It was a music video meant to depict a young bride’s joy: Actress Saba Qamar, in a flowing white wedding gown with a golden hem, was twirled by the singer playing her groom in front of the mosaics of a 17th-century mosque in Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore.
As soon as the video emerged earlier this month, it went viral but for the wrong reasons. It infuriated religious radicals who inundated social media with claims that Qamar’s dancing sullied the historic Wazir Khan Mosque.
Presenting the “Qubool” teaser
This is also the only sequence that was shot at the historical Wazir Khan Mosque. It’s a prologue to the music video featuring a Nikah scene. It was neither shot with any sort of playback music nor has it been edited to the music track.#SabaQamar pic.twitter.com/iYRswlLWLd
— Saba Qamar (@s_qamarzaman) August 8, 2020
The uproar was the latest example of how trolling has exploded online in Pakistan since a lockdown, imposed in March over coronavirus concerns, confined tens of millions to their homes, leading to a 50 per cent increase in internet use in this conservative Muslim nation of over 220 million people.
Minority rights activists and social media trackers say there has been a surge in online sectarian attacks, hate speech and cries of Blasphemy! It is unprecedented, Shahzad Ahmad of Bytesforall, an Islamabad-based social media rights group, told The Associated Press.
Toxic trending on Twitter has also taken aim at minorities, blaming the ethnic Hazaras for allegedly bringing the coronavirus to Pakistan from neighbouring Iran.
Like most Iranians, Hazaras are Shiites, and traditionally make pilgrimages to holy sites in Iran, which has the deadliest virus outbreak in the region. Some Pakistani pilgrims returning home were among the first reported cases of COVID-19 in Pakistan.
After #Shiavirus began trending on Twitter in April, Hazaras say they were denied jobs, service at stores even treatment in medical facilities.
Claire Thomas, deputy head of the Britain-based Minority Rights Group International, said minority Ahmadis and Hindus have also been targeted.
Sunni militant groups often target Ahmadis, also known as Qadianis, named after the birthplace in northern India of their sect’s founder.
The militants consider them heretics because they believe a prophet after Muhammad arrived more than 100 years ago by the name of Ahmad.
In 1974, Pakistan declared Ahmadis non-Muslims and any Ahmadi claiming to be Muslim can land in jail. In a single day this month, #AhmadisAreNotMuslims registered 45,700 tweets; #QadianisAreInfidel 50,600 tweets; #QadianisAreTheWorstInfidelsInTheWorld 32,600 tweets while #Expose_Qadyani_ProMinisters had 50,600 tweets.
Since the lockdown began … there have been over half a dozen concerted hashtag campaigns against the community, either describing the community as worthy of death, or non-Muslim or traitors to Pakistan, said Saleem Uddin, an Ahmadi community leader.
Extremists recently also attacked the construction site for a Hindu temple in Islamabad and warned Muslim faithful online that it would be blasphemy to support the temple.
In an ominous video on social media, a man introduces a young boy as his son. The child then speaks into the camera, delivering a message to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan that he will kill each and every Hindu if the temple is built. The video got nearly 100,000 clicks.
Particularly worrisome is the unprecedented number of claims of blasphemy that Ahmad, from the rights group, says have driven some of those accused into hiding. The onslaught has continued even after the pandemic lockdown was lifted in early August.
Under Pakistani law, the charge of blasphemy, or insulting Islam, carries the death penalty. But even mere allegations of blasphemy can cause mobs to riot. Any attempt to amend the law to make it more difficult to bring charges, has brought angry radicals out on the street.
Last month, a gunman shot and killed Tahir Naseem, a Pakistani-American, in a courtroom in the northwestern city of Peshawar. Arrested two years ago, Naseem was on trial for blasphemy for allegedly declaring himself Islam’s prophet.
Rights activists said he was mentally challenged.
The US State Department said Naseem had been lured to Pakistan from his home in Illinois and entrapped by the blasphemy law.
Within days of the fatal shooting, religious radicals demonstrated across Pakistan in support of the killer, praising his actions. Selfies surfaced online of police guards smiling as they transported Naseem’s killer to his arraignment hearing smiles meant to show support for the killer.
Qamar, the actress who danced in the promo video with popular singer Bilal Saeed in the Lahore mosque, apologised online.
— Saba Qamar (@s_qamarzaman) August 8, 2020
If we have unknowingly hurt anyone’s sentiments we apologize to you all with all our heart. Love & Peace, she tweeted.
But the trolls were unmoved and last week, Qamar and Saeed appeared in court, charged with blasphemy. The two have not responded to AP requests for comment.