The fields of Hampshire are usually associated with blazing crops of rapeseed and fragrant lavender. But on the final weekend of August, over 30,000 Ahmadi Muslims from all over the world converged on Oakland Farm in East Worldham to attend Jalsa Salana, the biggest Islamic convention in the United Kingdom. Abid Khan, the press secretary of the Ahmadi community, said by phone that the purpose of the gathering is “the promotion of peace, tolerance, brotherhood, and advancing true Islamic ideals.” The conviviality of proceedings and numerous banners emblazoned with the community’s motto (love for all, hatred for none) epitomized this sentiment.
Meanwhile, scenes of a very different nature were playing out in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, as the country plunged deeper into its latest crisis. Anti-government protestors, led by firebrand cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, stormed the headquarters of the national television channel, PTV, causing it to be taken off the air. After a fortnight of political deadlock in which demonstrators demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over allegations of election fraud, things escalated dramatically with the attack on the state broadcaster and a march on Sharif’s residence, resulting in fierce clashes with police. With neither side willing to compromise, the present turmoil shows no signs of abating.
Just over 40 years ago, in the second constitutional amendment, the government of then-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto declared Ahmadis to be non-Muslims. It was a moment of great significance in the history of the country, and it led Pakistan and the community it has long sought to ostracize down divergent paths. It also set off a chain of events that continue to shape the political and social landscape of the nation to this day.
The founding members of Pakistan, led by their quaid, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, were secularists in their principles and ideals, yet throughout the independence movement their chief rallying cry was that of Islam. Religion was the common thread by which they were able to unite Muslims of different ethnicities, provincial lines, languages, and cultures. It also augmented the two-nation theory advanced by Jinnah to the British, by which he argued that the chasm between the Muslims and Hindus of the subcontinent was so vast that they could not feasibly be expected to live together. As soon as the country was formed, the role of Islam in the new polity assumed a prominent position in the national debate, and religious groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami, which had originally opposed its creation, seized the opportunity to advance their own theocratic version of statehood. A symbolic victory was struck as early as 1949, when the Objectives Resolution — a preamble to Pakistan’s first constitution — admitted certain religious concessions.
Running concurrently with the issue of Islam was the notorious Ahmadi question, which was finally deemed to be settled by Bhutto and in later years by military dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq. The constitutional amendment of 1974 not only marginalized Ahmadis in a country they had helped build from its foundations — the efforts of Pakistan’s first foreign minister, Muhammad Zafrullah Khan, most readily come to mind — but also left a pernicious legacy, with a litany of devastation that is as long as it is grim. Its initial impact was to confirm the union between statecraft and religion. Whereas the 1973 constitution declared Islam the state religion, the amendment gave legislators the power to determine their own definition of religious identities, and thereby the two became inextricably bound together. From this moment forth, Pakistan has, for in all practical purposes, existed as an ideological state. The Islamization policies of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq built on these foundations with the promulgation of Ordinance XX, which effectively criminalized all religious activities of the Ahmadis. Zia also set up a federal sharia court, enacted various Islamic laws, and made religious education compulsory in all schools. Over the years, Islamic legislation has legitimized the role of religious parties in both politics and society and is often used to persecute and ostracize minority groups and those who are deemed to fall foul of Islamic principles. This has had a corrosive effect on governance and social stability in Pakistan.
The second constitutional amendment, coupled with the Sunni bent of the Zia Islamization to which it gave birth, has been a key factor in the growth of sectarianism. Since its passing, extremists have used it as a precedent to raise demands for other Muslim minority groups — like Ismailis, Zikiris, and even Pakistan’s sizeable Shiite population — to be expelled from the ummah. This not only makes such groups constantly vulnerable, but also tears at the fabric of society. A poll taken by the Pew Research Center a couple of years ago found that only half of Pakistan’s majority Sunni Muslims consider Shiites to be within the fold of Islam. The latter have suffered ever-increasing violence over the last several decades — to the extent that some commentators have described it as genocide. In 2013, almost 700 Shiites were killed in sectarian attacks. The proliferation of sectarianism has had a hugely detrimental effect on national cohesion and has entrenched religious rivalries to such an extent that it is very difficult to see how the situation can be reversed.
This religious encroachment in the sphere of politics, initiated by the events of 1974, has further undermined democracy in Pakistan. Strict Islamic provisions incorporated into the machinery of the state have resulted in a lack of equal rights and political representation, and of persecution of minorities. What hope is there for the flourishing of a secular, parliamentary democracy when political institutions are encumbered by a hard-line and authoritarian version of Islam? The key players in the current crisis that has embroiled the nation would do well to remember that if they are truly sincere in their goal of advancing democracy, they need to recognize that the legal and constitutional structure of the state needs crucial reforms to enable representative government to thrive.
It is also imperative to recognize the Ahmadi issue as a key factor in Pakistan’s slide into radicalism. While external circumstances like the wars in the Gulf and Afghanistan and the specter of India have given rise to jihadist organizations and religious extremism, at a local and grassroots level it is often the Ahmadi issue which is used as a tool of popular mobilization. Social boycotts of Ahmadi business, local hate campaigns, and other such initiatives are easy to implement and gain support for, especially when the charge against the movement is so emotive: that they insult the rank and status of the Prophet and are enemies of Islam. Religious arguments against Ahmadiyya doctrine feature prominently in madrasa education and even in the national curriculum, Islamiyyat courses are aggressively tailored to emphasize those aspects of mainstream Sunni Islamic teachings that run counter to Ahmadi beliefs. Furthermore, the Ahmadi question is an ever-present stepping stone which allows the religious right to pursue their own political agenda, gives them a constant voice on the national stage, and is perhaps the one issue around which they are all able to unite, meaning that it is an important source of empowerment for Islamic groups.
What of the Ahmadis themselves? Domestically, their situation has deteriorated extensively and over the last four decades hatred against the community has become commonplace. Professor Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s first — and until just this year, only — Nobel laureate is a figure of shame rather than pride because he belongs to the ‘wrong’ faith group. There are no roads or institutions named after him, nor is there a single national monument which celebrates his achievements. Elsewhere the status of Ahmadis as non-Muslims, one which they have never recognized, strips them of many of their civil liberties such as the right to vote. Ahmadi-specific laws ushered in by Ordinance XX have effectively extinguished their religious freedoms: They are prohibited from the use of Islamic symbols or preaching their faith, and the laws also provide sanction to hate crimes against members of the group.
In this year alone, notable examples include the targeted killing of an American physician, Mehdi Ali Qamar, and the brutal arson attack on an Ahmadi neighborhood in Gujranwala at the end of Ramadan which leftone woman and two infant girls dead. The failure of the authorities to hold to account the perpetrators of these crimes has created a climate of impunity for extremists. As a result, many within the community have left the country, creating a widespread Ahmadi diaspora. Internationally, however, the movement continues to prosper and now has branches in over 200 countries of the world. In recent years their current spiritual head, Mirza Masroor Ahmad, has been invited to deliver addresses at the European Parliament and on Capitol Hill, while the heads of state of countries such as Ghana and Canada regularly attend their annual conventions. Despite the best efforts of the Pakistani state, the Ahmadis have forged a place for themselves in the world and flourished.
If the international community and liberal Pakistanis are serious in their desire to curb extremism in Pakistan and bring stability to the country, the Ahmadi question is one which they will eventually have to confront. For too long it has been overlooked and ignored by experts, scholars, and policymakers as a key destabilizing factor in the country. In truth, however, it is one of the earliest and root causes of Pakistan’s descent into Islamization and has long fed the growth of intolerance. Until and unless it is satisfactorily resolved, there is very little chance that Pakistan will be able to halt the drift to extremism and emerge on the world map as a peaceful, democratic, and progressive state.