The persecution of the Ahmadiyya community has strong institutional and societal roots in Pakistan.
Words: Knox Thames
Pictures: Adeel ShabirDate: June 4th, 2021
The young man sat dejected in front of me, in stark contrast to the bright spring day outside. “They insist I’m not a Muslim but I am. I can’t even say the simplest of greetings without risking jail,” I remember him saying when visiting Pakistan as an American diplomat. “The government and terrorists are both out for us. What future can I have here?”
Welcome to the life of an Ahmadi in Pakistan.
Ahmadis (also known as Ahmadiyya) face constant threats from Pakistani authorities and extremists. As the young man explained, they confront immense hurdles from both government and society. For example, members cannot identify themselves as Muslim or face jail; simple religious greetings are prohibited; their mosques cannot be called mosques; and the specter of violence hangs over everything. Even in death, tombstones are expunged of their Muslim identity if not outright destroyed. Furthermore, criminal charges are brought against its leadership in Pakistan and abroad. Overall, the community’s plight is ignored. The future for Ahmadi Muslims, therefore, is increasingly bleak in Pakistan.
The Ahmadiyya community is innovative, entrepreneurial, and peaceful. So why are they marginalized, routinely exposed to violence and arrest, and cut out of Pakistani society?
WHO ARE THE AHMADIS?
The community traces its roots back to colonial India, when the founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, proclaimed a revivalist message to Muslims worldwide in 1889. From the small northern Indian town of Qadian, he proclaimed, “love for all, hatred for none.” With the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, Ahmadis left for Pakistan along with millions of other Muslims.
With their emphasis on education, Ahmadis quickly rose to the top of Pakistani society. The first Foreign Minister of Pakistan Zafarullah Khan was an Ahmadi. He eloquently defended the religious freedom articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights before the UN General Assembly vote. He also wrote one of the first treatises of how Islamic principles support human rights.
Ahmadis view themselves as within Islam and proclaim their Muslim identity as a critical part of their faith. Ahmadis consider their founder as another prophet, but one that did not replace Prophet Muhammed but instead presented a fresh revelation from God. Islamic schools of thought, however, have generally viewed Ahmadi theology as outside of Islam. Theological tension will always exist between new revivalist movements and traditionalists, such as the debate within Christianity about the placement of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons). Yet, in hypercharged Pakistan, the debate evolved beyond the theological into an effort to erase Ahmadism from the country and equate it to apostasy or blasphemy.
It’s deadly dangerous to be Ahmadi in Pakistan. Less than a decade after Pakistan’s birth, large-scale riots broke out in Lahore in 1953 against Ahmadis that killed hundreds if not more than a thousand people from the community. Stores and homes were looted and destroyed. From there began a slow slide towards marginalization, discrimination, and outright persecution. Now an entire cottage industry exists not just to defend traditional Islamic interpretations but to castigate Ahmadis, encouraging boycotts of their business, their continued exclusion from society, and even violence against them.
LEVELS OF PERSECUTION
Today, Pakistani Ahmadis face an interconnected web of limitations, penalties, societal violence, and disenfranchisement unique in the world.
It starts with the constitution. While many countries establish an official faith, Pakistan has also declared who is not a part of the established religion. In 1974, the charismatic and secular prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, catered to Pakistan’s right-wing by amending the constitution to write Ahmadis out of the Muslim faith. The Second Amendment created an apartheid-like system based on religion instead of race. The amendment described Ahmadis as non-Muslim minorities and defined Islam in such a way as to prevent their claiming it.
And the hits kept coming. General Muhammad Zia ul Haq would overthrow and eventually execute Prime Minister Bhutto. Zia took this process further, saturating both statutory law and constitutional provisions with his narrow religious views. In 1984 and 1986, Zia amended the Pakistani Penal Code adding Sections 298–B and C and Section 295–C. Sections 298–B and C were custom crafted for Ahmadis and stipulated up to three years in prison if Ahmadis posed as Muslims by worshipping in non-Ahmadi mosques, performing the Muslim call to prayer, using the traditional Islamic greeting in public, disseminating religious materials or propagating their faith. In 295–C, Zia turbocharged the blasphemy law, a colonial-era holdover, by amending it to include the death penalty with no evidence required. Ahmadis have been a consistent target of 295–C.
IT’S DEADLY DANGEROUS TO BE AHMADI IN PAKISTAN. AN ENTIRE COTTAGE INDUSTRY EXISTS NOT JUST TO DEFEND TRADITIONAL ISLAMIC INTERPRETATIONS BUT TO CASTIGATE AHMADIS, ENCOURAGING BOYCOTTS OF THEIR BUSINESS, THEIR CONTINUED EXCLUSION FROM SOCIETY, AND EVEN VIOLENCE AGAINST THEM.
More laws aimed at the Ahmadi community followed, effectively disenfranchising those who refused to renounce their Muslim identity. Zia created an exclusionary voting system where non-Muslim minorities could only vote for non-Muslims. As the constitution defines Ahmadis as non-Muslims, they had to renounce their faith to vote. The separate electorate was abolished for minorities by General Pervez Musharraf in 2002 by an executive order, but kept the anti-Ahmadi provisions due to hardliner pressure. When asked to choose between their faith and their vote, Ahmadis have chosen their faith — and hence are effectively disenfranchised.
One of the more tragic outcomes regards Pakistan’s first Nobel Prize winner in 1979, Dr. Abdus Salam. A devout man, he was the first Muslim to win the Nobel Prize. When receiving the prize, he proudly wore traditional Pakistani attire instead of a tuxedo. He spoke emotionally about how his win combated the inadequacy many Muslims felt against the more prosperous West. But due to his Ahmadi faith, he was not celebrated. Textbooks never mention his success. Students never learn how a diligent countryman, self-taught math by candlelight, went to Oxford and undertook groundbreaking atomic physics. A story that could inspire millions, most Pakistanis have never heard of him. Vandals even blotted out the reference to his Muslim faith on his tombstone.
A CULTURE OF IMPUNITY
One cannot overstate the uniqueness of Pakistan’s discriminatory legal provisions that range from the vague and rapacious blasphemy law, specific criminal codes targeting Ahmadis for being Ahmadi, and their effective disenfranchisement. Other than Baha’is in Iran, few other communities must confront such a noxious web of laws customized to punish members of a specific faith group for peacefully living out their beliefs.
In this narrow legal environment, Pakistanis of all faiths also suffer. Many outside of Pakistan knew the plight of the Christian woman Asia Bibi, the highest profile blasphemy case in the world until her 2018 release and 2019 flight, but cases continue to accumulate. And while minorities are a consistent victim, new studies indicate a trend where roughly 75% of the 200 blasphemy cases filed in 2020 were against Muslims for allegedly blaspheming their own faith. Pakistani civil society tries to push back, but faces hostility from both the military and extremists. Those brave enough to protest risk everything; 2021 was the tenth anniversary of the assassinations of Punjab’s Governor Salman Taseer and my friend Shahbaz Bhatti who spoke out about the Bibi case.
The lawfare against Ahmadis grinds on. Authorities constantly charge Ahmadis under anti-Ahmadi provisions. For instance, the elderly Abdul Shakoor was sentenced to eight years in jail by an anti-terror court for selling Ahamdi books, a tragi-comic development considering how actual terrorists go free. Police filed a First Information Report (FIR) against Ramzan Bibi for the “crime” of donating to a non-Ahmadi mosque. In just the last year, reports indicate more than 24 Ahmadis, including their senior leadership, have been charged with blasphemy and for referring to themselves as Muslims. Authorities are now reaching out internationally as well. The Pakistani government has targeted American Ahmadis in the United States for these same “crimes.”
Collectively, this leads to a culture of impunity, with radicals emboldened to take the law into their own hands. In 2010, the Tehruk-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP or Pakistani Taliban) attacked two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, killing more than 85 people. On the individual level, just this past fall, an extremist murdered an Ahmadi Muslim in a Pakistani courtroom before his trial for being an Ahmadi Muslim. Murders at workplaces persist, with an Ahmadi doctor killed inside his Peshawar clinic.
Over my years of working the Pakistan file in different government positions, the repression and targeted murder of Ahmadis is an all-too-common occurrence. Yet, the government ignores the topic, something I repeatedly experienced when serving in a special envoy role in the Obama and Trump administration State Department. When I would raise issues confronting Ahmadis, either to Pakistani officials in Washington, Islamabad, or Lahore, I would often get no response. Literally nothing, as if I had not said the word “Ahmadi” or raised the issue. Why? Because my interlocutors knew they were powerless to offer any solutions. And I believe they felt at risk should they even discuss the topic.
Sometimes, however, the religious bigotry felt toward Ahmadis became visible to Western audiences. Some years ago, during a meeting with Maulana Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, a delegation I organized to visit Islamabad received an earful from him about the deceitfulness of Ahmadis. He now serves as Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special representative on religious harmony. The treatment of Atif Mian, a Princeton economist asked to join Khan’s economic advisory council, is another example. It became global news how Khan’s administration publicly revoked Mian’s appointment in 2018 due to complaints from hardliners about his faith.
In the face of deep-seated repression confronting Ahmadis, as well as Shia, Christians, Hindus, and reform-minded Sunnis, the Trump administration designated Pakistan a country of particular concern for its severe violations of religious freedom, an action no previous Republican and Democratic administration had the gumption to make. It was the right decision, and I led the State Department’s negotiations for potential delisting. Yet, without the leverage of punitive sanctions, I struggled with the limits of “naming and shaming” to move the needle. Pakistan should have been embarrassed by this oppressive system and ongoing human rights violations, but just wasn’t. Instead, appeasement and endorsements are the priority. The government continues to appease extremists, and politicians solicit their endorsements and votes. For instance, Prime Minister Khan has been quick to criticize Islamophobia in the West while caving to radicals who threaten violence toward his own citizens. Accordingly, the repression will continue and likely intensify. Considering the global implications of a radicalized nuclear-armed state, the stakes could not be higher.
Ahmadi persecution is a symptom of the larger disease of violent religious extremism. Pakistan ignores these trends at its peril. Despite Pakistan’s obligation under its international commitments and founding promise, momentum is accelerating away from human rights, not slowing. The unrelenting nature of anti-Ahmadi crimes kill the inclusive founding vision of the country established by Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who himself was a Shia Muslim. Tragically, in today’s Pakistan, an influential, vocal, and violent minority cares more for jihad than Jinnah.
UNCERTAIN FUTURE WITHOUT REFORMS
Broad reforms are needed, or the future of the Ahmadi faith in Pakistan is in doubt. Repealing the anti-Ahmadi and blasphemy laws would be an act of supreme courage (political and otherwise), driving a stake into the ground, signaling to extremists, besieged activists, and persecuted believers a return to Pakistan’s founding roots. It would end over three decades of extremist expansion that has distorted the country and threatens everyone. It would restore Pakistan’s reputation and make it a positive leader in the Muslim world. Sadly, this day is far from certain.
The question is, how many Ahmadi Muslims must suffer or die until it comes?
Knox Thames served as the State Department Special Advisor for Religious Minorities during both the Obama and Trump administrations. He is writing a book on twenty-first century strategies to combat religious persecution. You can find more information on his personal website.