The hate speech rhetoric in Pakistan is a remnant of the colonial legacy which fostered a communal mentality by highlighting religious differences between the Hindus and the Muslims of the subcontinent, also facilitating the rise of far-right religious groups that exert strong political influence today.
Religious leaders have played a crucial role in defining Pakistan’s constitutional history and fomenting discriminatory attitudes that underline the current social fabric of the society. The atmosphere of hate speech and incitement to violence can be traced back to some of the provisions that have been added over the years.
Religion in the Constitution
The political history of Pakistan indicates how successive governments have encouraged a culture of politicising religion to maximise their electoral significance by appeasing the religious groups that legitimise extremist ideologies.
According to the Constitution of Pakistan, the country’s religious minorities are guaranteed many protections even today; however, the reality suggests otherwise. Over the years, as the religious militant groups and radical nationalist sentiments took root in Pakistan, the protection of minorities has suffered immensely.
Persecution of religious minorities
Hate speech and violence against religious and sectarian minorities is an outcome of years of radical religious indoctrination that surfaced during the presidency of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq who sought to ‘Islamise’ Pakistan under his dictatorial rule from 1977 to 1988.
After the widespread institutionalisation of discriminatory policies, Pakistan became a breeding ground of hatred against anyone who did not comply with the orthodox version of Sunni Islam.
Zia’s legacy has made a profound impact on what Pakistan is today since it has not been possible to challenge most of his reforms as the blasphemy laws and the institutional discrimination against Pakistani Ahmadis. The discriminatory laws that criminalise blasphemy-related incidents and outlaw the Ahmadiyya community for self-identifying as Muslims resulted in a pervasive culture of vigilantism, mob violence, and fear-mongering.
The Role of Social Media
In recent years, users of multiple social media platforms amplified messages with stereotypes and derogatory terms against the minority groups in Pakistan.
Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have facilitated the rise of hate speech that targets religious and sectarian minorities, which was worsened during the pandemic as it reiterated the peripheral status of minorities in the country.
Legal Framework: Restricting Hate Speech
Considering the rise of religious intolerance, the line between hate speech and freedom of speech in Pakistan is often blurred.
There are no specific sections in the Constitution that deal with the issue directly; instead, different legal provisions penalise offences that might be understood as hate speech.
In recent years, a few bills have been proposed to enhance the overall safety of religious minorities but have repeatedly been turned down on the insistence of the religious parties and groups.
The prevalence of hate speech in Pakistan can exacerbate even further if adequate measures are not made to effectively combat its root causes.
The study provides recommendations suggesting, among others, the reassessment of the Islamic reforms introduced under Zia-ul-Haq’s rule, legal and education reforms, and accountability mechanisms to combat hate speech and promote tolerant approaches to neutralise intense religious sentiments embedded in the country.
This article is a summary of the chapter on Pakistan in the report Preventing Hate Speech, Incitement, And Discrimination – Lessons On Promoting Tolerance And Respect For Diversity In The Asia Pacific.