Youth and hate speech: the role of religious leadership in the Shia-Sunni conflict in Pakistan

  • Nabeela Asghar

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    Anti-Shia and anti-Sunni propagandists are increasingly using sectarian language on social media to convey their messages. This consequently generates research scope for communication and media studies scholars. This study investigates the exposure, experience and impact of social media containing hate speech, delivered by Shia-Sunni leaders, on Pakistani youth. A mixed methods approach was selected. First, social media data featuring hate speech against Shia and Sunni was collected on the YouTube social media platform, with the analysis focusing on the use of key terms and on online political discourse. Second, an online survey was conducted to collect data on the impact of social media hate speech on Shia and Sunni youth in Pakistan. In order to classify disorganised online communication, I created a categorisation scheme inspired by Freelon (2010) model of democratic communication. A key focus was to explore the impact of the Shia Sunni religious leaders’ hate speech on the Pakistani public in the form of comments to online videos. The categorisation scheme was applied to each speech and comments. Findings revealed that commenters employed the same words and phrases (‘infidel’, ‘curse’, ‘murderer’, ‘Jews’, ‘illiterate’) that the speaker used, with some fluctuation in numbers in each speech. Speakers and commenters from both sects accused each other of not following the ‘real Islam’. Survey respondents declared that hate speech was prevalent online. However, the survey results indicate low impact on the emotions and communication of youth. Furthermore, the Freelon (2010) model was utilised to explore the presence of democratic communication in Shia Sunni interaction. Results were that the online speeches of Shia Sunni leaders and following comments are predominantly pervaded with flaming content. However, a majority of Sunni survey respondents (40%) prefer to not communicate with the other sect and a majority of Shia (46%) use references, indicating a form of deliberation, when communicating with the other sect. Community identification was utilised least. Therefore, I concluded that democratic communication is low in this online environment, but its presence cannot be ignored and needs to be further explored. In terms of rhetorical strategies, the findings revealed that Sunni demonise Shia and project them as ‘other’: a separate religion from Islam. Sunni as, the dominant community pose a threat to the Shia minority. On the other side, Shia adopt a victimisation strategy that is commonly used by jihadists. Speakers from both sects address themselves to their community whilst talking about the other sect. Pakistan’s recent ‘three-pronged preventive and action-oriented’ strategy to deal with religious hatred leading to violence (The Express Tribune, 2022) focuses on reviewing discriminatory state laws, promoting inter-faith harmony and an international instrument to prohibit the dissemination of ideas which incite religious hatred. In my conclusion, I review counter-hate strategies and propose social and educational initiatives which may help to pacify online religious speech, such as more oversight and review of the religious curriculum; increasing the opportunities for dialogue and collaboration between religious leaders and state regulatory authorities; and improving religious teacher education and training.
    Date of Award2023
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorMathieu O'Neil (Supervisor), Tahmina Rashid (Supervisor) & Annie Mccarthy (Supervisor)

    Cite this