Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo convened the first ever Religious Freedom Ministerial in Washington, D.C., drawing religious freedom ministers and advocates from over 80 countries to discuss the vital importance of international religious freedom. Secretary Pompeo, alongside U.S Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, should be commended for not simply paying lip service to the core human right but also identifying concrete actions to intervene on behalf of oppressed and beleaguered communities and prisoners of conscience. The Ministerial was an historic step in galvanizing the international community to reverse the trend of rapid global religious intolerance.
As the co-chairs of the Congressional Ahmadiyya Muslim Caucus, we were especially heartened to see that the U.S. State Department invited survivors of religious persecution as meaningful participants in the dialogue surrounding international religious freedom. This included Farooq Ahmed Kahlon, an Ahmadi Muslim community leader from Pakistan, who in 2012 was shot five times by anti-Ahmadi extremists near Karachi when they ambushed his family after his son’s wedding, killing the groom and his bride’s father (an American citizen) and nearly killing Mr. Ahmed’s other son, who underwent a complex surgery in the U.K. to miraculously remove a bullet lodged in his eye. As Ambassador Brownback spoke solemnly at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial last week to honor the voices of those who have endured persecution, Mr. Ahmed stood resolute by his side as a representative of a community that has endured senseless, state-facilitated religious repressions for over four decades in Pakistan. It was a powerful reminder that the United States is uniquely positioned to act as a torchbearer for international religious freedom for people of all faiths or no faith.
The Religious Freedom Ministerial affords a unique opportunity for the United States to take affirmative measures to stop brazen instances of institutionalized discrimination against Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan. At the root of terrorism in Pakistan is sectarian militancy, which has skyrocketed in recent years, with scores of attacks on Christians, Hindus, as well as Shia, Sufi, and Ahmadi Muslims. This sectarian violence actually is a byproduct of the erosion of religious freedom that began more than 40 years ago, with the passage of the Second Amendment to Pakistan’s Constitution, which declared members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to be non-Muslim as a matter of law.A few years later, military dictator Zia ul Haq issued a pivotal decree ordering the creation of “non-Muslim” electoral rolls, reversing decades of a joint electorate under which all Pakistanis had an equal vote irrespective of creed. Zia’s decree was specifically targeted against Ahmadi Muslims because it would force them to disavow their Muslim identity by registering as “non-Muslims” on the electoral rolls. At the stroke of a pen, a community of millions was disenfranchised, including Pakistan’s first foreign minister—Sir Zafrullah Khan, who also served as the president of the UN General Assembly and Chief Justice of the ICJ—and the country’s only Nobel Laureate before Malala, Dr. Abdus Salam.
In hindsight, the exclusion of this relatively small but highly educated group from Pakistan’s political order was a somber presage of Pakistan’s lethal transformation into a hotbed of extremism. Like a canary in a coal mine, the legally sanctioned persecution of Pakistan’s Ahmadi Muslims points to underlying problems in Pakistani society that have slowly infected the entire body politic.
Some may find it puzzling that despite a quarter century of ostensibly liberal government, Pakistan has failed to arrest the country’s descent into violence that is directly rooted in intolerance of religious diversity. But they need look no further than the continued disenfranchisement of Ahmadi Muslims, including in the most recent elections held last week. Indeed, daily life for all Pakistanis, not just for Ahmadi Muslims, is full of constant reminders that the country is legally segregated along sectarian lines: in order to obtain a passport, an identity card, and even to enroll in college, Pakistanis must list their religious affiliation, and to be counted as “Muslims,” they must sign a sworn declaration stating that Ahmadis are non-Muslims and that the founder of the Community, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, is an “impostor” prophet.
In the face of this apartheid-like regime, it is hardly surprising that the rhetoric of extremist madrassahs resonates with millions of Pakistanis, making the country a sanctuary for terrorists carrying out increasingly deadly attacks. What, then, can be done to strengthen the bonds of a democratic society in Pakistan? That effort should be grounded in a simple principle: the sanctity and indivisibility of citizenship without regard to race, color, ethnicity or religion. This fundamental tenet resonates with millions of Pakistanis: many have declined to sign the declaration on the passport form denouncing the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community as an impostor because they believe that it constitutes a direct assault on the idea that all Pakistanis are equal under the law. Similarly, the right to vote fairly and freely in elections, irrespective of creed, forms the bedrock of a democratic society.
Notably, reform of the passport regime and the electoral process can be achieved through purely administrative and executive action by Pakistan’s government: neither issue requires legislative action. Restoring the franchise to Ahmadis, for example, would require only rescinding Pakistani Presidential Order No. 15 of 2002 (“Executive Order No. 15”), which uniquely excludes Ahmadis from the joint electoral rolls, and requires them to be registered on a separate supplementary voter roll. We cannot afford to let another five-year election cycle pass before the critical issue of restoring the full and free right to vote for Ahmadi Muslims is resolved once and for all. Buoyed by the success of the Religious Freedom Ministerial, the secretary of State has a golden opportunity to help correct a long-standing injustice.
Speier is a U.S. representative of California and King is a U.S. Representative of New York. They are co-chairs of the Congressional Ahmadiyya Muslim Caucus.