How social media became a deadly trap for a minority group in Pakistan


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Original Article: How social media became a deadly trap for a minority group in Pakistan

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Last fall, in a corporate office in Lahore, 25-year-old Siraj, a fintech professional just two months into his new job, listened in as his colleagues discussed a murder over lunch. Two months earlier, a teenage boy had walked into a judicial complex in Peshawar and shot 57-year-old Tahir Ahmad Naseem several times as Naseem stood trial for alleged blasphemy. Naseem, a U.S. citizen, died on the spot, his blood spattering upon onlookers.

Naseem had been born into the Ahmadiyya religious community, which emerged in the late 19th century in the Indian subcontinent, and currently counts upwards of four million members in Pakistan. Although Ahmadis identify as Muslim, the state of Pakistan has essentially labeled them heretics, and prejudice against the community is exceedingly common: A 2011 Pew survey found only 7% of Pakistanis considered Ahmadis to be Muslims. (Among those surveyed, 26% had never heard of the group or had no interest in commenting.)

Born in Peshawar, Naseem had moved to the U.S. in the late 1970s, a few years after the Pakistani state declared his community non-Muslim. In 2018, he was lured back to Pakistan by someone he’d befriended on Facebook, a seminary student who then complained to the police that Naseem was claiming false prophethood.

As the trial got underway, videos of Naseem circulated on Facebook in which he claimed to be a messiah; on LinkedIn, he reportedly described himself as “Jesus’s Second Coming.” In other videos, surrounded by villagers, clerics, and police, he renounced his claims and his Ahmadi affiliation. “My brain is not well,” he can be heard mumbling in one.

The teenager who shot Naseem claimed, in a separate Facebook video, that the Prophet Muhammad had appeared in a dream, directing him to “finish off” Naseem. (After Rest of World flagged the video to Facebook, it was removed from the platform.)

To members of the Ahmadi community, the murder of Naseem was terrifying, a reminder that violence is never far. Still, Siraj, who asked to be identified only by his first name, told Rest of World that he was stunned to hear his colleagues speaking of the vigilante teenager with casual admiration.

“Allah provided that boy with such an auspicious opportunity to prove himself,” one of the men proclaimed.

Terror coursed through Siraj, and he fought to keep it from seeping into his face. Under the cafeteria table, he frantically twisted the silver ring on his finger, making sure the engraved inscription faced inward. To the discerning eye, the ring’s insignia would give away what he had so far chosen to conceal: his own Ahmadi identity.

Most Ahmadis in Pakistan live shadowy, discretionary lives. Many never reveal themselves to people outside the community: Every Ahmadi, after all, knows someone hounded out of university or work or the country after being outed. In Pakistan, an Ahmadi reading or teaching from the Quran, or referring to their place of worship as a “mosque,” is a punishable offence. The teenager who killed Naseem was hailed as a hero: A provincial parliamentarian changed his Facebook profile picture to the teenager amid a flutter of rose petals; police guards posed with him at the back of a police van — some smiled; one flashed a thumbs-up. Knowing all this, Siraj felt he had only one option after overhearing his colleagues that day: He tendered his resignation several weeks later and left the job.

A few days later, he received a Facebook friend...

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