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.