Leaders of Pakistan’s Ahmadi community fear a recent debate surrounding the group’s Muslim status and potential membership in a newly formed minority commission could put the group’s security at risk.
Saleem ud Din, the spokesperson for the Ahmadi Jaam’at in Pakistan, alleged that since the founding of the National Commission for Minorities last month, Pakistan’s federal Cabinet ministers and provincial assembly members have used “dangerous” and “inflammatory” remarks, inciting civilian violence against the group.
Noor-ul-Haq Qadri, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Religious and Inter-faith Harmony Affairs, last week declared that any form of “soft-heartedness” toward the Ahmadis was both un-Islamic and un-patriotic.
“Whoever shows sympathy or compassion towards [Ahmadis] is neither loyal to Islam nor the state of Pakistan,” Qadri said during a televised interview with local SAMAA TV.
NCM, a governmental body to promote the rights of non-Muslim minorities, has members including Hindus, Christians, and other minorities. Initially, it was suggested that Ahmadis should get a representation in the commission too.
Prime Minister Imran Khan rejected that idea after it sparked fierce criticism from powerful Sunni leaders who consider the Ahmadi belief an insult to Islam.
The community’s members in Pakistan identify as Muslims and believe their leader, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, to be the messiah prophesied in Islam. The belief is considered by many mainstream Muslims as blasphemous and a violation of the Pakistani constitution, which defines a Muslim to be “a person who believes in the finality of the Prophet Muhammad.”
“One fine morning, I woke up and I was declared a non-Muslim in Pakistan,” ud Din said, referring to the constitutional amendment passed by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1974 that declared the group to be a non-Muslim minority.
“We believe the state has no right to decide someone’s faith,” Ud Din, told VOA. “We do not accept minority status and would never sit on such commissions that designates us forcefully as non-Muslims.”
To come to a final ruling regarding the controversy, the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab Wednesday unanimously passed a resolution that requires Ahmadis to consent in writing that they do not consider themselves Muslims. The assembly’s members said if the Ahamdis deny such a request, it would not only ban the community from obtaining a seat in the NMC, but also mean it is violating Pakistan’s constitution.
Human rights concerns
Human rights organizations in the past have repeatedly voiced concerns about the treatment of Ahmadis by Pakistan’s government. The organizations say Ahmadis are prevented from basic religious rights such as disseminating materials about their faith or calling their houses of worship mosques.
Watchdog Human Rights Watch says the widespread abuse and discrimination against the group is embedded in Pakistani law.
“The Ahmadis are among the most persecuted communities in Pakistan and to exclude them from a minority rights commission is absurd,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said last Friday. “Keeping Ahmadis off the commission shows the extent to which the community faces discrimination every day.”
The U.S. Commission on International and Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its 2020 Annual Report recommended Pakistan to be re-designated as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom violations due to “the systematic enforcement of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws.” In a statement Tuesday, the USCIRF warned against a “surge in anti-Ahmadi hate speech” and “incitement to violence” following the government’s decision to bar them from the newly established commission.
According to Amjad Mahmood-Khan, the spokesperson for the Ahmadi community in the U.S., Ahmadis have been disproportionately arrested under blasphemy laws in Pakistan in recent years.
He said the group has also faced an increasing trend of sectarian mob violence by radical Sunnis.
“Pakistani police have destroyed Ahmadi translations of the Qur'an and banned Ahmadi publications, the use of any Islamic terminology on Ahmadi Muslim wedding invitations, the offering of Ahmadi Muslim funeral prayers, and the displaying of the Kalima [the principal creed of a Muslim] on Ahmadi Muslim gravestones,” Mahmood-Khan said.
Out of Pakistan’s 220 million population, an estimated 4 million are believed to identify as Ahmadi. Many of the community’s followers in recent years have left the country and resettled in the West.
One of those Ahmadis, Nahel Shams, told VOA that her house in Pakistan was marked with an “infidel” sign to distinguish it from neighboring Sunni houses.
“It was more hurtful than anything else,” said Shams, 30, who settled in Baltimore, Maryland, after leaving Pakistan in 2012. “Some would not accept my greetings because they consider Ahmadis to be infidels.
“Others told my friends not to eat at my house because they considered food from an Ahmadi to be forbidden. They told my friend that she should vomit out the food. They would spread rumors that Ahmadis spit in their food before serving it to others,” Shams told VOA.
Ahmed, another Ahamdi in the diaspora, applied for political asylum in the U.S. in 2012.
Ahmed, who did not want his real name used to protect his identity, said he was among 23 Ahmadi students tortured and later expelled from Punjab Medical College in Faisalabad in 2008. He told VOA he was falsely charged with tearing down an anti-Ahmadi poster and proselytizing on campus.
“It was too scary, and the discrimination was on a different level,” he said.
“No one talked to me or acknowledged me. If I sat down somewhere, people would get up and move away. I was not allowed in the college cafeteria. There was a sign outside of the cafeteria that said, ‘Ahmadis and dogs not allowed,’” he said.
Discrimination in law
Some Pakistan observers charge that labeling the Ahmadi community as non-Muslim is a legal challenge, allowing the country’s Sunni hardliners to claim they are implementing the Pakistani constitution by going after the group.
"Ahmadis have been declared non-Muslim by law, but their faith says they are Muslim,” Farahnaz Ispahani, a senior fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute, told VOA.
As Sunni Islamist clerics continue to push for their anti-Ahmadi narrative, Ispahani said Prime Minister Khan will likely find himself under international pressure to give the minority more religious rights.
“I believe the Khan administration wants to pacify critiques from U.S./European partners concerning religious freedom without actually providing rights or justice to the Ahmadi community,” Waris Husain, a Pakistan expert and professor at Howard University School of Law, said.
Editor's note: The headline was updated for clarity on May 18, 2020.