Lahore, Pakistan - It’s official. Everyone is using Facebook.
Extremist groups in Pakistan are joining the social networking site – and tweeting on Twitter and sending text messages – to share notes on upcoming conferences and post videos on the West’s agenda against Islam.
They also spread provocative views and encourage attacks against Pakistan’s Ahmadi religious minority. And they often do so without fear of crackdown by authorities.
“its now time to implenet islam [sic] and hang black water, rehamn malik and zardari till death,” posts one user, referring to the private American security firm, Pakistan’s interior minister, and Pakistan's president.
That post appeared on the page of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a global Islamist party that denounces democracy and campaigns for the establishment of a global caliphate (akin to an empire) based on Islamic Law. The user goes by “Commander Khattab,” the name of deceased Chechen guerrilla leader.
“The Ahmadi community is responsible for civil-war within the Muslim community, what do you think?” posts another user on the Facebook page of Khutum-e-Naboohat. The organization, which is dedicated to denouncing the Ahmadi sect of Islam, organized street demonstrations against them ahead of a massacre of 95 Ahmadis in May. Other groups maintain websites dedicated to condemning Shiites.
A wider audience
The shift to new media reflects the groups’ attempts to reach younger, more educated followers among Pakistan’s growing middle class.
With more than 100 million mobile phone users in Pakistan – viral text-messaging campaigns (called, ironically, "SMS blasts") that are sent out en masse by the group and forwarded on by their followers – have proved far more useful than the group’s previous means of communication, paper leaflets.
“Nothing is more effective for spreading our message than technology: the era of speech and literature has gone,” says Maulana Sahibzada Rashid Ahmad, who heads the Khutum-e-Naboohat movement out of a small mosque and learning center in the posh Gulberg neighborhood of Lahore.
The surge in web and SMS activity comes as Pakistan is facing an upswing in sectarian violence. More than 40 worshippers were killed at the bombing of a Sufi shrine in Lahore last week, and in recent months half a dozen Shiite doctors have been gunned down in Karachi in what police believe are targeted killings.
Soon after the blast in Lahore, Hizb-ut-Tahrir sent a mass text message blaming the “bloodbath” on “the union of Blackwater and the Pakistani government.”
“After creating a fresh blast in Lahore, America is paving the way for a fresh [military] operation,” the text message read.
Little government response
Despite such provocative claims, the government appears to be unable – or in some cases unwilling – to monitor or block sectarian content on the web. Naguibullah Malik, the federal information technology secretary, told the Monitor that there are “no plans” at present to act against sectarian websites.
Badar Alam, editor of Pakistan’s Herald magazine, says that the authorities are taking laissez-faire approach partly to avoid picking too many fights with the religious right. Already they have come under fire for cooperating with the United States to fight pockets of militancy.
“The government is dealing with so much on so many fronts it probably does not want to open another front. They do not want to antagonize the right wing too much,” he says.
Even when content is blocked, Hizb-ut-Tahrir spokesman Naveed Butt says the group’s web developers can usually find workarounds.
“Our conventional methods are closed to us, because our party is banned. Our public gatherings are closed. So we have to be inventive. We have to embrace new methods,” he says.
Butt claims that the SMS blasts are beginning to influence its target audience of “influential people” such as parliamentarians, lawyers, students, and journalists. “We’re steadily growing in number, as educated people realize democracy will never deliver. Practically they are seeing there is no way out for Pakistan. Secularism will never work. People are committing suicide, people are dying.”
With each wall post on Facebook, Butt receives dozens of “likes,” a one-click feature that allows fans to show approval, and a deluge of positive responses. “[These attacks] are the mission of all the unbelievers and our government are slaves to them,” writes a supporter, Muhammad Shahid Arif.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir is also banned in several Arab countries for engaging in “anti-state” activity and is barred from public activity in Germany for spreading anti-Semitic propaganda.
An ‘important’ mission
Khutum-e-Naboohat faces no such difficulties in keeping its operations running. According to Mr. Rashid, wealthy donors help pay the bills while the tech-savvy youngsters among its ranks maintain their website.
“We either work from home or from the computers here in the mosque,” says Umar Shah, a web designer. “It’s important to spare time for this mission because it’s a matter of our faith.”
Among some of the claims sent out: “[Ahmadis] are agents of Israel and they are funded, protected and trained by the imperialist and capitalist powers.”
Another text declares Ahmadis apostates of Islam who should be given three days to repent. “Otherwise he should be given the punishment of a Murtad [traitor] which is capital punishment.”
Saleem-ul-Haque Khan, an Ahmadi lawyer who survived the May attack on his mosque, says the attackers entered the building shouting the Khutum-e-Naboohat slogan (“Long live the finality of the Prophet!”) and that the same group had held demonstrations outside his mosque two weeks earlier. “The government has never tried to stop it,” he says.
The authorities did, however, recently block Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, and mobile Blackberry services in response to a controversial Facebook competition to draw the Prophet Mohammed, which is considered a taboo in Islam. Websites are still being monitored for such “blasphemous” content, according to Khurram Mehran, a spokesman for the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority
“It seems we’re more concerned about our own feelings getting hurt,” says Mr. Alam, the editor, “and not so concerned about others’ feelings or their rights.”