A Tale of State-Sponsored Persecution: The Ahmadiyyas of Pakistan

In July 2014, an angry mob attacked and burnt five houses over alleged blasphemy in a neighbourhood in Gujranwala, Pakistan. Mubashara Jarra survived the attack even as she saw her seven-year old niece and mother die in front of her eyes. At the hospital where she received treatment, Mubashara gave birth to a stillborn. The only crime she and her family had committed was daring to dream of a peaceful life as an Ahmadiyya in Pakistan.

Ahmadiyya or Ahmadi is a minority sect who identify themselves as Muslims and follow the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad founded a messianic movement that has its origins in British India, the Ahmadiyya community in 1889. He was born in Qadian, Punjab and was regarded by his followers as a messiah and a prophet. He declared that he had received divine revelation from Allah and claimed to be the ‘the awaited one’ – the Messiah foretold by Prophet Mohammad. Ghulam Ahmad believed that Islam and its society had severely deteriorated and divinely inspired reforms were required to reclaim it. He embarked on a mission to revive Islam by incorporating elements of Sufism as well as orthodox Islamic and Christian beliefs. He pursued this in the face of British rule, proselytisation activities of Christian missionaries and a resurgent Hindu nationalism. His followers argue that he was only propagating the Prophet’s laws even as he was revitalising Islam. Most mainstream Muslim sects, however, consider the community to be heretic because Ahmad proclaimed himself as a prophet.

Today, the Ahmadiyya community comprises about an estimated 10 million followers, largely concentrated in Pakistan and India, but also as diaspora communities in North America and Europe. There are indigenous Ahmadi communities in countries like Indonesia, Ghana and Gambia as well. After India was partitioned in 1947, the community moved its headquarters from Qadian to Rabwah in Pakistan.

The Ahmadiyya community has always lived under the shadow of persecution in Pakistan. In 1953, orthodox Muslim groups started mobilising themselves to form the ‘anti-Qadiani movement’. After sporadic instances of violence, public rallies and court cases, the agitation was reinvigorated in 1974. On May 22, 1974, an altercation broke out between the Ahmadiyyas and Jamaat-e-Islami activists at a railway station in Rabwah. The ensuing violence sparked a nationwide agitation where thousands of Ahmadiyyas were harassed and killed, amid fresh demands to declare them ‘non-Muslim’.

Ironically, the state-sponsored marginalisation of Ahmadiyyas began under the ‘secular’ regime of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Fearing the ability of religious groups to rally protests against his socialist policies, Bhutto started appeasing them to win their support. In 1973, Islam was declared as the state religion. A constitutional amendment stated that only Muslims could become the head of state or government. Bhutto also hosted the Islamic Summit conference in Lahore in 1974. The Muslim holy day, Friday was declared a holiday. Gambling, nightclubs and alcohol were banned. The Islamification of Pakistan was nearing completion. At this juncture, there was now substantial pressure from hardline groups on the government to act decisively on the Ahmadiyya issue.

In spite of the community as one of his strongest allies, Bhutto became prepared to sacrifice them at the altar of popular and religious support. Little did he realize, what he was about to sacrifice was also the commitment Pakistan’s Qaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah made to his nation – “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state. ”

By a constitutional amendment (called as the ‘second amendment’) passed in 1974, Ahmaddiyas were declared as non-Muslims under Pakistani law. An Ahmadi “who directly or indirectly, poses himself as a Muslim, or calls, or refers to, his faith as Islam, or preaches or propagates his faith, or invites others to accept his faith or outrages the religious feelings of Muslims” could be jailed for up to three years. Ahmadiyyas were also barred from referring to their places of worship as mosques, or their calls to prayer as “Azan” along with other restrictions. The amendments were enthusiastically celebrated throughout Pakistan with joyous celebrations and festivities going on for days.

Bhutto’s constitutional efforts laid the stage for the further persecution of Ahmadiyyas by the autocratic regime of Zia-ul-Haq. The government announced a ban on Ahmadi publications; all Ahmadi translations of the Quran were destroyed. Ahmadis were not allowed to use any Islamic terminologies on their wedding cards, offer funeral prayers or display the Kalima on gravestones. The belief in the prophethood of Mirza Ghuma Ahmad itself was considered blasphemous and punishable by law. Essentially, the very idea of being an Ahmadi was declared a crime.

This institutionalisation of persecution led to a spate of attacks on the community that has continued till today. Over 250 Ahmadiyyas have been killed since 1984 in Pakistan. In 2010, the Taliban attacked two Ahmadiyya mosques in Lahore, killing 94 people and injuring over a 100. In spite of such attacks, anti-Ahmadi groups continue to organise demonstrations where the killing of Ahmadis is declared as a ‘religious obligation’. While no action is ever taken against such groups, Ahmadiyyas have been charged with the following offences – wearing an Islamic slogan on a shirt, planning to build an Ahmadi mosque in Lahore, distributing Ahmadi literature and whispering Azan into the ears of a newborn. Such is the hatred that Pakistan refuses to even acknowledge its first Nobel laureate, Dr Abdus Salam, an Ahmadiyya. Bodies of Ahmadis have been exhumed from their graves after protests led by local clerics. Persecution doesn’t necessarily end with death.

This year, anti-Ahmadi groups celebrated the 43rd anniversary of the second amendment, calling for renewed efforts to disenfranchise Ahmadiyyas, banning them from government and military jobs etc. According to a Pew Research poll conducted in 2011, just 7% Pakistanis accept them as Muslims. The efforts of liberal Muslims to begin a process of reconciliation have repeatedly been thwarted. At the gathering of the Council of Islamic Ideology in 2015, the cleric Tahir Ashrafi was beaten up when he opposed a discussion on considering Ahmadis as apostates that have rejected Islam. In such a polarised environment, the future of the community looks increasingly bleak.

In a moving blog written for Dawn.com, an anonymous young woman poignantly captured what it means to grow up as an Ahmadiyya in Pakistan:

“You will get tired of the looks when they switch you over from the “Us” to “Them” box. But slowly, you will become less afraid to disclose your faith. What you will not lose, however, is the fear that grips your heart ever so tightly every time your father or any other member of your family steps out of the house. That does not go away.”

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