A Brit-Pak-Ahmadi spends Eid in Pakistan
No dome, no minaret, no call to prayer, just an unmarked house in a secret location. This is Eid prayers for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community of Karachi, Pakistan.
As our taxi turns the corner, my mother recognises the “place of worship” by the obvious blank space where its signboard once was. She says nothing as we drive past it, then asks the driver to drop us at the end of the road.
At the gate, a man asks us who we are, where we’re from, who we’re related to. Satisfied, he lets us in.
He is right to be suspicious. The Ahmadiyya Muslim sect — of which I am a British Pakistani member — was recently described as, “one of the most relentlessly persecuted communities in the history of Pakistan” by the BBC’s Aamer Ahmed Khan.
In 1974, following riots orchestrated by Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami party, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto caved into pressure from the Mullahs and passed a motion to declare Ahmadis non-Muslim.
Ignoring warnings from prominent judges, human rights activists and academics, Bhutto argued that appeasing the Mullahs would put an end to sectarian problems.
But more than 30 years on, Pakistan’s Muslims are in a state of civil war. As well as the persecution of Ahmadis and recent attacks on the minority Ismaili sect, extremists from Pakistan’s dominant Sunni and Shi’ite sects are intent on destroying each other.
Mosques and mullahs
As we enter the mosque, a small television in the corner plays MTA, the television channel run by the Ahmadis out of London. On it is a re-run with the Pakistani poet Obaidullah Aleem exchanging humorous couplets with the third [Fourth] Caliph of the Ahmadi Jamaat, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad.
Although watching MTA in your own home is not forbidden under Pakistani law, this seemingly innocuous action has led to targeted attacks on Ahmadis all over Pakistan.
The Khutba is on the importance of giving charity and helping others. There is no mention of Ahmadi persecution, no demand for rights, no cries for vengeance.
At the end of the Khutba our Caliph asks us to pray for those killed in the earthquake which took place a few weeks earlier. He also asks us to remember those Ahmadis killed in an attack on an Ahmadi mosque around the same time. That’s it.
We say our salaams and wish Eid Mubarak to those around us. If caught, we would face a minimum of three years in prison.
Freedom of expression
During my two weeks in Pakistan this January, I come across four articles citing recent anti-Ahmadi propaganda. All report inflammatory speeches from various mullahs describing the “Qadiani problem” (Qadiani is what detractors call Ahmadis) as “the greatest problem facing Muslims today,” nearly all compare Ahmadis to Jews and insist they are agents of Israel.
One Mullah, not satisfied that Ahmadis are legally forbidden from calling their places of worship “mosques,” from giving Azan, from voting and from calling themselves Muslim, insists on a social boycott of all remaining “Qadianis” — “Anyone who speaks to Qadianis will be considered an agent of the Qadianis and deserves to be punished.”
In another speech quoted by The Herald, a local mullah insists it is a good Muslim’s duty to “wipe Ahmadis off the face of Pakistan.” Another allegedly tells his audience at Majlis-e-Khatm-e-Nabuwat that Ahmadis are “non-Muslims who deserved to be killed.”
In light of recent events, when Muslim groups in Pakistan and the world over have urged the media to consider practicing freedom of expression with responsibility it seems ironic that for Pakistan’s mullahs, freedom of expression is a one-way street.
Irfan Hussain, a columnist with Pakistan’s Daily Times and Herald magazine, is one of the few voices maintaining pressure on the Pakistani administration to resolve the Ahmadiyya issue. He argues that Musharraf’s policy of enlightened moderation is ineffective until the will to change is passed through the entire system. A system which, under Zia-ul-Haq, was progressively Islamised.
The mullahs don’t agree. They see Musharraf’s modernisation drive as a sinister plot to create a “Qadiani state.” Their criticisms would be laughable if the repercussions were not so sinister.
One rants: “Musharraf is giving the Qadianis free reign, they are saying Assalamo-Alaikum with impunity. We have evidence that they are praying in the Muslim way and many have the Kalima in their homes.”
In fact, according to figures published last November, 756 people have been booked for the “crime” of displaying the Kalima — which carries the death penalty, 404 for “posing as Muslims,” and 27 for celebrating the Ahmaddiyya Centenary in 1989. More than 1,300 others have been charged under similar provisions of this law — all facing punishment ranging from three years and a fine to life imprisonment or the death penalty.
In one case, Nazir Ahmad Khoso, a seventeen-year-old Ahmadi boy from Sindh, was charged with “injuring the religious feelings of Muslims,” and other related blasphemy charges and sentenced to 118 years in prison.
And the entire population — 35,000 people — of Rabwah, a town built by the Ahmadis — was charged under “PPC 298-C” in 1989. The crime — having inscribed the Kalima Tayyaba and other Quranic verses on their graves, buildings, offices of the community, places of worship, and business centres. They were also charged with having said Assalamo-Alaikum to Muslims, for having recited the Kalima Tayyaba, and for having repeatedly indulged in similar Islamic activities.
Of course, I haven’t researched any of this as I make my way to Rabwah — the centre of the Ahmadi community in Pakistan.
Houris and bureaucrats
On the face of things, Rabwah is an ordinary town. Unusually clean and well-ordered compared to its surrounding area perhaps, but ordinary in every other way.
Flanked on one side by the river Chenab, it is built on land purchased by contributions from the community’s faithful.
But Ahmadis have not even been able to find peace here. Local government bodies, from which Ahmadis are excluded, have maintained an incessant campaign of harassment against the townspeople.
In 1985, eleven years after declaring Ahmadis non-Muslim, the Punjab Assembly ruled that the town be declared an open town, and forcibly changed the name to Chenab Nagar.
Prior to this, in 1976, local mullahs took over Ahmadi-owned land on the eastern part of Rabwah as police and local government forces looked on. Ahmadis petitioned the Lahore High Court, and, unusually, the court upheld the Ahmadis rights to the land.
Despite this, numerous mullahs and their acolytes are still in illegal occupation of the land and have established a mosque, a seminary, and a “Muslim Colony” there — with government support.
“Muslim Colony” is flourishing and the various Mosques set up in it take every opportunity to use their loudspeakers to spew hatred filled sermons at their “Qadiani” neighbours. Ahmadis are, of course, legally prevented from using loudspeakers in their own “place of worship.”
And during my trip, the District Housing Committee Jhang, a government body, advertises empty plots in Rabwah on the riverside in the press. In direct violation of the Lahore High Court hearing, the text of the advert reads: “Plots will be sold by auction, but only to those who believed in ‘complete and unconditional end of prophethood’ and who is not a disciple of anybody who claimed to be a prophet in any sense of the word or was an Ahmadi/ Qadiani/Mirzai/Lahori.”
And a few weeks earlier, local authorities shut off Rabwah’s water supply for four days, leaving “citizens groping for drops,” according to a Lahore-based newspaper.
This, under Musharraf’s policy of enlightened moderation.
As we drive to my grandmother’s grave, my mother tells me about the university graduate she met on a train who insisted he had seen naked houris dancing in the Ahmadi graveyard in Rabwah. My mother politely suggested that this was maybe hearsay, but the man was adamant he had seen them “with his own eyes.”
Disappointingly, no such visions of loveliness greet us at our arrival to the Chiste-Mukhbara [Bahishti Makbara], where my grandmother is buried alongside other practising Ahmadis.
Instead, an ordinary graveyard, with two old men acting as guards.
As we are guided to my grandmother’s grave we walk past hundreds of graves which have had the Islamic inscriptions written on them scraped off. Even in death, there is no respite.
I come across one positive story though. A family friend tells us of how a teenager was arrested for saying Assalamo-Alaikum to a military man. Apparently, after the boy had offered the greeting, the man asked him if he was “Qadiani” to which the boy replied truthfully. This admission of “guilt” was then used to drag the boy to the local police station. Apparently, the police officer on duty that particular day saw the absurdity of the charge and admonished the boy saying, “Did you have to wish Salaam on this man? If you had just told him to go to hell I wouldn’t have to arrest you.”
Preaching and PR
After Rabwah, I go to Lahore where I meet up with an uncle who has just come back from the earthquake zone.
A trauma surgeon at Chicago’s Cook County, he is one of 60 American Ahmadi doctors who came to help following the earthquake in northern Pakistan.
Like other overseas Pakistanis, Ahmadis have been active in the earthquake effort and the community’s charity has donated over 286 tons of Aid and helped over 50,000 earthquake survivors.
Yet they are unable to disclose who they are in the region, for fear of being accused of missionary activity.
In the meantime, the earthquake region has turned into a PR battlezone for Jamaat-e-Islaami and other extremist parties — each loudly claiming its role in helping the citizens of Pakistan and no doubt recruiting members as they go.
Another positive story (kind of). I meet a lady in Lahore whose cousin died in an attack on an Ahmadi mosque the day before the quake. Seven Ahmadis were gunned down and 21 injured after gunmen attacked the mosque in Moong, near Mandhi Bahauddin.
She tells me of how local Sunnis rallied round their Ahmadi neighbours at the time, and were the first to condemn the attacks: “Relations between Ahmadis and other Muslims had always been good in Moong,” she says. “It was trouble-makers from outside, they came on motorcycles.”
Ahmadis, Ismailis and the rest
Back in Karachi, it hits me that this rage and spirit of sectarianism doesn’t stop with the Ahmadis. As we drive past a KFC in my uncle’s lower-middle-class neighbourhood of Gulshan-e-Iqbal, my cousin tells me of how it was rebuilt only months ago after it was burnt down by protestors in May last year.
The protestors were not the usual anti-US suspects, but an enraged Shi’ite mob that not only torched the building but prevented emergency services from saving the workers trapped in the building. Four were burnt alive and another two froze as they hid from the rabble in the freezer.
In Pakistan, appeasing the mullahs has horribly backfired. And putting the genie back into the bottle is a task that no government in Pakistan, democratic or otherwise, has managed to do.
They were victims of a revenge attack after three men from a militant Sunni group, including a suicide bomber, stormed the local Shi’ite mosque during evening prayers.
It wasn’t the first time violence flared between the two largest sects and the latest Shi’ite-Sunni clashes in the NWFP show that it isn’t likely to be the last either.
And last year, a new group was formed. The Difa-e-Islam Mahaz: “Front for the Defence of Islam” purports to protect Islam from the “evils” of the “Aspostate Ismailis.” They do this by burning down charitable schools and hospitals built by the Aga Khan Foundation, which is patronized by the spiritual leader of the Ismailis, the Aga Khan.
While Pakistan’s Shi’ite and Sunni clerics continue to war amongst themselves, police collusion and government apathy make Ahmadis an easy target. In a country where Ahmadis are not allowed to defend themselves through legal means (any defence of Ahmadi beliefs constitutes missionary work and is thus a jailable offence), they reject violent resistance.
And the persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan, codified in law and completely institutionalised, takes far more insidious forms than the killings that make the news.
There are tragic stories of forced conversions, of people who keep the truth about their beliefs secret from their neighbours and colleagues and of other Muslims who have been forced to cut all links with Ahmadi friends and family after threats of violence. In one particularly obscene example, a Sunni doctor was brutally beaten after tending to an Ahmadi child. This is the state of tolerance in Pakistan.
Hatred at home and abroad
In Naeem Mohaiemen’s recent film, Muslim or Heretics (muslimsorheretics.org), an anti-Ahmadi protestor in Bangladesh raises his hands up to the sky as he prays, “Oh Allah! We are happy to live side-by-side with our Ahmadi brothers, as we do with Hindus and Christians, but that they call themselves Muslim, this we cannot bear!”
The experience of Pakistan, however, shows that branding the Ahmadis non-Muslim will not be enough. Each concession leads to ever greater demands.
In Pakistan, appeasing the mullahs has horribly backfired. And putting the genie back into the bottle is a task that no government in Pakistan, democratic or otherwise, has managed to do. Today, not only Ahmadis but Ismailis, Christians, Hindus and even Shi’ites and Sunnis are open targets in their places of worship. Places which, in all but the most barbaric societies, are supposed to be sanctuaries.
During my trip, I met a surprising number of ordinary, practicing Muslims who were genuinely ashamed of the way Ahmadis are treated.
By not speaking out however, those who know better in Pakistan have allowed those who shout the loudest to hijack the political agenda.
There are a few brave exceptions, but most of the Pakistani media has moved on — Ahmadi persecution has become mundane.
And Ahmadis themselves seem resigned to their status as second-class citizens. Many fear that rocking the boat could lead to more problems for those who live there.
When I suggested making a documentary about the treatment of Ahmadis in Pakistan, an Ahmadi Imam warned me against it saying: “Pakistan is not Bangladesh, doing something like that here is almost impossible.”
This indictment of Pakistan is a tribute to Bangladesh, where the battle against fundamentalist forces is far from over.
As for Pakistan, some argue that the country — which has the dubious honour of being the birthplace of the term “secticide” (the systematic destruction of a religious sect) — is too far gone. They say it is only a matter of time before the rest of the country follows the NWFP into Talibanisation.
Others are more optimistic, and point out that the Islamic parties garnered less than 5 per cent of the vote prior to the US “War on Terror.” They believe it is not too late to roll back to Jinnah’s vision of a secular and democratic state of Pakistan.
After years of repression, dissenting voices are few in Pakistan. Let us hope that the example of Bangladesh will inspire Pakistani progressives to once again speak out. And let us hope that this time, the Pakistani administration has the will — and the guts — to listen.
Kiran Malik is a freelance contributor to The Daily Star.