Pakistani authorities have taken their campaign of religious oppression worldwide, threatening U.S.-based Ahmadi Muslims with imprisonment.
For decades, the government of Pakistan has relentlessly persecuted the members of the messianic Muslim Ahmadiyya sect within Pakistani borders. Although Pakistan is a Muslim-majority country, its constitution states that Ahmadi Muslims are non-Muslims, and blasphemy laws that criminalize public displays of worship of the Ahmadi faith empower courts to hand down the death penalty. U.S. officials have long spoken out against such laws, and since 2018 the State Department has added the country to its “countries of particular concern” list, comprising the world’s worst opponents of human rights.
“Despite repeated calls from the international community for Pakistan to abolish their antiquated blasphemy laws, peaceful groups like the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community continue to be subjected to them,” said Representative Michael McCaul, the co-chair of the Congressional Ahmadiyya Caucus and the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement. “No individual should ever be targeted, penalized, or attacked because of their religious beliefs — Pakistan must take meaningful steps to protect the rights of religious minorities.”
Instead, in recent months, Pakistan has stepped up its campaign of repression against the Ahmadis, attempting for the first time to enforce its notoriously draconian blasphemy laws on U.S. soil.
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At first glance, trueislam.com doesn’t seem to be the kind of website that would attract a foreign government’s attention: It hosts information about U.S.-based Ahmadis’ activities, such as blood drives and campaigns to remember fallen American soldiers. But even the mere act of calling the Ahmadi community a Muslim group is punishable by law in Pakistan. (In a case that garnered international notoriety, Ramzan Bibi, an Ahmadi woman from Punjab province, was imprisoned last year after local clerics objected to her donation to a mosque. She could face the death penalty if convicted.)
On December 24, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) sent a legal notice to Harris Zafar and Amjad Khan, spokesmen for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, which runs the website, demanding it be taken offline. The notice states “that Ahmadiyya//Qadiani’s can neither directly/indirectly pose themselves as Muslims nor call or refer to their faith as Islam” under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and claims that the website violates those proscriptions. It was followed by a press release on January 22, in which the PTA publicly announced that it had served the notice and blocked the website within Pakistan.
Zafar told National Review that while the group hasn’t complied with the order, its members remain worried. “We’re not fearful for ourselves,” he said. “But we do have family in Pakistan.”
Khan, meanwhile, said that the PTA seems more interested in persecuting U.S.-based Ahmadis through press releases than in taking legal action. But while Zafar and Khan remain safely out of the Pakistani authorities’ reach, and have not yet been criminally charged, they have sought pro bono legal representation offered by the firm O’Melveny and Myers and are considering bringing their own lawsuit against the PTA. “We haven’t yet decided to do that,” Khan said. “But we’re prepared. Our lawyers are prepared. And we are prepared to take this the full distance.”
In addition to the blasphemy laws, which enjoy widespread popular support, Pakistani authorities have also used Pakistan’s cybercrime statutes and new regulations enacted in November to justify their ambitious claim of jurisdiction over the website. Responding to the PTA’s demands in a sharply worded rejoinder in January, Brett Williamson, the lawyer representing Zafar and Khan, addressed this aspect of the conflict:
If the PTA’s absurd reading of the reach of [Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act] were correct—and it is not—the PTA could assert extraterritorial jurisdiction over every website in the world. PTA seeks an unprecedented application of PECA, unmatched by virtually any other cybercrime bill in the world. Since it is implausible that the PTA could enforce an action on a U.S.–based website (and the PTA surely recognizes that), the PTA’s intentions are clear: This is a malicious attempt to chill free speech and expression by a Muslim American website.
The embassy of Pakistan in the United States did not reply to National Review’s request for comment.
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The PTA’s aggressive assertion of global jurisdiction poses tough questions for tech companies. In addition to its harassment of U.S. citizens, Pakistan has also gone after foreign companies that host Ahmadiyya Community content that can be accessed from Pakistan.
On December 25, the PTA announced that it had asked Google and Wikipedia to take such content off of their platforms. In particular, it singled out the Ahmadiyya USA app available on Pakistan’s Google Play Store. The app, which was commissioned by the U.S. Ahmadi community and developed by Canadian software engineers, merely gave users access to the Quran, but the PTA called it “sacrilegious content” — and on December 27, Google complied with the order to remove it from the Play Store in Pakistan. The PTA later sent another order demanding the removal of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA’s remaining four apps as well.
Although the other four apps remain on the Google Play Store in Pakistan, “basically at this stage all the content digitally on Google Play is threatening to be removed, and we expect they’ll probably comply again and remove those apps as well,” Khan said. He added that he and representatives of the Ahmadiyya communities in the U.K. and Canada participated in a call with Google staffers last month to discuss the matter. According to Khan, they were told that the Pakistani government threatened to ban Google from the country if it did not comply with the PTA’s demand.
“To me, moral courage means fighting against the tide of religious repression, even if that means risking short term commercial harm. . . . And the fact that that’s not being exercised is disappointing,” Khan said.
Google did not respond to National Review’s request for comment.
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The PTA’s sudden attempts at extraterritorial law-enforcement are part of a larger, incredibly worrisome trend. They echo China’s attempts to apprehend non-citizens beyond its borders under the Hong Kong National-Security Law it enacted last spring, which claimed for the Chinese Communist Party the right to prosecute non-Chinese citizens who have never stepped foot in the country on the basis of things that they say. The law’s provision on extraterritorial enforcement was put into action for the first time last July, when Beijing reportedly sought the arrest of Samuel Chu, an American democracy activist based in the U.S.
Especially in light of that context, U.S. officials who have worked to raise awareness of the persecution of the Ahmadis agree on the need to do something to push back on the PTA’s efforts. The question is what that something should be.
This is “Pakistan following in the China model,” said Sam Brownback, the former Kansas senator and governor who, as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom during the Trump administration, spent years pressing the government of Pakistan on these issues and was monitoring the PTA’s conduct in the weeks before Biden took over. He favors sanctioning Pakistani officials, to send a clear message to other countries tempted to combine religious persecution with curbs on Internet freedom: “We’re going to react strongly to it.”
At the very least, the PTA-initiated conflict is sure to pose new challenges to the already-strained, yet strategically important, bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. The two countries maintained a troubled partnership in the post-9/11 era as Washington fought a war in neighboring Afghanistan. And even after the State Department’s re-designation of Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act last year, then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo approved a waiver overriding the sanctions that the label would otherwise have triggered. He cited “the important national interests of the United States” to justify his decision.
These complexities are already at play in the Biden administration’s dealings with Pakistan. Just weeks into Biden’s presidency, the relationship has been tested by the Pakistani Supreme Court’s decision to order the release of the individuals behind Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s 2002 beheading. During a call with Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in January, Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the matter. And though Blinken did not mention the PTA’s threats to Qureshi, Biden’s State Department doesn’t intend to give the Ahmadis the cold shoulder.
“We are aware of the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA)’s recent communication threatening U.S. citizens with legal action for content on a website hosted in the United States,” a State Department official told National Review in a statement. “The United States strongly believes in the right to freedoms of expression and religion or belief; we defend U.S. citizens’ and all peoples’ exercise of those rights, including online.” The official added that the administration had “raised our concerns with the appropriate Pakistani authorities,” and would continue to engage the government of Pakistan on broader religious-freedom issues.
Heightened congressional attention to the problem could also shame the Pakistanis into backing down, because Congress has the power to limit the foreign aid on which Pakistan is heavily reliant. McCaul and Representative Jackie Speier, his fellow co-chair of the Ahmadiyya Caucus, are preparing a letter to the government of Pakistan objecting to the PTA’s harassment.
At least until Pakistan can be persuaded to halt its assaults on religious liberty more permanently, such pushback from Congress and the Biden administration might be the best way of protecting Americans who wish to live, speak, and worship freely from the threats of foreign autocracies.
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