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Pakistan’s Persecuted Minority
Written by Jo Baker
Wednesday, 30 September 2009
Ahmadis face serious danger and death, some of it possibly fomented by the government
The issue was taken up this month by Iqbal Haider, the co-chair of NGO, The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan: “Ahmadis are the worst victims of such discrimination and deprivation, mainly because they refuse to regard themselves as non- Muslims,” he said to Daily Dawn’s political magazine, the Herald. “The state and the society are unwilling to let them have any rights, let alone the freedom to practice their religion. Pakistan has most oppressive laws when it comes to Ahmadis and the suspicion runs deep.”
Ahmadis are arguably the most vilified minority across the Islamic world. They are not considered Muslims by mainstream branches of the religion. Founded in the 1880s by a religious figure named Ghulam Ahmad, Ahmadis differ with the mainstream on the death and return of Jesus, the concept of jihad and, most controversially, the question of whether the Prophet Mohammad was the last messenger from Allah. Ghulam claimed to have received messages himself from god, making him a later prophet.
Pakistan is hardly alone in discriminating against Ahmadis. In Indonesia, where they are known as the Ahmadiyah, they have been terrorized regularly, with their places of worship attacked by fundamentalists and members being banned from taking part in the Haj in some parts of the country. Laws were passed in Indonesia last year restricting their activities and prohibiting them from proselytizing. In many parts of Kyrgistan, they have been told to cease worshiping.
The depredations in Pakistan have been particularly distressing. Since the mid 1980s, the Ahmadis have been dying in droves. Some 104 have been murdered in targeted attacks or lynchings and 117 others have escaped murder attempts, according to the community’s records. Other forms of harassment are also common: mosques have been demolished, set on fire and forcibly occupied and Ahmadi corpses have been dug up from Muslim graveyards.
Statistics tend to run from 1984 because that’s when a column started to appear on all official forms, asking whether or not a person believes in the ‘finality of the prophet;’ part of dictator Zia ul Haq’s ’Islamization’ drive that cordoned off Ahmadis and other minorities from mainstream life. But recently things have become markedly worse, with at least eight Ahmadis murdered in the last year alone in Pakistan, according to the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), and many more falsely arrested. Doctors are a popular target, possibly because Ahmadis tend to be well educated (the group claims a 100 percent literacy rate for women) and at least seven have been murdered in the last three years.
Bouts of anti-Ahmadi or anti-Qadiani sentiment have long seemed to kick in with a ruler’s loosening grip on power.
“In Pakistan religion has been used by the political leadership to sustain their political agenda for a long time,” notes Khawaja Zafar Iqbal, a non-Ahmadi journalist and founder of the Kashmiri-based NGO, Press for Peace (currently in hiding due to a fatwa). “Even our former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was considered very liberal, received considerable public support during his rule by declaring Ahmadis to be non-Muslims.”
Similarly, seven years into the reign of dictator Zia ul Haq in the 80s, when his power base was seen to be slipping, he strengthened specifically-anti Ahmadi legislation with an ordinance and a couple of amendments to the penal code. And these days a struggling President Zardari appears to be making no concrete commitment to combating public aggression against the sect, much of it linked to the Punjab Provincial Chief Minister, Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif and his ambitious brother and opposition party leader Nawaz Sharif.
In 2008 and 2009 a spate of vociferously anti-Ahmadi conferences (known as the Khatme-E-Nabwat movement) have gone ahead in Punjab, with street processions and two-storey billboards in town centres proclaiming ‘Friendship with Mirza (Ahmadis) is like the enmity of Allah’ (see image). One of the official sponsors in a number of these events was the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), the provincial ruling party; their insignia appears on the billboards and members of parliament attend. Ahmadi groups also point out that frontline PML-N politicians — including current Chairman Raja Zafura-ul-Haq and Pakistan’s former president Rafiq Tarir have belonged to aggressively anti-Ahmadi parties such as Jamaat Islamiah. For sect members in this province in particular, these conferences are a time to keep their heads down.
This seems particularly necessary when looking at the lack of help Ahmadis tend to get from the legal system; in a country already notorious for police corruption, violence against them can appear state sanctioned.
Late last year a guest on the religious program ‘Alam Online’ (hosted by the former federal minister for religious affairs) repeatedly and freely urged Muslims to kill Ahmadi sect members as a religious duty.
The next day a 45-year old Ahmadi doctor was shot 11 times on his hospital floor by six men, and a day later a 75 year old community leader was shot in the street in Sindh. In the former case although the shooters were seen sauntering casually out of the hospital’s front entrance, no one has been arrested and no official moves were made to hold the program accountable (a weak apology was made after much NGO lobbying).
No one has been arrested for the murder of a trader earlier this year, who died when three men asked him to identify his religion, then peppered his car with gunfire. Ahmadi groups say that little progress has been made in the prosecution of two madrassa students who tried to behead a sect professor this June, but were successfully fought off.
In fact the law for Ahmadis appears to be working inversely, blasphemy laws in particular being misused — it is estimated by the AHRC that 500 Ahmadis are currently charged with offences that vary from ‘impersonating a Muslim’ to desecrating the Quran, which is punishable with death, and in most cases little evidence is used to book them.
In Punjab early this year four teenagers and a teacher of theirs were arrested for writing the name of the Prophet on the walls of a toilet at a mosque in Layaah, though no evidence was given to link them to the mosque or the area itself; police later lamented pressure from fundamentalists groups to make the arrests and the judge trying the case himself became a target of street protests by Majlis-i-Ahrar-i-Islam lobbying for strong punishment. Media reports this week noted a fresh wave of police operations in Lahore to pull down Quranic verses or plaques from above Ahmadi shop doors. This official line has done little to set a positive example in the community.
“People are very loyal and lovely,” insists Munawar Ali Shahid, the General Secretary for Amnesty International in Lahore, an Ahmadi. “The problem is the politicians and political parties and their underground alliances with religious groups.” Nevertheless he talks of discrimination against his son at school — he was told not to drink from the same tap as other students by his teacher — and of reluctance to tell people of his religion.
The feeling extends to the press, which commonly prints fatwas issued by religious groups against minorities (see image) yet refused across the board last year when Ahmadi group tried to place an advertisement explaining that they were boycotting the general election because of religious discrimination.
“All these beautifully constructed articles take a 180 degree turn while considering the status of religious minorities, especially Ahmadis in Pakistan,” says human rights lawyer Rao Zafar Iqbal, of the laws in the penal code that protect the right to religion. “The Zardari government [are] unable to do such things because they are playing in the hands of unseen powers who have their own priorities.”
Iqbal himself narrowly escaped assassination earlier this summer and is in hiding, after fatwas against him were published by the Daily Pavel newspaper, decrying his legal defense of minorities. “I think it’s the failure of the government that religious minorities, activists and human rights defenders protection is still a vague thought in Pakistan,” he says.
A start, says Munawar Ali Shahid, would be the repeal of the ordinance that enforces religious declarations on official documents. Next, he says, Ahmadis must have their right to vote along with the rest of the country, rather than in a separate electoral role (Muslims with Christians, Hindus and other minorities were united electorally under Musharraf, but not Ahmadis). At 46 years old Munawar has never been able to bring himself to vote as a ‘non-Muslim’.
At face value the Zardari government agrees. “This is a Pakistan People’s Party’s Government that is deeply committed to the protection of minorities and to accord them rights a full criticizes” said parliamentarian Sherry Rehman earlier this month. Yet it’s likely that the teenagers with the near-lethal graffiti convictions, the fatwa-burdened lawyer, the disenfranchised father and the professor who nearly lost his head this year, would all like to see a little more bite behind the bark.
Jo Baker is a Hong Kong based journalist and program coordinator for the Asian Human Rights Commission