The government of Pakistan recently threatened two American Muslims with prison sentences of up to ten years if they did not take down a U.S.-based “blasphemous” website — a threat one of those targeted told Breitbart News on Tuesday represented “an unprecedented and entirely new frontier of digital policing that Pakistan is trying to impose.”
The website in question — TrueIslam.com — is the online home of the American Ahmadiyya Muslim community, run by an American group, hosted in the United States, and represented by American citizens. Ahmadi Muslims differ from Sunni and Shia Muslims in believing that the promised Messiah of Islam arrived on earth in the form of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who was born in India in 1835. The Ahmadiyya consider their current leader, Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the “Present Khalifa of Islam.” Ahmadi Muslims emphasize in their worship “commitment to peace, their law-abiding nature and determination to create a harmonious society for all people, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity or faith,” TrueIslam.com details.
The attempt to silence “blasphemy” in America follows repeated vows from Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan that he would endeavor to criminalize speech that offends Muslims globally, including using Pakistan’s platform on the U.N. Human Rights Council to enact global laws to silence enemies of Khan’s interpretation of Sunni Islam anywhere on the planet. The U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution introduced by Pakistan in December against alleged “Islamophobia” calling for the silencing of speech offensive to Muslims.
Blasphemy against Islam is a crime in the Pakistani penal code. Blasphemy against Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, or the Quran in particular, is punishable by death.
Despite the Khan government’s aggressive protests against “Islamophobia,” Pakistani law explicitly practices Islamophobia against Ahmadi Muslims. The Sunni government considers the community “imposters.” Pakistani citizens are forced to renounce Ahmadi Islam publicly for legal documents such as passports. It is illegal for Ahmadis to identify as Muslim in any way, and protections for Muslims in Pakistan’s Islamic legal code do not apply to them.
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authorities (PTA), the nation’s government media watchdog, sent a message to Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA’s spokesmen, Amjad Mahmood Khan and Harris Zafar, last week demanding they unpublish TrueIslam.com or face criminal prosecution in Pakistan. The message accused the American citizens of violating Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which prohibits Ahmadis from identifying as Muslim, and threatened over $3 million in fines and a prison sentence of up to ten years for each if they did not take it down. As all individuals involved are Americans and the alleged infractions did not occur in Pakistan, the move represents an attempt to enforce Pakistani law on American soil.
“This is an unprecedented and entirely new frontier of digital policing that Pakistan is trying to impose across international boundaries,” Harris Zakar, national spokesman for the American Ahmadiyya Muslim community and one of the two Americans threatened in the PTA missive, told Breitbart News. “This overreaching censorship effort seeking to criminalize online speech speaks volumes to how far Pakistan’s authoritarian government is willing to go to target and persecute a religious community that it has persecuted for decades.”
Zakar described the attempt to enforce Pakistani law as “clearly frivolous” but warned that, despite the fact that “there is no direct personal consequence for Amjad and myself other than the fact that this impedes our ability to travel to Pakistan … if this attempt by Pakistan is not confronted, then it does set a dangerous precedent of what kind of digital policing will be allowed from an authoritarian government.”
Zakar also rejected the accusation that Ahmadiyya Islam, and the website for American Ahmadis, is somehow blasphemous against Islam.
“Of course it is absurd to allege that a community of devout Muslims who adhere to 100% of the Quran and the teachings from the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) can be in any way blasphemous,” Zakar said. “Ahmadi Muslims cherish, love, and honor Islam with their adherance to its true and authentic teachings, which completely disagrees with the hardline and extremist mindset that has caused so much trouble in the Muslim world.”
“The specific website Pakistan seeks to ban — TrueIslam.com — encapsulates the wonderful work a faithful group of American Muslims does to live up to the ideals of Islam,” he explained, “highlighting: our work for racial justice, our work to continue to honor the lives lost on 9/11, to always call for a separation of religion and state, the 9 fundamental principles to achieving world peace, etc.”
The PTA targeted the American Ahmadiyya community shortly after a vague attempt to threaten Wikipedia and Google out of hosting content about the existence of Ahmadi Muslims. In December, the Pakistani government agency published letters it claimed were sent to representatives of both companies ordering them to unpublish “deceitful information,” by which it meant content on Ahmadi Muslims. Neither company has removed the content in question at press time.
Pakistan has for decades been an inhospitable environment, at best, for religious minorities, particularly Ahmadi Muslims and Christians. Under Prime Minister Khan, however, attacks on minorities have increased significantly, in part emboldened by Khan’s vow to turn the silencing of speech he considers “blasphemy” to the international stage.
“Pakistan will spearhead a campaign for an international declaration against the defamation of religions,” Khan promised in 2018. The campaign, he detailed, would “prevent people using freedom of speech as a cover for hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims around the world. Pakistan will spearhead the signing of this convention and make using freedom of speech to commit blasphemy a crime.”
During his 2020 U.N. General Assembly speech, Khan condemned European countries for allowing citizens to express themselves freely, specifically noting the existence of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which has suffered violent jihadist attacks over its cartoons of Mohammed.
“Muslims continue to be targeted with impunity in many countries … incidents in Europe, including republication of blasphemous sketches by Charlie Hebdo, are recent examples,” Khan said. “We stress that willful provocations and incitement to hate and violence must be universally outlawed.”
“Blasphemy in the garb of freedom of expression is intolerable,” Khan repeated in November.
According to the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch, 2020 was an especially violent year for Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan.
“Since July 2020, there have been at least five apparently targeted killings of members of the Ahmadiyya community. In only two of the cases have the police taken a suspect into custody,” the organization noted. “Pakistani authorities have long downplayed, and at times even encouraged, violence against Ahmadis, whose rights to freedom of religion and belief are not respected under Pakistani law.”
In July of that year, a Pakistani court allowed an assassin to kill an Ahmadi American citizen, Tahir Naseem, before a judge during a trial in which he was accused of “blasphemy” for being Ahmadi. The killer mentioned Naseem’s faith as the reason he chose to kill him.