Pakistan’s embattled Ahmadiyya minority enjoyed a brief moment of hope earlier this month when one of its own, a U.S.-based Princeton economist, was appointed to an economic advisory council.
But the backlash from Islamic hard-liners, which led newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan to quickly rescind the appointment under political pressure, has only underscored the Ahmadis’ fraught position in the conservative, Muslim-majority country.
Ahmadis believe another Islamic prophet, Ahmad, appeared in the 19th century, a view at odds with the fundamental Islamic principle that Muhammad was the final messenger sent by God. Islamic hard-liners view them as heretics, and have successfully pressured past governments to pass draconian laws against the community. Ahmadis have also long been targeted by Islamic extremists, and are shunned by many mainstream Muslims.
Religious parties have never done well in Pakistan’s elections, and last July’s balloting was no exception. But the ability of hard-line clerics to organize mass rallies and incite violence against political opponents has often forced even liberal governments to bow to their demands.
Khan, a cosmopolitan former cricket star who ran on a populist platform of combatting corruption, is the latest leader to give in.
In early September, he appointed Atif Mian, a respected Princeton professor of economics, public policy and finance, to an economic advisory council. Just 72 hours later, Khan sought Mian’s resignation, which the economist announced on Twitter, saying he was stepping down “for the sake of the stability of the government.”
“The government was facing a lot of adverse pressure regarding my appointment from the Mullahs (Muslim clerics) and their supporters,” Mian said.
Several religious parties took part in this year’s election, but as in previous voting, they garnered less than 10 percent of the popular vote. However, they have allies among all the major parties who rallied against the appointment, even introducing a resolution in the upper house of parliament to condemn the move.
Leading the charge was cleric Khadim Rizvi’s political party, which won three provincial seats in southern Sindh province by campaigning on a single issue — the finality of the Prophet Muhammad. They also support a harsh blasphemy law that prescribes death for anyone found guilty of insulting Islam.
Rizvi’s power was on display last November when he mobilized mass rallies over proposed electoral reforms that neglected to mention Islam’s prophet. The two-week demonstration paralyzed the capital, Islamabad, leading to the sacking of a government minister and the legislation’s revision. It may have also contributed to the ruling party’s defeat in July.
The firebrand cleric had threatened to bring his supporters into the streets again over Mian.
“The finality of the prophet and the blasphemy law is the most potent weapon because the mullahs know that no one can dare touch it,” said Zahid Hussain, a defense analyst and the author of two books on militancy in Pakistan.
Mian had at least one defender. Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry sought to stem the controversy by pointing out that the position had nothing to do with religion or lawmaking, and that the newly elected government wanted to be inclusive.
“When I stood up and defended the appointment of Mian, I looked behind me and no one was there,” Chaudhry said in an interview this week. “The problem is that you know the opposition will partner with the violence. You don’t get the kind of support you need.”
Despite their poor showing at the polls, the religious parties are “very effective,” Chaudhry said. “They have the capacity to kill you. Extremism here is a reality. We cannot say it isn’t,” he said.
Moeed Yusuf, a scholar at the Washington-based U. S. Institute of Peace, said “Pakistani society has become deeply intolerant and many more than we think sympathize with such views.” Mian’s resignation “shows the perceived power of the Islamists and the reluctance of both state and society to stand up to them given the costs they fear — including physical harm.”
Mian’s abrupt resignation came as a major blow to the 500,000-strong Ahmadi community, which already feels persecuted and afraid. Many Ahmadis worry they could now lose their jobs, and say their children are often denied admission to certain schools.
Pakistan changed its constitution in 1974 to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims. Ten years later, the government declared it a criminal offense for Ahmadis to “pose as Muslims.” They are forbidden from calling their places of worship mosques and cannot sound the call to prayer. Ahmadis have even been punished for using the common Arabic greeting “assalamu aleikum,” which means “peace be upon you.”
High Court Judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui recently issued a more than 170-page judgment that would force Ahmadis to take further steps to identify themselves publicly, which would expose them to even greater discrimination and violence. It calls for Ahmadis to take names that identify their religion, bans them from wearing “Muslim clothing” — without specifying what that means — and bars them from taking the name “Ahmad.” The judgment is being appealed.
“It is like Nazi Germany. They want to be able to identify us wherever we go,” Usman Ahmad, a representative of the community, said. “The level of intolerance in Pakistan has never been as great as it is today. Every Ahmadi hides his identity.”
“What does Pakistan want?” asked Salim Uddin, a spokesman for the community. “Do they want to eradicate Ahmadis? Do they want Ahmadis to leave Pakistan?”
Both men insisted on meeting in a non-descript guesthouse, rather than the official Ahmadi house of worship, a fortress-like building surrounded by high walls and guarded around the clock.
“This is not a new story in Pakistan. It’s been happening for decades, including under more liberal governments,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the U.S.-based Wilson Center.
“What makes it all more alarming now is that with new parties now involved in electoral politics, the hateful ideas and narratives that fuel discrimination and violence against Ahmadis and other religious minorities will gain more prominence,” he said.