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HOUSES OF WORSHIP
It is by now a truism, although a tragic one, that Christian minorities often suffer persecution in some Muslim countries. (Think only of the recent anti-Christian violence in Indonesia.) What is less well-known is the plight of non-Christian minorities.
Here, too, the story is often tragic. An especially telling example concerns members of the Ahmadiyya Community, a world-wide religious group whose suffering illustrates all too well the increasing political power of a militant perversion of Islam.
Last month, the home ministry in Bangladesha Muslim countrybanned the sale, publication, distribution and retention of all books and booklets on Islam published by the Ahmadiyya. The ban marks a major victory for religious hardliners, who are eager to declare Bangladeshs roughly 150,000 Ahmadis to be non-Muslim.
That is not how Ahmadis see themselves. Members of the Ahmadiyya Community profess to be Muslims. They believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908)a reformer who lived in a remote village in Punjab, India, and taught his followers to wage jihad against Islams opponents with the pen and not the swordwas the messiah foretold by the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.
Ahmads followers, it should be said, do not constitute some fringe cult. They are numerous throughout Asia, Europe and North America and can be found in high positions. Sir Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, the former president of the United Nations General Assembly, was an Ahmadi. So was the physicist Abdus Salam, the first Pakistani Nobel laureate. Alas, many orthodox Muslims place the community outside the pale of Islam, asserting that its members reject the finality of Muhammads prophethood.
There is no denying that differences in beliefperhaps especially within the same religious traditioncan inspire intense feelings of revulsion and even violence. The Thirty Years War in Europe was grounded in divisions among Protestants and Catholics, and various Protestant sects suffered for centuries at the hands of others. The Muslim religious community is certainly not immune to such internecine strife.
Several radical Muslim groups in Bangladesh have created an alliance to terrorize the Ahmadis and to prevent them from practicing their faith. Most recently, members of the alliance have attacked three Ahmadiyya mosques, murdering a prominent Ahmadi leader and injuring 50 others. If they call themselves Muslims anymore, said Mahmudul Hasan Mamtazi, the head of a prominent anti-Ahmadiyya group, we will eliminate them from the land.
The recent ban on Ahmadiyya literature in Bangladesh and the violent events leading up to it constitute clear human-rights violations. The home ministrys stated justification for the banthat such publications hurt or might hurt the sentiments of the majority Muslim population of Bangladeshsets a broad precedent of intolerance that will be difficult to limit to any specific religious minority. Such a ban violates the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and religion that are guaranteed in Bangladeshs constitution.
We have seen this pattern before. In Pakistan, for more than five decades, anti-Ahmadiyya violence has translated into legal oppression, and it has not stopped with a ban on publications. Ahmadis in Pakistan were declared non-Muslim by constitutional amendment in 1974. As the U.S. State Department and Amnesty International have documented, they are now subject to criminal sanctionsincluding capital punishmentmerely for witnessing their faith.
Given this history in Pakistan, it is not surprising that the Bangladeshi ban has emboldened rather than appeased anti-Ahmadiyya groups. At a convention held on Jan. 16, eight days after the ban was issued, the anti-Ahmadiyya alliance delivered an ultimatum to the home ministry, demanding that it, too, officially declare the Ahmadis as non-Muslims. The alliance publicly vowed to demolish all Ahmadiyya mosques and to continue to terrorize Ahmadis if their demands are not met by March 17. One of the alliances leaders has already called for an extension of the ban to Hindu and Christian publications.
To her credit, Bangladeshs prime minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, has spoken out against excommunicating the Ahmadis. But she has yet to take action against the publication ban. Without its repealand human-rights pressure from countries devoted to religious freedomthings may go from bad to worse, and soon.
Mr. Khan is a student at Harvard Law School and co-editor of the Harvard Human Rights Journal.