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Social Media Politics in Pakistan

The use of social media like blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc, has come to define the new youthdriven politics in many countries across the world. Much of this has fanned radical politics of protest and change and has been unpredictable and viral in its effects. This article looks at social media activism in Pakistan, which draws mainly on the urban youth, and tries to understand why it has not yet become a spark for a more generalised protest.


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neophyte activists, many of them armed

Social Media Politics in Pakistan
with fresh foreign university degrees, laptops and Blackberries. One recalls a striking symbol of this connection between Afiya S Zia youth politics and social media at the

The use of social media like blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc, has come to define the new youthdriven politics in many countries across the world. Much of this has fanned radical politics of protest and change and has been unpredictable and viral in its effects. This article looks at social media activism in Pakistan, which draws mainly on the urban youth, and tries to understand why it has not yet become a spark for a more generalised protest.

Afiya S Zia ( is a feminist and researcher based in Karachi, Pakistan.

ocial media has come of age in Pakistan. This does not mean it is powerful, widespread or effective. If anything, the difference between the much-touted efficacy of social media as a tool of activism during the Arab uprisings of 2011 and in Pakistan is that, in the latter context, the use of social media has been largely apolitical.

This is not to imply that social media advocates and users intend to be apolitical. Quite the opposite. In 2007, various leftleaning associations, women’s groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) came to lend support to the nationwide Lawyers’ Movement to restore the chief justice of Pakistan (CJP) who was arbitrarily dismissed by the president, general Pervez Musharraf. The intention was to peg fledgling pro-democracy politics to the more effective lawyers’ protests.

This campaign attracted many young people in the urban centres who were

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first emergency meeting in Karachi. The more experienced activists were taken aback at the enthusiasm of these young people who repeatedly stated how “awesome” street protests were. They also unveiled their plan to paint the city walls not with political graffiti but instead with the symbol of “eject” (as in, on CD/ DVD players) to express the subversive demand for the removal of Musharraf’s regime. So subtle, that the senior activists just did not get it.

There were other suggestions that raised the eyebrows of the veterans, such as the one that the People’s Resistance (PR, as it was then named in Karachi) should solicit corporate sponsorship to enable cell phone networking and other technical assistance for the “revolution”. The leftists put their collective feet down at this but, they were impressed by how cell phone video footage of street protests were flooding their inboxes and hanging their ancient desktops,

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Economic & Political Weekly


even before they made it home from the demonstrations.

Youth Politics Redefined

Prior to general Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship (1979-88), student politics was premised on ideological differences. Zia’s ban on student unions led to a general depoliticisation of youth. Left student politics became diluted as it went underground due to Zia’s concerted purging of the universities of socialist influence. On the other hand, his Islamisation campaign patronised Jamaat-e-Islami student activism, as well as ethnic identity politics of Urdu-speaking or Mohajir (refugee) students who supported Zia’s government in Karachi. Subsequent successive governmental lifting of and bans on student unions after 1988 led to bloody and armed contests in Karachi University and to the Jamaat’s stronghold over Punjab University. The bloody contests between the two forces dominated youth politics in Karachi in the 1980s and helped permeate conservatism into Lahore academia.

The cleavage between social and political-party activism has resulted in divergent paths for an entire generation of those who were politicised during the Zia years. Social activists gravitated towards NGOs while the political activists embedded themselves within political parties.

More recently, some analysts have suggested that Imran Khan’s run for government under his party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, has contributed towards igniting youth interest in mainstream politics. Political spin aside, the fact is that given the history of student politics in Pakistan, this is clearly not an unprecedented engagement. In any case, more than on real issues, the activism of the Tehreek-e-Insaf youth cadre has so far been limited to media trawling by its youth supporters and the use of music and song as part of its electoral campaign.

On the other hand, social activism through NGO politics has been met by cynicism, largely from conservatives, nationalist-purists and religio-political parties (colloquially referred to as the “ghairat (moral respectability) brigade” by liberal media activists). At the same time, the perception of NGOs as being donor-driven, westernised, ineffectual and elitist has

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february 18, 2012

also meant that many contemporary youth have refrained from joining them.

Instead, the political consciousness of the urban middle-class youth seems to have found its strongest expression in cyberspace. Soon after the restoration of the CJP in 2009, old-style activist groups disassociated themselves with the cyberactivists mainly due to a lack of consensus on issues of a secular identity, the army operation against the Taliban in Swat and the politics of the new ruling party (the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) under the presidency of Asif Zardari). The major ideological differences between the young and the more experienced meant that the original activist groups went back to their old identities and politics and, simultaneously, were “unfriended” and removed from the list servers of virtual activism.

Simulated vs Live Activism

It was only when the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer,1 was murdered in 2011 allegedly for advocating blasphemy, that cyber activism resurged. This time, cyber leaders named the group, “Citizens for Democracy” (CFD) and while this list retained many original members of the PR, more of the Lahore-based youth became active and vocal on this circuit.

This round of virtual conversation, however, was different. Partially, this was due to the more complex issue of religious politics in itself. But also, the religiopolitical parties had seized the opportunity to collaborate for a collective, physical “surge” on the streets over the issue of religious law, which was clearly their turf. They outnumbered and overpowered the public imagination by real demonstrations that were media worthy, rather than the passive and under-attended candlelit vigils or virtual protests by the liberals.

Civil society was outraged when several conservative lawyers came out in support of Taseer’s murderer Mumtaz Qadri, garlanding him for his “glorious” act. But this outrage could not spill beyond virtual expression, hampered by a genuine sense of fear after the blatant daylight murder of the minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti (a Christian), just two months after the Taseer murder.

Claimed by the Taliban, it served as a chilling follow-up message to any voice

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calling for reform of the law. The Member of Parliament, Sherry Rehman of the PPP, attempted to move such a bill but given the stirred passions, found herself at the receiving end of legal petitions accusing her of blasphemy and threats against her life too. She also found herself disowned and distanced by her own party leadership, which had decided to pursue shortterm appeasement of the right-wing to cool things down, rather than confront the backlash of their obvious street power.

When interior minister, Rehman Malik, made a public statement yielding that he too would have murdered anyone who defamed the Prophet, the liberals knew that justice for Taseer was going to be sacrificed for political expediency. They also realised that reform of the Blasphemy Law would gather no political traction in Parliament despite a PPP majority. The CFD members retreated and disappeared in outer cyber-orbit.

Viral Success

The low-cost, low-maintenance and timesaving nature of social media allows dormant activists to reactivate themselves on any issue, from anywhere and even, under any identity. Not unlike banned religious groups, changing aliases for the same cause is becoming a borrowed methodology for cyber social activists. As a celebrated product of globalisation, cyberactivism allows overseas Pakistanis to freely participate in domestic politics and support pressure groups without the kind of risks that “live” activists face.

Very recently, a new cause galvanised these social media activists once again. It was provided by Maya Khan, a woman anchor of a private TV channel, Samaa, which is a sister channel of CNBC Pakistan. In January 2012, Khan decided to play moral vigilante and armed with a camera crew, sneaked up on young couples in a public park to interrogate the nature of their relations and question their intentions. She even asked some couples for their nikah-namaas (marriage certi ficates) to prove the legitimacy of their relationship.

When the show was broadcast nationwide, for many, it was reminiscent of general Zia’s state vigilantism of the 1980s. This horrified the liberals but more interestingly, met with a muted, and sometimes


hostile, response from the conservatives. None openly supported Maya Khan. In many ways she represents a generation of young urban Pakistanis who may not show strict adherence to Islamic trappings but are nonetheless conservative and tend to be overly anxious about issues of morality.

Interestingly, even conservative male journalists were scathing over Maya Khan’s unprofessionalism and invasive journalism, linking it to her apparent hypocrisy, given her own “modern” and “liberal lifestyle”, photos of which were soon posted all over the internet in a manner of reprisal.

While there are many reasons for such a unanimous support for privacy of couples in public places in an otherwise conservative and strongly gender-segregated society, the religious right has been ambivalent over intrusion in domestic issues and relations. They also often argue against legislation on domestic violence based on a similar premise.

Containing the Viral

The Lawyers’ Movement saw the successful use of both mainstream and social media as a tool of political activism, even if the latter remained secondary to the live and sustained, nationwide, long marches and mass movements.

However, during the aftermath of Taseer’s murder it became clear that social media, like mainstream media, could create an on-air controversy over Taseer’s efforts at defending a Christian woman and encourage the perception that he himself was a blasphemer. After his murder, social media activism was muted in the face of the aggressive backlash of the religious right, who cast anyone who supported reform in the Blasphemy Law, as a legitimate target of reprisal.

In the aftermath of such a “defeat”, the “vigil aunty” case of Samaa TV’s Maya Khan seems to have boosted the confidence of cyber activists who claim that their online activism pressurised the TV channel into making the anchor apologise and then, fire her. What seems to have been forgotten is that just prior to the Taseer murder, another woman anchor from the same channel, Mehr Bokhari, came under severe criticism for fanning hysteria over Taseer’s support of the Christian woman. At that time, Bokhari was accused by social media activists of having Taseer’s blood on her hands, yet, unlike with Maya Khan, there were innumerable blogs posted in Bokhari’s support. Nonetheless, the controversy resulted in her being fired but almost immediately she was re-employed by another big TV channel, where she still works.

Therefore, euphoria over the success and efficacy of social media activism may be premature. The optimism over its potential may need to be tempered in view of the limitations of virtual activism.

The private sector appears to be a softer target over issues of perceived breach of ethics. It is also easier to let one anchor or producer become the scapegoat for media excesses but difficult to raise deeper, structural issues. As an example, cases of sexual harassment within media organisations have been reported in the recent past but these have not turned viral on social media, unlike what happened with Maya Khan.

Secondly, if the nature of “offence” contravenes perceived religious sentiment, then social media has so far only been able to make benign interventions. The case of Aamir Liaquat, a religious scholar who hosted a TV programme on Geo TV for many years, is exemplary of such limitations. In 2009, on one parti cular show he openly declared Ahmedis as wajib ul qatl (worthy of death/liable to be killed). His comments were believed to have provoked the murder of two Ahmedis within hours of the broadcast. Interestingly, Liaquat is an adept user of social media himself and so he engaged with his critics via twitter, continued to host his show on Geo TV, left the channel in 2010 and is now head of the religious channel (Quran TV) run by ARY. The efficacy of virtual media cuts both ways and is dependent on the actual power of those behind the computer screens.

Lastly, social media activists are not necessarily ideologically aligned. This has meant lengthy and often, frustrating decision-making procedures as emails fly back and forth, distrust prevails, and there is often failure to agree on how to convert cyber enthusiasm into practical strategies. There is also the identity issue of diasporic Pakistanis and the legitimacy of their opinions.

When zealots set up a fan page on Facebook celebrating the “heroism” of Mumtaz Qadri in 2011, the liberals welcomed the removal of the offensive page by Facebook the same day. But when in May 2010, Facebook refused to remove the pages of an alleged drawing competition of the Prophet of Islam, which was globally considered by many Muslims to be an invitation to commit blasphemy, there were divisions among social media activists with some demanding such a ban and others upholding freedom of expression. Many supporters of this ban were Pakistani-American users of social media. Although the courts lifted the ban on Facebook a few weeks later, it left unresolved the debate over freedom of expression, the care of moral sensibilities and the broader question about political activism and social media.

What is interesting in Pakistan today is that while social media still remains at the fringe of larger movements, the divisions of non-virtual world are replicated with sharp divides between the liberalradicals and the religious-conservatives. Unlike in other countries where social media became a tool used mainly by those who were pushing for change, in Pakistan its use remains circumscribed by the significant presence of the status quoists and by the pressures of real politics.


1 The governor of Punjab, party-member of the PPP, was shot 25 times by one of his own guards in January 2011. The murderer, Qadri, claimed he was motivated out of religious duty to kill Taseer for indirectly defaming the Prophet via his pursuit of the cause of defending a poor, Christian woman imprisoned for blasphemy.



february 18, 2012 vol xlvii no 7

Economic Political Weekly

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