Religious extremism and puritanical content are widespread on Twitter. An ultimately intolerant perspective, it is upheld through the creation of echo chambers online with like-minded users. During June, and the months prior, extreme hostility to certain groups such as women, liberals, journalists, and minorities was observed. Much of this content is disseminated by accounts sympathetic to or affiliated with the TLP, such as when hashtags demanding the release of Saad Rizvi was trending during the month. However, other actors are also active in disseminating extremist or puritanical content on Twitter, adding to the climate of religious extremism deeply ingrained in Pakistani Twitter.
Content relevant to the TLP largely remained focused on TLP Leader Saad Rizvi’s detention since April. Rizvi was arrested for threatening mass demonstrations for not expelling the French Ambassador from Pakistan, leading to nationwide riots that have been covered in prior reports. TLP members and supporters have repeatedly called Rizvi’s detention illegal and lamented how supposed “enemies” of the state, like Manzoor Pashteen, were released overnight yet Rizvi remains in prison, despite “defending the glory of the Holy Prophet” according to one tweet. In addition to targeting the government, users also posted disparaging tweets about opposition figures and even the Chief of Army Staff whilst propping up Saad Rizvi as the best option for Pakistani leadership.
In addition to demanding Saad Rizvi’s release from prison, TLP accounts set about promoting the party using the long-standing hashtag #LabbaikPromotion, which has been a vehicle for most of the TLP content covered in these reports. Tweets with this hashtag promote wearing hijabs, the teachings of former TLP leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi, claims of the TLP’s strength, and how, if they are elected, they will solve long-standing issues Pakistan faces such as Kashmir, Palestine and combatting corruption in the country. An example of this is the TLP response to a mass brawl in Parliament, where users decried a mass brawl breaking out in Parliament and how under TLP rule, such an incident would never take place. However, in addition to these, the content in this trend also targets religious minorities with abuse and disparaging content, particularly Ahmadis who are deemed heretics by conservative and extremist Sunni Muslims. Also, in this trend, videos were shared of French President Emmanuel Macron being slapped by a bystander at a public meet-and-greet session. The man who slapped Macron was praised and glorified in TLP tweets as someone who threw a slap against Islamophobes. This is a product of the TLP’s deep-rooted hatred of France for legislation that unfairly targets Muslims, as well as France defending those who draw cartoons of the Prophet (PBUH).
TLP trends have several key characteristics that have been prominent in previous trends. These have been identified before but they will be listed and analyzed below:
• A cult-of-personality dynamic surrounding Khadim Rizvi – all TLP content and users prominently feature either the likeness or sermons of Khadim Rizvi, despite his death in 2020. This is not uncommon concerning politics in Pakistan, however, TLP supporters have taken it to another level. Even in tweets about Saad Rizvi, Khadim’s likeness and content appear ubiquitously. There is an extreme reverence of Khadim Rizvi within supporters of the TLP, more so than that of current leader Saad. Idolatry is frowned upon in Islam, but ironically this is contravened by the TLP.
• Vitriolic and hateful content – TLP content, whilst extolling the virtues of the party, also abuses and targets perceived “enemies” of Islam. Hateful content has targeted religious minorities like Ahmadis, women, liberals, Jews, and foreign nations. This is characteristic of far-right groups, who possess a deeply engrained in-group mentality that is prejudiced and hostile towards outsiders. This is also visible in the use of abusive language by both TLP users and Khadim Rizvi himself.
• Victimhood – to draw support to their causes, the TLP will claim a sense of victimhood to appeal to peoples’ empathy or dislike of the Federal Government. This was highly visible within trends focusing on the detention of Saad Rizvi, where users stressed the illegality of Rizvi’s incarceration, and how they have been wronged by the Government. Words used to describe the Government was also vitriolic in nature, calling the Government “terrorists”.
• Coordination – TLP trends are coordinated and led by media cells set up by supporters or the organization itself. Hashtags are disseminated through tweets demanding supporters begin posting at a certain time of day. This level of coordination illustrates that this is not just mass outrage, but the exploitation of said outrage to gain influence. Parallels can be drawn with the pro-state Twitter “Teams” that will be discussed later in this report.
Ahmadis have been the target of religiously motivated violence in Pakistan for decades. Their version of Islam has been deemed heresy by conservative and extreme Islamists, and their beliefs have arguably become a death sentence, making them the target of mob violence and Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The TLP has tweeted against Ahmadis in the past, openly encouraging violence against them and dehumanizing them. Users refer to Ahmadis as “kafirs”, or infidels, thus putting them in the out-group and legitimizing hostility, such as an incident where a mob stopped an Ahmadi family from burying one of their relatives in Pakistan. This video went viral extremely quickly.
An interesting thing of note, however, is how there has been a pro-Ahmadi presence on Twitter. Following a terrorist attack on a Muslim family in Canada and the aforementioned incident at the cemetery, users on Twitter called out Prime Minister Imran Khan’s condemnation of the attack as hypocritical, as violence against Ahmadis is ongoing. The hashtag #AhmadiApartheid began trending, generated most likely by liberal users on Twitter. Prejudice is extremely widespread on Twitter and seemingly keeps becoming more and more prominent.
Mufti Aziz ur Rehman
JUI-F leader and senior cleric, Mufti Aziz ur Rehman was exposed for molesting and sexually harassing students at his madrassa. A video emerged and went viral of the Mufti molesting a teenage student, leading to his arrest and incarceration. The response to the incident on social media was a near-universal condemnation of Mufti’s behavior. Users from all aspects of society decried his actions and called for his arrest; all aspects except for the religious community, that suspiciously maintained silence following the video’s mass circulation. This highlighted the hypocritical nature of Pakistani clerics, who will not hesitate to hurl abuse at female figures or filibuster on child marriage laws, but will remain completely silent when one of their own is exposed for sexually harassing students; a sentiment echoed by outraged Twitter users, who decried cleric who preach Islam in public whilst abusing children in private. Users also brought up how this issue is symptomatic of the larger problem surrounding a lack of accountability for the actions of Mullahs. Some tweets went as far as to accuse the Mufti of blasphemy.
This hashtag began trending in June, with users demanding the implementation of Islamic systems of governance and Islamic laws. According to users, such systems would “create conditions for peace” and “deliver humiliating defeats to invaders and rebels”. A clear disregard for national laws and legislation was observed, as users turned these down in favor of laws outlined in the Quran. Likely, non-religious laws have also been turned down due to their creation by Westerners such as the British. Most laws in Pakistan are derived from British Common Law and are thus rejected due to extremists’ hatred of the West; one tweet stated that Western countries are ruled by Satan. The TLP also engaged in this trend.
Conservatives directed their outrage at TikTok throughout June, demanding the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) ban it due to the presence of what they deemed “obscene and vulgar content”, particularly LGBT-related content, which had become more widespread as it was Pride month. Twitter Teams were involved in generating and disseminating content seen in this trend, striking a link between right-wing, pro-state users and hatred of TikTok as it goes against Islamic guidelines. The trend is also somewhat exaggerated, likely to produce outrage, claiming that nudity and sexual content are widespread on the app, despite it being strictly banned following TikTok’s Terms of Service. Homophobia was widespread across Twitter in response to Pride month on TikTok, which claim that the app is eroding Pakistan’s religious and cultural image in the words of one user; ironically Pakistan, as stated in a prior report, is one of the largest consumers of internet pornography in the world. In addition to perceived “vulgar” content, videos have gone viral of suicides on TikTok which outraged users on both TikTok and Twitter, leading to calls for PTA to ban the app. Handles of Twitter teams and users were tagged in these tweets, indicating a level of coordination within the trend.
Ultranationalism and Pro-State Twitter Users
Pro-state extremism was on full display in June, particularly focusing on the journalist Hamid Mir. Mir was fired from his position at the Jang Media Group in May following remarks about media censorship by the state. In addition to losing his job, Mir was the target of mass hatred and cyberbullying from users on Twitter. This is a single example of how pro-state users have been behaving on Twitter. They largely emerge in response to news events and act as an extended form of the state’s PR response. Hashtags are produced and eventually start trending in response to criticism of the state. Whenever a national news event takes place (such as the train crash in June) and criticism is leveled at the government, these hashtags will appear on the trending section hours later. Whether or not these trends are directly run by the state remains to be seen, but observation shows that these are started by Twitter Teams and disseminated from there.
Tweets and other content against Hamid Mir continued to trend from the previous month. Mir eventually apologized for his remarks through a signed letter, which led to two different responses. One was in the form of the hashtag #SoftwareUpdated, implying that Hamid Mir’s opinions had been updated to the point they were functional and suitable by apologizing. Images of the apology letter were attached to tweets as well. On the other hand, #WeDoNotAcceptApology began trending, where users ignored the apology and continued demanding Mir’s arrest and prosecution, or an apology from him on live TV; similar messaging was observed when the issue first broke out at the end of May. The hashtag #ArrestHamidMir also began trending, disseminated by pro-state trolls. In addition to this, images of Mir with Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari were also spread on Twitter, implying that Mir is corrupt and working for the opposition.
Another example of this was a trend created discrediting Manzoor Pashteen, leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) rights group. This is nothing new, however, this particular trend features tweets made (supposedly) by Pashtun users, showing how there are people within the PTM’s target audience who are opposed to the group. However, if one looks at the language used by the Government and Armed Forces when describing the PTM, and then looks at the language in these tweets, it becomes clear that this trend is parroting pro-state narratives and is not an example of genuine discontent with Pashteen.
Misogyny and Harassment
In addition to religious extremism, misogyny is widespread on social media in Pakistan. Harassment of public figures is widespread on Twitter, particularly the harassment of women. This was seen in two major cases: the harassment of activist, Malala Yousafzai and the harassment of Pakistani actress, Hania Amir.
Malala already faces a great deal of criticism and vitriol from conservative users due to her views on women’s rights and girls’ education and how she has relocated to the West following the assassination attempt on her life that made her famous. In an interview with renowned fashion magazine Vogue, she gave her opinions on marriage, namely how she did not believe in it, drawing the outrage of conservatives and extremists across Pakistani Twitter.
Tweets began emerging, using abusive and pejorative language, in response to her controversial remarks on marriage. Users claimed that marriage is essential to Islam, and denounced her as a Muslim for her views. This response draws on deeply-rooted misogyny in Pakistani culture, where men believe that women are only allowed to express views men agree with. The trend then went from criticizing her comments to criticizing her, either as a foreign agent or for becoming famous for surviving terrorism over other children who survived terrorism. The anthemic nature of criticizing marriage in Pakistan attracted a great deal of negative attention to an already contentious figure in Pakistan.
Other users claimed that marriage protects and empowers a woman, although women are still victims of rape or domestic abuse at the hands of their spouses.
On the other hand, Hania Amir received negative attention for a series of viral videos featuring herself and two other men. The video saw the actress lying in a bed, fully clothed, with two other men, likely her friends or relatives. Amir deleted the video but was nonetheless subject to sexual harassment, body-shaming, and other forms of targeted abuse. A video also surfaced of one of Amir’s live streams over Instagram but cut with a video of someone ejaculating over a picture of her. Rather than criticize the behavior of the male, users continued to target Amir with abuse, illustrating the hypocrisy present within Pakistani men on social media. When Hania Amir’s ex-boyfriend got involved in the trend, abuse only increased and became more severe.
Both of these cases are microcosms of the puritanism and misogyny present on social media, which have only accelerated during the tenure of Prime Minister Imran Khan. The greater emphasis on Islam in politics has legitimized extremism and conservatism on social media, which has also led to deeply-rooted misogyny entering the mainstream. There has been a liberal response on social media against misogyny and harassment, however, this has been drowned out by the large numbers of conservatives present on social media.
Imran Khan’s Interview
In addition to the above cases, the Prime Minister himself has contributed to the condition of misogyny in Pakistan, through his repeated victim-blaming of rape victims in foreign interviews. He stated that women dressing in skimpy clothes attract the gaze of men, making them more likely to be sexually abused. Considering this occurred within 24 hours of Mufti Aziz ur Rehman molesting his students, it was extremely poor timing and made his message even worse; despite his criticism of Islamophobia abroad, Khan played into Islamophobic narratives by depicting Muslim men as lascivious, sex-crazed animals without any self-restraint, a common Islamophobic stereotype. This did not stop the PM’s defenders, who began a Twitter campaign and labeled detractors and critics as “fools” or other pejorative names. Counter-hashtags to these campaigns, such as #RapeApologistSelectedPM were downplayed as campaigns run by opposition parties, to discredit messaging against the PM. The hashtags #PardaShariatPardaTahafuz emerged from the pro-PM camp, arguing that wearing veils and dressing modestly protects women, though empirically it does not stop rape or sexual violence. Khan’s remarks and opinions fall along the same lines as misogynists on Twitter, thus legitimizing them and their behavior both online and offline.
While a great deal of this content is proliferated by the TLP, other actors also disseminate it such as Twitter “teams” and other individual users. These appear to be dedicated media cells that produce and disseminate content along with a certain perspective. Most of these teams tend to be pro-state or ultranationalist in nature, targeting liberals or anyone critical of the Government or Armed Forces.
Teams operate along the lines of Fifth-Generation Warfare, whereby they engage in a struggle for influence rather than territory or physical control. There is no evidence these groups are under the umbrella of the Armed Forces information departments or ISPR, and any affiliation to them is only by way of the Teams themselves. However, these Teams may enjoy a level of tacit support from the Armed Forces as they are disseminating this content without being formally within Pakistan’s military infrastructure, saving costs and granting a level of plausible deniability. Teams also possess a form of hierarchy and coordination, with different positions and roles such as administrators and content creators. These Teams are not just ragtag groups of like-minded users, but coordinated and active across Twitter.
The content generated by teams tends to be vitriolic and toxic in nature, often targeting public figures and users critical of the Pakistani Government or Pakistani culture in general. Several examples of this can be found in content targeting journalists like Asad Ali Toor, Hamid Mir, and activists like Malala Yousafzai. Posts and tweets also employ the use of abusive language and accusations of being foreign agents.