A brazen attack by a violent mob on an Ahmadi mosque last week reflected the growing isolation and persecution of the beleaguered community that was declared “non-Muslim” by a constitutional amendment four decades ago.
The mosque at Chakwal in Punjab province was overrun on December 12 by more than 1,000 people, who occupied the building and threatened occupants with dire consequences as police watched helplessly.
The violence by members of the Aalmi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nubuwwat (national organisation for the protection of the finality of prophethood) happened even though Ahmadi leaders had alerted authorities about possible violence a week earlier.
Even today, the mosque remains in the custody of outsiders and Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has promised action but nothing has happened so far.
This is not the first time members of the Ahamdi community have been targeted. Over the years, their mosques have been occupied, their businesses attacked and prominent personalities targeted. Hundreds of Ahmadis have been jailed under the black blasphemy law on grounds that they abused Islam in one way or another.
In September 1974, Pakistan’s Parliament declared Ahmadis as “non-Muslims” after then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto came under pressure from right wing parties. Since then, Ahmadis have faced systematic persecution at the hands of the state and hardline groups.
Many argue that declaring any religious community as a minority was out of the ambit of the state, but the move became the basis of attacks by outsiders.
“It has reached a stage now that if someone is accused of being an Ahmadi, they are in immediate danger of being attacked or sidelined if they are in government service,” says Zohra Yusuf, director of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
The HRCP has documented the manner in which the state, egged on by religious parties, has introduced legislation that has not only declared Ahmadis out of the pale of Islam but also stopped them from calling themselves Muslim, referring to their places of worship as mosques and even reciting Quranic verses.
“All these have now become offences,” says Yusuf.
This is a far cry from the circumstances prevailing at the creation of Pakistan, when the country’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, appointed a member of the community, Zafarullah Khan, as his first foreign minister. Jinnah encouraged Ahmadis to migrate from Qadian (in what is now the Indian state of Punjab) to set up the community’s world headquarters in a newly created township, Rabwah, nestled on the banks of the Chenab river.
Even the name of that town has now been changed to Chenabnagar at the insistence of religious groups.
In some ways, the Ahmadis of Pakistan can be compared to the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. The community produced a number of scientists, teachers, doctors and other professionals. They are known for their high educational achievements and Abdus Salam, the country’s first Nobel laureate, was an Ahmadi.
Ahmadi businesses did well in the early years of Pakistan. One such company, Shezan, was once the largest food processor. But all that changed in the mid-1970s, when under Saudi Arabian influence, there was a campaign against the community nationwide led by the Jamaat-e-Islami, a right wing party that aims to turn Pakistan into a theoretic state.
The persecution levels are almost the same as with the Jews under Adolf Hitler. Over the years, thousands of Ahmadi professionals left Pakistan and the community shifted its world headquarters over fears that the top leadership would be killed by zealots.
Hundreds of Ahmadis have also been killed on the ground that they are apostates. Pakistan’s main Sunni leadership declared Ahmadis “wajib-ul qatl” (fit to be killed) because of their belief that the movement’s founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, is the promised messiah. There is often no follow-up in most of these murder cases.
In the midst of this, a decision by Prime Minister Sharif to name a university research center after Abdul Salam came as a pleasant surprise to many. But the decision has already evoked the wrath of religious parties, who have demanded that it be reversed.
Ahmadis continue to struggle in their every day existence in Pakistan. “The PM’s decision is welcome but has no bearing on our everyday lives,” said Saleemuddin, a spokesman for the community. “What we need is to be treated as equal citizens of the state. I doubt that will ever happen.”