Attacks and blasphemy cases against Pakistan’s Ahmadi sect spike, driven by the rise of a far-right group and a religious campaigner.
When the first bullet whizzed past Sheikh Nasir Ahmad’s ear, he brushed at it, thinking it was a mosquito, out on an unseasonably cool August night in the central Pakistani town of Lalamusa.
Before he was able to react, however, two gunmen on a motorcycle pulled up alongside him and shot him four times, hitting his right leg, lower back and the right arm he used to try and shield himself from the hail of bullets.
“You don’t feel anything at that time [when you are shot],” Ahmad told Al Jazeera. “[The bullet] is hot as it leaves the barrel, so it’s when the blood starts that you realise that something has hit you.”
Security camera footage of the attack shows Ahmad falling to the ground as the gunmen speed away. He cried out for help, he says, but no one came.
“My clothes were completely covered in blood. The blood was soaked through my trousers.”
Ahmad is a member of Pakistan’s 500,000-strong Ahmaddiya community, a religious minority that considers itself Muslim but is barred from referring to themselves as such, and from practising aspects of their faith under Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws.
Police say Ahmad was targeted due to his faith, one of a spate of violent attacks targeting the Ahmadis, their places of worship and even their graves in Pakistan in 2020.
The last year has seen a spike in violent attacks against Ahmadis, and a tenfold increase in blasphemy cases lodged against them.
Community members and rights groups say the spike has been fuelled by the rise of the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) religious group, and the efforts of a single religious scholar in the eastern city of Lahore, Hassan Muawiya.
“There has been an increase in these [attacks], in [legal] cases,” says Amir Mahmood, spokesman for the Ahmadi community. “This [persecution] has increased in the last two or three years, and it is continuing to do so.”
‘He did this just to save us’
In 2020, at least five Ahmadis were killed in targeted attacks by gunmen across Pakistan, while at least seven others were wounded in unsuccessful attacks, according to community data.
Since 2017, at least 13 Ahmadis have been killed, and more than 40 wounded, according to the data.
Five months before the attack on Sheikh Nasir Ahmad in Lalamusa, the TLP held a religious gathering attended by hundreds in a park about 100 metres from his home.
The night of that gathering, Ahmad says, his family hid in their home and alerted community leaders that “anything could happen”, as TLP supporters raised slogans calling for “blasphemers” to be put to death.
After the gathering, TLP activity in his small town of roughly 100,000 people increased, he said, with a constant threat to other Ahmadi inhabitants, and many of the regular customers at his plastic furniture store refusing to do business with him.
Ahmad survived the attempt on his life, but others have not been as fortunate.
In November 2020, a young man attempted to barge his way into an Ahmadi place of worship in the town of Marh Balochan, about 90km (56 miles) west of Lahore.
He blindly fired a pistol through the door, before a 31-year-old Ahmadi man, Tahir Mahmood, confronted him and pushed him outside. Tahir was hit by a bullet in his abdomen and he attempted to run down the street, scaring the attacker away.
“As Tahir got about 30 or 40 feet away, the attacker was behind him. So I shouted saying ‘Tahir, save yourself, he is behind you!’,” says Tariq Mahmood, 55, Tahir’s father, who was also wounded in the attack.
Hearing the father shout, the attacker turned and fired a single shot at Tariq’s forehead, knocking him down. He then caught up to Tahir and shot him dead.
“He did this just to save us,” says Tariq, his body heaving as he weeps, of his son’s attempt to distract the attacker.
A month before the attack on the Mahmoods, there had been a large TLP gathering in their neighbourhood, they say.
“There is a [yearly] conference in October, it is after that that people are more energised [against us],” says Shamim Akhtar, 54, Tahir Mahmood’s mother.
“They go from house to house telling people not to go to our store or take anything from us. They extract promises from people, they make people raise their hands in the mosque to promise not to go to our store.”
Read further in the source: ‘When the blood starts’: Spike in Ahmadi persecution in Pakistan | Religion News | Al Jazeera