwah Times, an independent digital news website covering news related to Ahmadiyya in Pakistan and abroad. He says extremist clerics have been pushing the anti-Ahmadiyya narrative for years. They have now taken it to the internet.
“Extremist clerics have always used Urdu print media to stir up hatred and encourage violence against Ahmadis,” Rehan said. “However, what we have seen over the years is that the same anti-Ahmadi rhetoric has moved to social media where it has found a wider support base.”
His team at Rabwah Times monitors social media content daily. He says often the trends are supported by social media wings of religio-political parties.
“Over the last 12 months, we have seen anti-Ahmadi Twitter trends shoot up to number 1 on Pakistan’s Twitter trend list. From what we have seen, most of these Twitter trends are started by social media cells of different religio-political parties,” he told The Diplomat. “Similarly, clerics and madrassas are using their Facebook pages and YouTube channels to spread their extremist propaganda against Ahmadis. With many of them racking up millions of views on their anti-Ahmadi posts and videos.”
Certain “clerics have long hated on Ahmadis based on theological differences. They use dangerous vitriol to incite violence against Ahmadis by labeling them apostates or blasphemers of Islam or outrightly labeled them worthy of death,” Chaudhry told The Diplomat.
Pakistan formed the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) last year in May to oversee minority concerns in the country. The cabinet declined to include Ahmadis in the commission after strong opposition from religio-political parties. Anti-Ahmadiyya hashtags kept trending on Twitter for days. State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan also posted a tweet (later deleted) in which he wrote there was only one punishment for insulting the Prophet – beheading. His tweet received 24,500 likes and 3,500 retweets within the first 24 hours of its publishing.
“Most of the people in power not only approve of such content but also encourage it. Imran Khan attended an anti-Ahmadiyya rally in 2018. Last year, when anti-Ahmadiyya hashtags were trending on Pakistani Twitter, State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Mr. Ali Muhammad Khan tweeted that blasphemers should be beheaded. That is why minorities in Pakistan do not feel safe in reporting extremist or hateful content to local authorities,” Rehan said.
Instead, Ahmadis mostly ignore the content. Usman Ahmad works for the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan in different capacities. He is an active social media user. He uses his online presence to share his thoughts on different issues, and he often raises his voice for the human rights of the community. He used to engage with people posting hateful content against Ahmadis, but now he just ignores it.
“That was pointless. It only adversely affected my mental health, without actually having any other meaningful impact,” he said. “Now, I am slightly more discerning about what I reply to. For example, I will respond more to stuff which is current and under the spotlight at a certain period of time; e.g. misinformation and conspiracies about the community to clarify what is actually true.”
Ahmad particularly replies to accounts of politicians, celebrities, or influencers when they post anything against the community. He believes they hold a social responsibility toward society and shape public opinion.
The National Response Center for Cyber Crimes (NR3C) headed by the Federal Investigation Agency deals with electronic crimes in Pakistan. Chaudhry lodged several complaints to the center against the hate speech targeted at Ahmaddiya, but he never got any response to any of his complaints. However, his complaints to authorities in other countries have always been taken care of.
“I have reported hate speech numerous times to cyber crime [authorities] in Pakistan. I have been disappointed with [the] Pakistani cyber crime wing because not once has any action been taken against death threats directed at Ahmadis,” he said. “Law enforcement authorities in the U.S.A. and other Western nations are more sensitive to such incitement and take them far more seriously than Pakistan does.”
Ahmad also reports the content to social media giants, but that is also of no use. He says Twitter has better policies but still it has to work on its forum to make it safer for its community.
“I cannot speak on behalf of the community, but in my capacity, I do know of Ahmadi leaders who have taken up these concerns with state authorities,” he said. “There is a monthly report that is published detailing the various forms of hate speech published or aired in the media against Ahmadis, especially one that involves incitement to violence or actual violence. The response from the state is very dismissive.”
Chaudhry shared that a community leader had also tried approaching the federal minister for human rights, Shireen Mazari, to request a meeting to discuss the concerns of the community, but he never heard back from her.
Usman also monitors online content about the Ahmadiyya community for his work. He believes the hateful posts against the Ahmadiyya community are just a way to hold one’s reputation as a true Muslim and to settle personal scores with opponents.
“The hatred towards Ahmadis has become so normalized in our society and because hostility towards the community is seen as a religious and civic duty, the door for whipping up hatred against Ahmadis always remains open,” he said. “It is the easiest way in which to launder your reputation, display your religiosity, show off your credentials as a true and patriotic Pakistani, trying to shift focus from a personal scandal and – for politicians – as a means of deflecting from their own political failings or attacking their political opponents by accusing them of being Ahmadi.”