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Social media stoking religious hatred in Pakistan

Personal grudges are presented as religious battles either through ignorance of the facts or malice amid climate of fake news
Social media stoking religious hatred in Pakistan

Female students use their smartphones at a campus in Islamabad in this July 12 file photo. (Photo by Aamir Qureshi/AFP) 

Published: September 17, 2018 05:10 AM GMT
Updated: September 17, 2018 05:20 AM GMT

Religious extremism frequently rears its ugly head in Pakistan, where the rights of minority groups are often neglected, but perhaps not as frequently as is believed due to the spreading of "fake news" on social media and online.

Critics point to a recent slew of cases where attacks on Christians were reported as hate crimes — but later turned out to have been motivated by a desire for revenge, or some other personal grievance — to argue their case that religious intolerance might not be as pervasive as is thought.

One incident in the southern port city of Karachi involving an 18-year-old Christian girl who was abused by a Muslim police officer was originally billed a "religious hate crime" before it emerged to be a case of jealous rage.

The teenager, Benish, was pushed off a second story balcony of a two story building by policeman Taher Abbas from Karachi's Darkshan Police Station after she spurned his marriage proposals, the girl's parents said.

"Abbas has a criminal history. He's been pestering our daughter by phone for a long time," Benish's father, Paul Shamsher, told ucanews.com.

The girl's mother, who declined to give her name, said Abbas had been making threatening phone calls to Benish for several weeks before he turned violent.

"In spite of her pleas that he not harm her or anyone in our family, he refused to quit his manipulative tactics," the older woman said.

"Things came to a head when he pushed her off the balcony, fracturing three of her vertebrae as well as her foot and ankle" she said, adding Abbas then took his victim to a nearby hospital and lied to doctors and nurses about what had happened to her.

He allegedly threatened her with an even worse fate if she dared to contradict him but Benish spoke up and his crimes came to light as her parents lodged a complaint with officers at Ibrahim Hyderi Police Station.

However, it wasn't until the media reported the incident in August that Abbas was finally punished and jailed.

Another incident that sparked debate among Christian communities on social media occurred in Karachi's Mehmoodabad district recently when a Christian family was intimidated by a local Muslim mob.

The conflict first erupted when the head of the family, Alvin John, told officials that his 19-year-old daughter Nasreen was being harassed by young men in the neighborhood whenever she walked to college.

The situation escalated on Aug. 18 when Alvin's 25-year-old son, Vikrum, found the same local hoodlums had attacked and wounded his dog.

He confronted them and was badly hurt in the ensuing scrap. As his family rushed to his aid, the fracas shifted inside their family home and his relatives including his mother and sister were also beaten, the chemical engineer said.

Vikrum ended up losing an eye and the house was ransacked.

The family said they have since been living in a state of fear and were forced to leave their home after a campaign of threats and intimidation were directed against them.

"I spoke to the parents of those boys, but they did nothing," Alvin told ucanews.com.

Nasreen recalls watching her father rush out to save Vikrum and the louts turning on him before smashing the windows of their home and proceeding to trash it.

Another high-profile attack took place this summer in drought-hit Thar in Sindh province when a 16-year-old girl was abducted by Baloch tribesmen as the family looked on helplessly.

Kevel, the girl's father, lodged a complaint with local police but claims they ignored his pleas for assistance, forcing him to seek vigilante justice in a desperate bid to rescue her from the ethnic-Iranian clansmen.

He said he was still trying to locate her as of Sept. 11 as the suspects remained on the loose and officers seemed reluctant to launch a proper investigation.

Catholic lawmaker Anthony Naveed told ucanews.com that such cases, while serving as egregious crimes against minority groups, could not however be labeled religious persecution.

He said he offered free legal counsel to all of the victims and made personal visits to speak with the families of both Banish and Vikrum.

Sabir Michael, an assistant professor at the Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology (Szabist), said bloody conflicts are often mistaken for extremism in Pakistan or willfully exploited on social media.

"Social media activists and religious leaders have tried to paint these cases as through religion was at the heart of the conflict, when that wasn't the case," he said.

He urged the public to be more discerning in future before "liking" or sharing such posts, to the point where they go viral and stoke genuine religious intolerance and social unrest.

"Please don't post every incident as though it must have been religiously motivated," he said.

"A full and impartial inquiry should be made using reliable sources rather than letting the court of public opinion make false judgments based on incorrect information," he added.

"Some people do this deliberately, exploiting religion to serve their own agendas of inflicting harm on certain individuals or communities for a range of reasons that have nothing to do with Christianity or Islam."

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