Igrew up in Zia’s Pakistan. We lived in a country that was being re-engineered as an “Islamic state”. State television had extensive programming on religion and even the television soaps, with some glorious exceptions, regurgitated the state narrative: Pakistan was an ideological state and it needed to assume a new identity independent of its plural culture and thousands of years of history inherited from the Indian subcontinent. In this milieu, I was also subject to mild indoctrination through textbooks, Friday prayer sermons, and societal, sometimes even familial networks.

Perhaps, the most categorical “fact” I learnt was that Ahmadis, or the Qadianis, were pretending to be Muslims while they were not. Teachers told us that this community had violated a central tenet of the Islamic faith, which concerned the finality of Prophethood, as the Ahmadiyya believed that the founder of the sect, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a “messenger” of sorts.  Extended family members, school, and all other influences on a young mind were at one on this “violation” of Islam. Of course, there were dissenting voices, but they were muted, and often scared of challenging the mainstream narrative ferociously backed by the state.

This narrative did not stop at excluding a formerly Muslim sect from the ambit of “Islam” as defined by Mullahs. It also had a larger political story. People would hold forth, with scanty or no evidence, that the Qadianis—as the community’s founder was from a place called Qadian—were also agents of Pakistan and Islam’s enemies. They were British stooges, said the story, and had been raised by the British to weaken Muslims and their faith. Some said Ahmadis were given such importance because they rejected violent jihad, which suited British purposes. Of course, this theory gained currency as Zia was resetting Pakistan’s state as one created for jihad, to advance Pakistan and Islam’s glory and to act as a fortress of the Islamic world or Ummah. Even today, Urdu papers regularly remind readers of all the conspiracies the Ahmadis are hatching against Pakistan.

As I grew up, I found out that this situation had roots in Pakistan’s troubled history. In 1953, a series of violent agitations erupted against the Ahmadiyya movement in Lahore. They were triggered by the Jamat-e-Islami, a political party led by Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, a Sunni theologian and strong critic of the Ahmadiyya. Over 2,000 people were killed, Punjab came under martial law, and Governor-General Ghulam Muhammad dismissed the federal cabinet.

These riots in Punjab province were a major assertion by Islamists of a new state, that they could use a religious issue, or theological debate, for political ends. The riots happened in a province where being an Ahmadiyya was hardly an issue. Thousands of Sunni families had a handful of members who had joined the movement. They co-existed with others, and the differences were at best theoretical, subjects of intense debates and by and large within the parameters of a civil discourse.

A judicial commission (comprising Justices Munir and Kayani) set up by the government investigated this incident and its report makes for fascinating reading. In short, none of the clerics who appeared before the commission could define who was a “Muslim” and the judges were clear in their remarks:

“Keeping in view the several definitions given by the ulama, need we make any comment except that no two learned divines are agreed on this fundamental. If we attempt our own definition, as each learned divine has done, and that definition differs from that given by all others, we unanimously go out of the fold of Islam. And if we adopt the definition given by any one of the ulama, we remain Muslims according to the view of that alim, but kafirs according to the definition of everyone else”.

 Time and again, saner voices argued for a state which was neutral and would not encourage bigotry and issue certificates of Muslimness. This advice was unheeded by politicians and generals who used religion as a political pastime.

The power of Mullahs grew over the next two decades. This issue became a hobbyhorse for hardline Sunni clerics who thought Islamic practices in Pakistan had to be purified. The Ahmadi movement was seen as an aberration, a challenge and a bogey rolled into one. 

The power of Mullahs grew over the next two decades. This issue became a hobbyhorse for hardline Sunni clerics who thought Islamic practices in Pakistan had to be purified. The Ahmadi movement was seen as an aberration, a challenge and a bogey rolled into one. By the 1970s this was a plank around which the insecure and smug mullahs stood ready to practice exclusion.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, secular and avowedly socialist, ruling a truncated Pakistan after the 1971 war, could not resist appeasing the religious lobby. He was not a bigot himself, but viewed himself as an absolute ruler who should have the religious lobby under his belt after he had won over the poor, the middle classes and the intelligentsia. Additionally, Saudi Arabia and petrodollars helped in reshaping Pakistan. Thus was born the 1974 constitutional amendment that declared Ahmadis non-Muslims and set the course for a slide into obscurantism and sectarian fragmentation. The infamous second amendment remains a blot on the nation’s conscience and a de jure annulment of Jinnah’s moderate agenda.

The country’s founder, despite his use of Muslim politics in the 1940s to create a separate “homeland” was aware of the dangers of making the state a religious arbiter. On August 11, four days before independence in India and Pakistan, he declared that the state had nothing to do with religion. All communities in Pakistan would be free to practise their faith. Pakistan’s constitutions, often abrogated and amended, also enshrined this freedom. The 1974 amendment ended this, perhaps permanently. Given the trajectory of the post-Bhutto decades it is next to impossible even to amend this constitutional provision, let alone scrap it.

In 1974, the religious right embarked on a fresh campaign against the Ahmadiyya movement, demanding that the government criminalise Ahmadi religious practices and restrain them from claiming to be Muslim or “behaving” as Muslims. It led to several Ahmadi deaths and destruction of property, including the desecration of mosques and graves.

A seal of finality was thus affixed on the fate of a community, which overnight entered the circle of non-believers. But this was not the last act of the state. Bhutto’s successor General Zia entrenched this with legislation that took this discrimination to surreal heights. Even the magic realists would shy from such a narrative.

Through an ordinance in 1984, Zia ul Haq banned the use of Muslim symbols by the community. For instance, Ahmadis could no longer use the word “mosque” for their places of worship. They could not print Quranic verses, and in years to come cases were registered against those who used “Bismillah” (an Islamic way of initiating an act) on wedding cards.

Under this ordinance Ahmadis could not propagate their faith in “any way, directly or indirectly”. The law barred them from using traditional Islamic greetings, performing the Muslim call for prayer and publicly quoting the Quran. Section 298-C of the Pakistan Penal Code forbids Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslims or mimicking the Islamic faith. It prescribes up to three years jail and fine for offenders.

No one was spared. Even Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate, Dr Abdus Salam, was shunned. As a proud Pakistani he was not shy of his Ahmadi identity. The tombstone on his grave has been desecrated in a country that by and large remains oblivious of such apartheid.

I still have little clue about the theological debates. The issue is mired in competing narratives: the mainstream, dominant narrative (supported by all other sects in 1974); the version by the Ahmadiyya and by various legal and Islamic scholars. Frankly, the religious identity of the Ahmadis has little interest for me. Their citizenship is the question, and the basis of that is the state defining who is a Muslim and who is not. And the self-definition of the community as devout Muslims.

The population of Pakistan comprises 98 per cent Muslims (majority) and 2 per cent non-Muslims (minorities). Article 20 of the Constitution, 1973, says: “Subject to law, public order and morality,—(a) every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion; and (b) every religious denomination and every sect thereof shall have the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions.”

However, the second amendment to the Constitution declares the Ahmadis, a professed Muslim sect, non-Muslims. Thus, while the Constitution provides the guarantee of Article 20, one class of citizens, the Ahmadis, have become an anomaly. After being officially declared non-Muslims, Ahmadis find themselves in a no-man’s land. They are neither a sect of Muslims nor can they be classified like the other minorities who have separate religious denominations.

Pakistan's largest media group has rehired a televangelist who churns out apparently peaceful, or shall we say soft Islamism, for the religious, actual and wannabe middle-classes. After all, the middle-class now is estimated to be 30 per cent to 40 per cent of the total population. It is a great market for piety, worship and devotion. This televangelist is also the vice chair of the entire network and has made a name for himself in a short time. It is a separate matter that he holds a dubious degree from an unknown educational institution somewhere on the Internet, but the power of religious whitewash means nothing for his viewers and, more importantly, for the media group.

In September 2008, he had conducted a programme in his earlier stint with the channel, where he gave his opinion on the 1974 amendment. Towards the end of his show, he declared the Ahmadis Wajibul Qatl (liable to be killed). Immediately after this broadcast, an Ahmadi doctor, Abdul Mannan Siddiqi, was shot dead in Mirpur Khas, Sindh, on September 8. The next day, Seth Muhammad Yousaf, another Ahmadi, was assassinated in Nawabshah, Sindh.

From the 1980s to the present day, this dangerous perception of the Ahmadiyya community has entered mainstream culture. Countless Ahmadis suffer day-to-day discrimination. Constrained by an apartheid legal framework, and bashed daily by ultra-right elements, their persecution, harassment, and even killing are ignored by the authorities and society in general.

Ahmadis have to ensure that their places of worship look different from those of other Muslims. There are any number of cases of mobs besieging Ahmadi places of worship and forcing local police to remove Quranic verses or Muslim wall-hangings.

The basis of the rage against Ahmadis is not merely theocratic. There may be deeper socially rooted causes. While many Muslims in Pakistan disagree with the religious leanings of Muslims from other sects, public death warrants against them are not issued or displayed, as in the case of Ahmadis. They are viewed not just with apathy, but there is also a certain malice embedded in stereotypes due to a history of persecution.

The Ahmadis have never significantly challenged the position of the state. In fact, according to Hussain Naqi, a leading human rights activist, the Ahmadis supported the creation of Pakistan while hardline religious groups like the Ahrars opposed it bitterly. Now it is these religious groups that have become self-styled patriots of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and consider the Ahmadis liable to be killed and not fit to live in Pakistan.

Ahmadis also complain of persecution in school and university.

Ahmadi students and teachers are denied equal treatment. Harassment range from social boycott, expulsion, to threats and violence by students, teachers and administration belonging to the majority sect. In November 2011, for instance Rabia, from the prestigious Comsats College in Lahore was taken into custody after she tore down some anti-Ahmadi posters in her college. In October 2011, the son of an Ahmadi teacher who studied at a post-graduate college in Kotli was beaten and severely injured after his father, who taught at the same institute, removed some anti-Ahmadi inscriptions from the classroom.

On September 2011, ten Ahmadi students and a teacher were expelled from two local schools, Chenab Public and Muslim Public School in Dahranwali, Punjab’s Faisalabad district. It followed a fatwa by a local mullah who decided to deny equal education and burial rights to Ahmadis. In August, seven Ahmadi students were expelled from schools in Pachnand, district Chakwal, also in Punjab.

In December 2010, it was reported that Ahmadi students faced discrimination in the crucial Matriculation examinations conducted by the Secondary Board of Education, Punjab. They were made to categorise themselves in one of the two options, Muslims and non-Muslims. Ahmadi students were in a predicament as they could not classify themselves in either: choosing the “Muslim” option would make them liable to imprisonment, and selecting “non-Muslim” would be a negation of their own faith.

There is nothing the Ahmadi can do on their own, to prevent abuse. The anti-Ahmadi amendments of 1974 and 1984 created a legal justification for persecution and were upheld by the Supreme Court. Unless the state takes active steps, there is little hope of change. However, they have started to rely on their communal networks and as a close knit community have increasingly withdrawn from public life.

The Ahmadis were always a hardworking and better educated segment of society, said an urban professional who did not want to be named. “As a result of years of persecution and discrimination, Ahmadis’ role in public life has been decimated. Although no explicit law exists, a declared Ahmadi can hardly be promoted beyond the rank of Captain in the armed forces,” he added.

Yasser Lateef Hamdani, a young lawyer and rights activist who happens to be a fellow editor at a blogzine I publish, complains “discrimination also exists in the judiciary, as a person known to be Ahmadiyya is not allowed to be a high-positioned judge.” Many hold that the community’s socioeconomic status has been badly hit by marginalisation.

Hamdani, who follows the community’s travails and also writes boldly in the papers, told me a while ago that the “20-25 per cent of Ahmadi population which constituted its intelligentsia has emigrated.” But immigration, adds Hamdani, “is limited to those who can afford it. Since most Ahmadis are middle-or lower middle-class, they have limited means to pack up and leave. There is huge under-reporting of facts by Ahmadis. Many do not report harassment for fear of being labelled and inviting more persecution.”

While applying for a passport or National ID card, Pakistanis are required to declare Miza Ghulam Ahmed an imposter and his followers non-Muslims.

According to the Election Laws of Pakistan only citizens have the vote. The electoral system until the time of General Zia-ul-Haq was based on joint electorate for all Pakistani citizens regardless of religious affiliation. Ahmadis participated in all elections equally. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto allocated reserved seats to minorities in addition to the general seats. Representatives for the reserved seats were to be elected by the assembly members. As Ahmadis did not accept the imposed non-Muslim status, they never availed of these seats.

In 1985, Zia imposed the system of separate electorate through the 8th Amendment to the 1973 Constitution. Since then elections have been held on the basis of separate lists for different religious groups. Those who claim to be Muslims have to sign a certificate declaring they are not Ahmadi. In 2002, General Musharaf went back to the joint electorate. However, he introduced a separate supplementary list of voters through the Chief Executive’s Order No. 15 of 2002 in which Ahmadi voters were non-Muslims.

In the elections of 2002, the Election Commission introduced two separate forms for registration of voters, one for Muslims - Form 2 - and another - Form 8 - for Non-Muslims, and made it obligatory for Ahmadis to apply through Form 8. Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims and refused to apply though Form 8. Hence, they were excluded from the electoral process.

Now the Commission has done away with Form 8 and redesigned Form 2. The new one is the same for all voters, but it requires them to tick one of the given boxes that mention religion. To ensure that Ahmadis do not tick “Muslim”, special certificate is added at the back of the form. Every applicant who ticks “Muslim” must sign a certificate that includes a denial of being Qadiani/Ahmadi. The form includes a warning that violators could face prison terms.

In 2007, the Election Commission issued the following order through a circular dated 17th January, 2007: “I am directed to say that the competent authority has been pleased to decide that separate supplementary lists of draft electoral rolls for Ahmadis/Quadianis for the electoral areas concerned wherever they are registered may be prepared and published.” This regulation has resulted in two lists, one general list for all Pakistani citizens and the other exclusively for Ahmadis.

On May 28, 2010, I was trying to finish a long day’s work in my Lahore office. We had a television set in the reception area, and, as I passed by to fix an nth cup of tea, I saw horrific live coverage of Ahmadi “mosques” in Lahore being attacked. It was a gruesome moment, comprising images that will never leave my memory. Two mosques—later corrected on TV channels as “places of worship”—were being attacked in my own city.

Lahore, a citadel of the subcontinent’s pluralism, where non-Muslims were a majority at the time of Partition, and integral to Pakistan’s literary, intellectual and political movements, was killing a banished sect.

This is also the age of the Taliban and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, who were indulging in indiscriminate butchery. Almost simultaneously, Darl ul Zikr (a place of spirituality) in the congested Garhi Shahu, and Bait ul Noor (the place of light) in  posh Model Town, were attacked. More than 90 people were killed and another 109 injured. Bait ul Noor was founded by a Hindu lawyer in the 1920s with a vision for modernity, and Hindus and Muslims lived side by side. Such ironies cannot be lost.

Shellshocked, I stood with tears in my eyes, seeing the fabric of my surroundings torn asunder. Watching my agony, a co-worker asked politely if I was an Ahmadi. I told him that I wasn’t an “Ahmadi” (giving him a temporary bout of relief) but could not help noticing the level of desensitisation. Later in  the evening, other than in the liberal bubble of friends, the shock and horror were pretty low grade.

These attacks occurred during Friday prayers and the absence of an effective police presence gave the terrorists free rein. Two were apprehended by Ahmadi youth in Model Town mosque and handed over to the police. The terrorists in Garhi Shahu eventually blew themselves up, increasing the number of casualties there. Three days later, attackers stormed Jinnah Hospital in Lahore where several Ahmadis injured in the mosque attacks were under treatment. They were trying to free a fellow militant, also under treatment at the hospital. Six more people were killed.

The tragedy was magnified by the apathy displayed by the political parties, media and even the intelligentsia. The only brave man to visit the survivors was Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, assassinated eight months later by a zealot who mistook his sympathy for a poor Christian woman as condoning “blasphemy”. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, head of his faction of the Muslim League, was the only national leader to condemn the attacks though he stayed away from the controversy. Later his supporters diluted what he had said about the hate-crime.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan had warned the government a year earlier that Ahmadi places of worship were under threat. The government ignored the warning. Indeed, the provincial ruling party in Punjab had sponsored a public meeting at which many anti-Ahmadi presenters preached hatred against them. The vernacular press and Urdu television channels also inflamed anti-Ahmadi sentiment. All these entrenched attitudes and practices fed into the carnage of May 2010.

In May this year, a group of people in complicity with the police ordered an Ahmadi place of worship in Sultanabad to demolish its minarets as they made it look like a mosque. After intense negotiations, its guardians were allowed to cover the building architecture to avoid resemblance to a mosque. Another “mosque” in Rawalpindi is shut as the zealots thought it was harming the future of “real” Islam.

The carnage of 2010 was preceded by several incidents in earlier years. In 1995, two Ahmadiyya men were publicly stoned in the town of Shab Qadar in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Dr Rashid Ahmad and his son-in-law, Riaz Ahmad Khan were attacked as they were about to attend a court hearing. Riaz was stoned to death and his corpse desecrated. Dr Ahmad was critically injured.  According to Amnesty International, the police were present and just “stood and watched”. In 2000, gunmen attacked an Ahmadi prayer meeting near Sialkot, killing at least five worshippers and wounding another seven.

In 2005, gunmen attacked worshippers at an Ahmadi mosque in Mandi Bahauddin, Punjab, killing eight members of the community. In April 2010, three Ahmadis were killed in Faisalabad when armed militants intercepted their car and fired indiscriminately. The next month, an Ahmadi man was killed and his son seriously injured in Narowal by attackers who claimed to have drawn inspiration from a mosque sermon by the local Sunni cleric.

The state structures, institutions and laws have progressively changed into vehicles that encourage and shape a rigid and exclusivist version of Islam and interpretation of laws and the policies that govern Pakistan. In this kind of set-up tolerance and pluralism have been marginalised.

Beginning with making the Objectives Resolution part of the Constitution and naming Pakistan as ‘Islamic Republic’, all the amendments bring in Islamic provisions--down to the latest whereby even the prime minister now has to be a Muslim--the state of Pakistan has progressively marginalised the minorities.

During Zia’s time a concerted policy of recruiting people following this exclusionist approach to the armed forces, the civilian bureaucracy, the judiciary, the media and educational institutes was pursued. The result has been legislation, court judgments and textbooks that promote an exclusivist state ideology. Subsequent governments made little or no effort to reverse the process. During the time of President Musharraf there was a move to amend the Blasphemy Law, but the Mullahs ensured it would not happen.

Two cases can be used as examples that reflect how even democratic forces are reluctant to engage with the issue and skirt around the problems of minority rights. One is the Education Policy, 2009. Chapter Four is devoted to Islamic education.  This kind of aggressive propagation of the state version of Islam serves to alienate minorities. The other case is that of the 18th amendment to the Constitution. It was hailed as having restored the Constitution to its original democratic character. Sadly the lawmakers did not touch the Islamic provisions inserted by Bhutto and Zia. In fact, the amendment goes a step further and makes it mandatory for the prime minister to be a Muslim, in addition to this condition already existing for the eligibility of the president.

The plight of the Ahmadis is not just a religious issue. It is an issue of citizenship and its brazen denial to a group of people. Pakistan will have to review the many troubling constitutional provisions as they embolden the state and extremist elements to indulge in persecuting this minority. The citizenship instruments—National ID, Passport and other declaration forms-require urgent amendment.

Pakistan could still change from a country where zealots hunt non-Muslims on its streets. Shias, Ismailis, or any other sect not in conformity with the puritanical Wahhabi-Deobandi-Salafi axis can be declared as ‘liable to be killed’. The haunting words of the 1954 Munir-Kayani Commission had rightly concluded after hearing the testimonies of religious scholars:

“The net result of all this is that neither Shias nor Sunnis nor Deobandis nor Ahl-i-Hadith nor Barelvis are Muslims and any change from one view to the other must be accompanied in an Islamic State with the penalty of death if the Government of the State is in the hands of the party which considers the other party to be kafirs. And it does not require much imagination to judge of the consequences of this doctrine when it is remembered that no two ulama have agreed before us as to the definition of a Muslim”.

Most of the Ahmadiyya community lives in Pakistan in a difficult and sometimes dangerous climate. However, this sect is spread all over the world. The dynastic leader has lived in the UK since the 1980s and provides guidance through a dedicated TV channel, literature and fostering networks. But those in Pakistan, or for that matter Bangladesh, spend their lives seeking anonymity, relying on each other and invoking Divine protection as the state institutions have little to offer.

Pakistan has no choice but to turn back to Jinnah’s words uttered on August 11, 1947 where he envisioned that the religious identities would remain a personal choice under a progressive, democratic state.

Instead national security doctrines have used religion, its extremist articulations and allied with militant groups to achieve policy goals. Thus the task of undoing it involves a comprehensive reform of state institutions, the education system and most importantly, foreign policy. None of this is possible without political consensus, which sadly is missing. The power of religious groups has grown to the extent that even the state is on the defensive.

To reverse the tide would call for a herculean effort, but, sooner rather than later, such an existential choice will have to be made.