THEME: Public Health
Background & context
Shia is one of the major sects of Islam. In Pakistan, the community is the third biggest in terms of population. Of the 96.5% Muslim population, 15 – 20% are Shia. This number renders them a minority within the majority Muslim population. Owing to the longstanding enmity between Shia and Sunni sects, coupled with various other domestic and International affairs, this enmity often turns into violence, almost always perpetrated against the Shia. The Saudi-Iran rivalry on the world stage spilt over in Pakistan. Because of strategic reasons, the military regime in the early 1980s swayed in both directions intermittently, depending upon which side provided more benefits.
Saudi Arabia (aided by the USA) and Iran invested heavily in Pakistan’s religious elite to establish madrassas and pockets of influence. During much of the 1980s, the conflict remained very violent, resulting in permanent fissures in Pakistan’s society. Although the governments over the past decade-and-a-half claim to have washed their hands off all kinds of sectarian extremist outfits, the policy has left indelible marks on society and the entire fabric of the state structure. The anti-Shia sectarian businesses continue to not only work but grow and target Shias, physically and verbally, with impunity.
Most of the state institutions’ officials are Sunni in proportion to the overall population. Because of the decades of hate speech by the Deobandi (a major Sunni sub-sect has deep enmity with the Shia) that the state allowed to grow, the anti-Shia bias within the officialdom has become more pronounced than ever. Though the Pakistan government does not officially support discrimination against Shias, it is failing to efficiently counter the influence of extremists and bring an end to violence and prejudice against the community.
The Shia population is spread throughout Pakistan. No part of the country could be called a Shia neighbourhood, save Gilgit-Baltistan and specific areas in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s insurgency-hit Balochistan province. The Shias in Quetta are mainly from the Hazara race, having peculiar features similar to Mongols (Hazaras are considered the direct descendent of the Mongols). Because of this recognisability, Hazara Shias have been the target of sectarian terrorism, hate speech, and prejudice.
Against this backdrop, the Shia, especially the Hazara community, was caught in a wave of hate speech and extreme bias upon their return from the pilgrimage to holy sites in Iran at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.
A strong wave of hatred, targeting, prejudice, and persecution started with the outbreak of Covid-19 in Pakistan. As the media broke the news of the first cases of Covid-19 amongst the Shia pilgrims who had returned from Iran via the Taftan Border, social media started flooding with hatred against Shias. Many Pakistani netizens accused #Shias of intentionally bringing the virus to Pakistan. Some went to the extent of accusing the Shia of indulging in bio-terrorism on behalf of Iran. A coordinated campaign with the hash-tag #ShiaVirus was trending on Twitter on 1st & 2nd April 2020. Many political leaders & religious leaders like Ahmad Ludhyanvi, chairman of ‘Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat’, took part in this frenzy. But the Government did not take any significant action against this hate trend.
The first two Covid-19 cases in Pakistan were reported on February 26, 2020. A month later, the national tally for infections crossed 1,000, and eight reported deaths. The steepest rise in cases was reported on March 19, as claims rose from 302 a day before to 457. The newspapers started reporting that the numbers started rising significantly with the arrival of pilgrims who returned to the country from the Pakistan-Iran border at Taftan. Although the returnees were pilgrims as well as tourists who visited Iran for recreation or business (non-Shia), the focus of newspaper reporting remained on Shia pilgrims.
Two Patients Zero
Two Patients Zero were identified by the officials on 26 February 2020. Both had recently returned from Iran, although only one of them was a Shia pilgrim, while the other was a non-Shia tourist. Coincidentally, the personal details of the Shia man were leaked on social media, following which he and his family had to face extreme abuse and hate speech. He was vilified and was treated as a pariah for bringing the virus to Pakistan . All this while the other (non-Shia) man, also identified as patient zero, remained anonymous.
Pak-Iran Border Sealed
When the news about the COVID-19 outbreak in Qom, one of Iran’s major destinations for Shia pilgrims, the Pakistan government shut down the Pak-Iran border on 23 February 2020. Resultantly, people got stranded on the Iran side of the Taftan border. It was only after the strong protest by their families that the border was temporarily opened, and people (pilgrims and other tourists) were allowed to cross the border on the 28th of February. But prior to being allowed to go homes, they were quarantined at Taftan in abysmal conditions without proper care and preventive measures.
The first batch of the 1,928 returnees completed their 14-day quarantine on March 13 and was allowed to leave for their hometowns. In contrast to these pilgrims, some 471 people (non-Shia tourists who had returned from Iran) were sent to Quetta after the primary screening (i.e., taking the temperature with thermal guns). Of them, 175 were later tested positive for coronavirus in all four provinces of Pakistan.
After some pilgrims in Taftan tested positive in mid-March 2020, it started a national outrage. As a response, the government once again closed the border with Iran on March 16. With it started targeting all Shias, especially the Hazara Shia community, who were blamed for bringing the virus from Iran. Many were racially profiled and stigmatised as carriers of the infection.
How it Started
Fuchsia Hart, an official of the Iran Heritage Foundation, did a Twitter thread exploring the history of the spread of diseases through shrines in Iran and other parts of the Middle East. The thread was used by Pakistani Twitter users to target Shia pilgrims returning from Iran, accusing them of spreading coronavirus in Pakistan.
An image of the tweet that, among others, initiated a hate campaign against Shias for spreading coronavirus in Pakistan.
The outrage against the already persecuted Shia minority kept escalating, blaming them for intentionally spreading the virus. On top of that, new and more damaging rumours and fake news were floated on social media and messaging Apps. Sometimes, journalists tried to debunk these rumours with factual reporting, but phoney news made its way to the popular imagination.
Fake News, rumours, Lies, Mis/Dis-Information
First, there were rumours that the pilgrims were allowed to return to their homes without any screening and quarantine, which was wrong because the quarantine camps were established on the border. Pilgrims were spending their mandatory 14-day quarantine period in the most challenging conditions there. Another rumour that contributed to Shia phobia in the early days of the pandemic in Pakistan was that Shias were allegedly avoiding quarantine, not informing authorities about their return. The quarantine camps at the Taftan border were in extremely shabby and squalid shape, where even toilet facilities were insufficient. When the pilgrims persistently protested against that, the rumours started floating that they were breaking out from the camps. That further increased the outrage against them. Pak-Iran border was sealed in the second week of March, but the propaganda that Shias were responsible for COVID spread in Pakistan kept gaining ground.
Targeting Hazara Shias
During the same period, messages were posted and forwarded endlessly using messaging Apps like WhatsApp and Signal, blaming Hazara Shias for the spread of Coronavirus in Pakistan. An audio recording of the conversation between two (reportedly government officials) got leaked on different social media platforms, in which the men were heard abusing Hazara Shias, blaming them for the virus, and asking not to allow them in offices and workplaces.
Before any formal lockdown, several public authorities started announcing measures targeting and restricting the movements of Hazara Shias in Balochistan. The Inspector General of Police, Balochistan, issued a notification sending members of the Shia Hazara community “on leave to prevent the outbreak of covid-19.” At the same time, the Water and Sanitation Authority (WASA) stated that “Employees belonging to Hazara tribe and residing in Marriabad and Hazara Town should be restricted to their areas”. Finally, the Chief Secretary, the most senior administrative authority in Balochistan, announced that Quetta would be cordoned off from the rest of the province, and Hazara localities within it would be cordoned off from the rest of Quetta.
Image of a tweet about how wrong information was spread through social media against Hazaras
Many cases of targeted discrimination were not even publicly reported. As per some media reports, Hazara employees, including doctors, in some institutions (e.g., Civil Hospital and The State Bank of Pakistan) were unofficially asked not to attend the office whilst their non-Shia colleagues continued to go to work.
Video: “With the outbreak of Coronavirus, we are supposed to fight two threats at a time. On the one hand, we strive to protect our families and loved ones from Coronavirus. On the other hand, we are fighting discriminatory behaviours, singling us out from this pandemic and further pushing us into isolation. We are facing discrimination socially, and now we are being targeted for spreading the virus” – a Hazara Shia writer from Quetta (Balochistan)
Targeting of Shia Ministers
Two senior federal government ministers, both Shia, were singled out for exacerbating the spread of covid-19 as part of the misinformation that, by now, had taken the shape of an organised campaign. Sayed Zulfikar Abbas Bukhari, aka Zulfi Bukhari, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development, a Shia, was accused of using his influence to let pilgrims enter Pakistan. Even the senior leaders from the opposition started parroting the accusation on the floor of the parliament. The minister subsequently denied it repeatedly, but the media kept reporting the charges without qualifying them with even the most rudimentary fact-checking.
Some people blamed Zulfi Bukhari for spreading coronavirus in Pakistan by bringing pilgrims, calling them “suspected viruses”. The number of pilgrims was exaggerated, making it bigger every other day. Despite repeated clarifications by the minister and other government officials, social media remained abuzz with rumours that the pilgrims (there was never any mention of other non-Shia tourists who were returning from Iran) were allowed to go back to their homes without any proper health check and quarantine. Minister Zulfi Bukhari was accused of ‘pleasing his Shia brothers’ while risking the whole nation;
Another senior Shia Federal Minister, Syed Ali Haider Zaidi, was blamed when Ahmad Ludhyanvi, chairman of Ahl-e-Sunnah Wal Jamat (ASWJ), a notoriously anti-Shia organisation, tweeted, “Zulfi Bukhari is not alone. Ali Zaidi is also complicit in the spread of the virus”. By 1-2 April, a campaign on Twitter was trending in which the virus was being referred to as the ‘Shia virus’.
Religious extremist outfits
Social media influencers
government functionaries (through leaked conversations)
The tweets, posts, WhatsApp messages, and Youtube videos by primary actors;
It was forwarded by anonymous accounts and influencers.
The content carried hate speech, character assassination and misrepresentation of the Shia community in general and Hazara Shias in particular.
The targeted audience was the ordinary citizens, especially those having anti-Shia leanings and a propensity to commit hate speech and use falsehood to further the religious narrative, especially the Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith sects.
wrong focus of policy, mismanagement of quarantine camps influenced by the prejudice against Shias; danger to public health
Prejudice, discrimination, violation of fundamental freedoms
Journalists, social media users, analysts,
The content by primary actors shows intent for vilification and targeting through fake news and distortion of facts / using selective facts. But the content posted by a section of secondary actors shows an intent to push the government to adopt an appropriate policy and tackle mismanagement. For doing that, however, they relied on mis/disinformation and falsified facts.
Bilingual, but mostly in Urdu
Shia community in general, and Hazara Shias in particular
Individual, non-state, media, political
Means of communication were mostly unlawful (hate speech and falsification of facts)
Much of the content was hate speech, fake news, deliberate character assassination, and distortion of facts. Thus could not be protected under freedoms of expression & information.
Social media platforms (WhatsApp, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter)
Videos, pictures, and statements were posted on social media platforms and messaging Apps (WhatsApp, Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter).
The content was deceptive with false and malicious claims.
WhatsApp messages and audio notes were used to personalise the distribution. The boost was given to the disinformation campaign by religious extremists and certain politicians from the opposition, who wanted to embarrass the government for mismanagement, but in doing that, they became primary actors of this disinformation campaign.
No evidence of backend communication between the primary actors or prior coordination; could be accessed; however, hysterical posting of hate content by the primary actors, followed by the secondary and tertiary actors (ordinary masses) helping them trend, shows some degree of coordination might be there.
Some of the content was manipulated and forged; some of it was selectively highlighted and manipulated to fit the anti-Shia narrative.
The content shows it quickly became organised disinformation once the social media users willingly accepted the misinformation as factual information.
The content was aligned with misinformation initially but took the shape of a disinformation narrative in a matter of days.
Factcheck and Analysis
There were severe problems in how the government handled the Iran returnees at the Taftan border with fake news and baseless rumours accusing Shias of spreading the virus aside. Another policy flaw that resulted in significant mismanagement and contributed to the virus’s spread was that the entire policy was focused on just the Shia pilgrims ignoring other avenues of the viral transmission. From the outset of the outbreak, both federal and provincial governments appeared to hold a preconceived notion that Shias were the primary carrier of covid-19. While Shia Hazara pilgrims were being kept in quarantine camps in abysmal conditions, around 1,704 non-pilgrim returnees from Iran were allowed to go home after screening with just the thermal guns.
Opening and closing borders and dealing with matters of cross-border movement of pilgrims and their quarantine in case of health emergencies fall under the ambit of the federal government. But instead of owning up to its responsibility, the government delegated the matter to the provincial government of Balochistan without realising the capacity problems. Balochistan is Pakistan’s most impoverished province, with meagre resources and minimal capacity of the bureaucracy and infrastructure to meet the challenge posed by the influx of returnees in those numbers. Taftan has been an international border crossing point for Pakistan for the last 72 years, but its share of development resources is close to nadir. It should be no surprise that quarantining over 4,000 people would prove an uphill task for the Balochistan government.
Though Hazaras only constituted a tiny proportion of Shia and non-Shia returnees from Iran, the government’s disproportionate response points to the whole Hazara community as being the sole carrier of the virus. The government racially profiled and stigmatised the Hazaras while pretending to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
The Case has been identified as an incident of disinformation because there was evidence of deliberate and deceptive behaviour. Reference can be made to the officials communicating their anti-Shia bias based on fake news and concocted facts while accessing the correct information as part of the government. The disinformation was exacerbated using social media, especially messaging Apps, which were used for making some audio conversations viral, purportedly between government officials communicating baseless information and hate speech against Hazara Shias. The political actors (politicians from the opposition parties) also became part of this campaign by blindly relying on anti-Shia information and attacking Shia ministers based on it.
During the initial phase of the pandemic, it was propagated through organised social media campaigns (mainly through Twitter and TikTok) that the patient zero in Pakistan was a Shia pilgrim returning from Iran and that the virus spread in Pakistan from thereon through the contingent of the returning Shia pilgrims.
This started an anti-Shia tirade throughout Pakistan, resulting in hate speech and targeted comments against Shia rituals, exploiting an already divided society on sectarian lines. This disinformation campaign led to a wave of hate speech against the Shia, which is already a persecuted minority sect.