The Facebook faithful

Published February 21, 2014
  -Photo by Sebastiaan ter Burg
-Photo by Sebastiaan ter Burg

Faith and Facebook are wedded in Pakistan.

On any given day, on any given newsfeed, the iterations of the union are widely visible. Your cousin may be posting admonitions about missing prayers, your sister pictures of mosques, your uncle quotes from this or that religious scholar.

Facebook is about sharing, and in an increasingly conservative and right-aligned Pakistan, the thing to share is various views and perspectives on faith. In this sense, the Islamisation of Pakistan’s virtual space is a congruent and accurate reflection of similar trends in the social and public spaces of real life. Public performances of piety and devotion mean a lot in Pakistan, and in this mix Facebook has become one more tool, one more forum that makes such enactments are possible.

The dark side (particularly lightless in Pakistan) is that omissions or mistakes on this front can lead to death. In November of last year, Raza Kharal from Toba Tek Singh in the Punjab province was arrested and charged with blasphemy for allegedly sharing blasphemous content on his Facebook wall. Following the arrest, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority was requested to remove all objectionable and blasphemous materials from Facebook. The Law Minister of Punjab, Rana Sanaullah, further promised that the Federal Investigation Agency would be investigating the matter. Since the penalty for blasphemy is now death, Kharal could face execution if he is found guilty.

That, of course is an extreme case reflecting accurately how the mad mix of easy sharing and social judgment can become lethal. For most Pakistanis, just like for everyone else in the world, Facebook is a venue for constructing identity. It is in this sense an aspirational forum where users can craft images of themselves, creations that reflect not who they are but rather how they wish to be seen by others. In Pakistan, whether or not people are actually pious or devout or engaged in acts of charity, they wish ardently to be perceived as such and Facebook goes a long way in helping them get there. The consequence is newsfeeds filled with devotion, prayers and charity all ironically emanating from a country devoid of civility, kindness, and fellow-feeling.

In many cases, the image-crafting acts of the Facebook faithful extend from self-description to proclamations of doom directed at others. One relative of mine who regularly inhabits this territory habitually posts ghastly compendiums of curses that await those who sin. Judging others, the universal function of Facebook anywhere is hence brought under the umbrella of being religiously sanctioned. Via the same recipe, adding religious terms to personal brags, a line or two of thankfulness and gratitude to descriptions of lavish weddings, exotic vacations and decadent feasts, renders all such showing off also permissible. Condescension, comparison, correction thus are all now holy by the simple act of adding a bit of faith to any given Facebook post.

Since public demonstrations of faith and piety are so welcome and encouraged in Pakistan, there is little critique of this phenomenon. Few pause to question or connect that what Facebook has really enabled is the wedding of the human ego and the acts and obligations of faith. In blurring the lines between what’s real in life versus what’s real on Facebook, an outwardly focused faith is given precedence and priority over the inward, the spiritual, and the inexpressible on Facebook. If value is placed only on that which can be shown to others, declared publicly, and shared widely, that which is inexpressible, invisible, transcendent is diminished in value, rendered secondary and eventually unimportant.

The most committed of the Facebook faithful argue that public competition and judgment, admonishments and fear, are just fine as motivators of righteous action. In their calculations, they place value in the act itself over the more amorphous concepts of motivations and intentions. If one person’s exhortations about prayer and the punishments force one or another to pray, then that is a good thing. The fact that it was fear rather than desire for an engagement with the divine that motivated the prayer is irrelevant.

This conclusion, rife and popular and banking on the preoccupation with public perception, is likely to continue to dominate Pakistani behavior on Facebook. In a context where image crafting is of paramount importance, the fact that there is a difference between piety in life and faith on Facebook is for most Pakistanis simply not a post worth liking.

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