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Pakistan’s abused Ahmadis
A mosque by any other name
Jan 13th 2010
From The Economist print edition
Members of the Ahmadiya sect face a new rash of persecution
AS AFZAL TAHIR was reciting the Koran last month, and otherwise minding his own business—an electrical repair shop—four Muslim fundamentalists came to threaten him. If they caught Mr Tahir masquerading as a Muslim again, they said, he would pay for it: with up to three years in prison, which is the penalty for members of the Ahmadiya sect who are convicted of that crime.
Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims, though they differ from the Sunni mainstream on an important point: they believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the 19th-century Indian who founded their tradition, was a latter-day prophet. In many Muslims’ eyes, this makes them un-Islamic and blasphemous. Pakistan’s Ahmadis, of whom there may be 4m, were declared to be non-Muslims by the government in 1974. In the 1980s, under General Zia ul Haq, a fundamentalist Sunni dictator, most aspects of Ahmadi worship were in effect criminalised—in some cases by blasphemy laws which carry the death penalty.
The Ahmadis are an educated minority, who do well in commerce and produced Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate. But they are not permitted to call their mosque a mosque, nor to issue the Muslim call to prayer, display Koranic inscriptions or otherwise present themselves as Muslims. Under an arrangement re-established by Pervez Musharraf, the country’s most recent military dictator, Ahmadis have a separate voters’ list and parliamentary seats reserved for their candidates. But most Ahmadis choose not to vote at all. And some, including the leader of Lahore’s Ahmadis, Munir Ahmad Sheikh, argue that those holding the reserved seats, having implicitly accepted their status as non-Muslims, are not really Ahmadis at all.
Seated at Lahore’s main Ahmadi mosque—where an engraving of the Kalima, the Muslim profession of faith, has been crudely planked over—Mr Sheikh diagnoses a new outbreak of anti-Ahmadi thuggery. This is a roughly decennial event, he says, and has manifested itself in recent attacks on Ahmadi mosques in Lahore and intensified intimidation of Ahmadi traders.
A general rise in Islamist militancy, in which jihadists’ competing agendas have tended to merge, may explain this. Economic hardship, which aggravates the property disputes that so often underlie sectarian and religious violence, could be another factor. As can mundane political rivalries: a fiery dispute last September between Pakistan’s central “moon-sighting committee” and the government of North-West Frontier Province, over when to end the Ramadan fast, escalated to the point that supporters of the government likened their opponents to the Ahmadis—in effect, using the sect as a paragon of religious deviance.
So long as anti-Ahmadi sentiment is sanctioned by law, there is little prospect of breaking the decennial cycle. Nor is any political party likely to dare antagonising the Islamists by trying to repeal Pakistan’s anti-Ahmadi laws. It was, after all, a government of the relatively liberal Pakistan People’s Party that first declared the group to be non-Muslim. With most mullahs, the government and the law all ranged against the Ahmadis, it would be surprising if most Pakistanis were not too.
The shop next to Mr Tahir’s is pasted with anti-Ahmadi slogans. One screams “Every Ahmadi is a blasphemer like Salman Rushdie”. Asked whether this wasn’t rather un-neighbourly, the proprietor, Muhammad Rafiq, replies, “Whatever the mullahs say must be right.”