Systematic Marginalization? The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Pakistan

There are more than four million Muslims in Pakistan who are prohibited by law to freely profess their faith. They are systematically discriminated against, excluded from social and political spheres, and their homes, places of worship, and community members are the targets of brutal violence. These are people of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, disciples of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad.

Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadiyan (British Punjab) emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century as a leading polemicist and amassed a number of followers, and in 1899 he declared himself the promised messiah for the Muslims of Islam. By believing in the prophethood of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, Ahmadi Muslims have earned the ire of Muslims who have a different interpretation of the finality of Prophet Mohammad (khatam-i-nabuwat).

Historically, the Ahmadiyya community supported the Muslim League during the crucial phase of the independence movement of the 1940s. Mirza Basheer-ud-Din Mahmood Ahmad, then Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, urged his followers to support the Muslim League, as he felt that Muslims would not be granted equal rights and representation in post-partition India. He oversaw the safe migration of Ahmadis from what was Indian Punjab to present-day Pakistan, building a community in Rabwah, their present-day headquarters. Ironically, it is in India where members of the Ahmadiyya community are recognized as Muslims and enjoy equal rights.

While anti-Ahmadi sentiment dates back to the time of the partition, Ahmadis had all the legal protections as any other group during the early decades of Pakistan, and Jinnah himself had close relations to the community and accepted them as Muslims. In fact, the first foreign minister of Pakistan, Zafarullah Khan, was an Ahmadi Muslim.

Anti-Ahmadi sentiment continued, as members of the Jamaat-i-Islami raised objections on members of the community acting like a close-knit minority while reaping the benefits of being a majority. Furthermore, Deobandi leaders raised objections over the acquisition of land in Rabwah, as well as what they perceived to be a disproportionate Ahmadi presence in higher administration and the military. More common were fiery speeches that accused the Ahmadiyya community of harming the sentiments of Muslims by disbelieving in the finality of the prophet Muhammad. Anti-Ahmadi sentiment gradually rose until an ultimatum was delivered to the Prime Minister on January 21 1953 which demanded:

  • The removal of Zafarullah Khan from the foreign ministry;
  • The removal of Ahmadis from top government offices;
  • The declaration of Ahmadis as non-Muslim.

When these demands were rejected, riots followed in which between 200 and 2000 Ahmadi Muslims were killed and martial law had to be imposedFollowing these riots, a Court of Inquiry was established to look into these disturbances, the report of which is referred to as the "Munir Report", after Chief Justice of the time Muhammad Munir. The report famously highlights the fact that no two clerics could agree on the definition of a Muslim, setting a dangerous precedent.

What the religio-political parties and the ulema failed to achieve in 1953 finally took place in 1973 when Pakistan officially declared Ahmadis non-Muslim in 1974, under the populist regime of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. By this point in time, the masses in Pakistan had grown disillusioned with military rule and the massive developmental schemes which had resulted in large gaps between the rich and the poor. Stephen Cohen in The Idea of Pakistan also credits the secession of Bangladesh as one of the causes for the empowerment of conservative elements in what remained of Pakistan.  Bhutto, who capitalized on increasing religiosity in the country with fiery speeches and use of slogans such as “Islamic socialism”, struck a chord with the populace, as highlighted by Ali Usman Qasmi in The Ahmadis and the Politics of Religious Exclusion in Pakistan. That year, major riots against the Ahmadiyya community took place, which resulted in widespread loss of life and property, and ended in the second amendment to the Constitution which declared the sect non-Muslim.

Anti-Ahmadi prohibitions were only exacerbated under the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, who succeeded Bhutto. Ordinance XX was passed in 1984, which severely limited the religious freedom of the Ahmadiyya community, who were prohibited from:

  • Calling their places of worship a mosque.
  • Using the Azan (Muslim call to prayer) in their places of worship.
  • Referring to themselves as Muslim.
  • “In any manner whatsoever” outraging the religious feelings of Muslims.

All these egregious developments were stepping stones towards stripping the community of some of their basic rights. Today, most Ahmadis in Pakistan live in a sense of all-pervasive fear. Their places of worship are destroyed over allegations of blasphemy, they are the victims of targeted violence, they are arrested for propagating the Ahmadiyya Muslim faith, there are movements to boycott Ahmadi owned products and their graves are desecrated with impunity. Police officers are oftentimes complicit, and local media fans the flames of bigotry. Public school curricula panders to prejudice and alienates anyone who isn't Muslim.

Anti-Ahmadi sentiment is only increasing, and these values have been exported to other countries, where attacks against members of the Ahmadiyya community continue, including the United Kingdom and the United States continue.

The only way for Pakistan to truly progress as a nation is to work towards the principles of democracy and inclusion that were envisioned by the nation’s founders. By continuing to pander to divisive elements, Pakistani society will continue to be bogged down in intolerance and hatred. The state should take steps to repeal Ordinance XX, and work towards the separation of religion and state. Unfortunately, recent surveys have shown that a majority of Pakistanis want Sharia law (a legal system derived from the religious precepts of Islam), and whether or not such a political system safeguards the rights of minorities is highly questionable.