The Ahmadi community in Pakistan comprises approximately 0.22 per cent of the population according to the country’s last national census, conducted in 1998. However, Ahmadi population statistics are especially contested. While the community is officially numbered at less than half a million, other sources estimate it at 600,000 and even into the millions. They are relatively well-educated as a group and many make their home in Rabwah, Punjab district.
The Ahmaddiya religious movement is a religious sect that originated in India. In many ways the life of Ahmadis conforms to Islam, although there are significant differences between orthodox Muslims and Ahmadis. Orthodox Muslims claim that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmaddiya sect, proclaimed himself as a prophet, thereby rejecting a fundamental tenet of Islam – Khatem-e-Nabowat (a belief in the finality of the Prophet Muhammad). The controversy surrounding the position of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad also resulted in a split within the Ahmaddiya community itself and another group known as Lahoris was established. The Lahoris regard Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as a ‘Mujaddid’, a reformer and not a prophet. The Ahmaddiya movement also rejects the idea of militant jihad (holy war). Numerically a relatively small group, Ahmadis emphasize education, learning and spiritual reform.
In the media for years, Ahmadis have been referred to as ‘Qadianis’ – a name that they consider to be derogatory. Indeed, attempts to negatively frame Ahmadis as a national ‘problem’ are evident in media sources dating back to 1974, in the days leading up to their official designation as a ‘non-Muslim minority’.
The founder of the Ahmaddiya movement, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), was born in the village of Qadian (hence the derogatory name, ‘Qadianis’). The movement has been successful in spreading to other parts of the world, with over 10 million members worldwide. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was a Muslim revivalist who claimed to be a prophet, and this in particular alienated orthodox Muslims. Though Qadian is in what is now India, after 1947 the Ahmadis shifted their headquarters to Rabwah (western Punjab) in Pakistan.
Growing Ahmaddiya influence became a source of concern after independence and partition. Demands were voiced that they should be declared non-Muslims and should be excluded from definitions of what constituted Islam. Religious friction came to a peak in 1953 with demonstrations and violence against the Ahmaddiya community. Tensions resurfaced in the early 1970s amid renewed demands on the part of Pakistan clerics to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims. As a result of this pressure, Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims in September 1974 by the Pakistan parliament. A new clause of the Constitution (clause 3 in Article 260) outlawed the group.
Effects of rising Islamization
The ‘Islamization’ period of General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88) saw the introduction of discriminatory legislation and other administrative practices specifically aimed at persecuting and victimizing the Ahmaddiya community. On 26 April 1984 President Zia issued an anti-Ahmadi Ordinance (Ordinance XX) which added sections 298-B and 298-C to the Pakistan Penal Code, according to which self-identifying as an Ahmaddiya could lead to imprisonment. Certain aspects of Ahmaddiya beliefs and practices were also prosecutable.
The introduction of these laws had devastating consequences for the Ahmaddiya community in Pakistan. Ahmadis were forced to renounce core elements of their religious values. The criminalization of activities central to their religious beliefs was a serious blow to Ahmaddiya culture, tradition and religious beliefs. The laws were framed in such an ambiguous and convoluted manner that any religious activity carried out by an Ahmadi could be deemed to contravene these clauses of the Pakistan Penal Code. These pieces of legislation opened the way for Ahmadis to be intimidated and victimized by members of the general public. Ahmadis were thereafter forced to ensure that none of their activities, be they religious or social, could in any sense be associated with those of the majority of the Muslims, lest they might be prosecuted for ‘directly or indirectly posing as a Muslim’.
In an environment charged with religious intolerance, various actions challenging the legal validity and constitutionality of the ordinances imposed by Zia failed. In Mujibur Rahman v. Government of Pakistan the Federal Shari’a Court had been asked to exercise its jurisdiction under Article 203-D of the Constitution to rule that the ordinances were contrary to the injunctions of the Qur’an and Sunnah. The court, however, took the view that taking into account the doctrinal differences between Muslims and Ahmadis, the parliament had acted within its authority in declaring the latter to be non-Muslims. According to the court, the Anti-Ahmaddiya Ordinances merely restrain Ahmadis from ‘calling themselves what they are not’. In upholding the validity of the Ordinances the court also noted that their introduction had been necessary for the maintenance of law and order.
In 1991, the Lahore High Court upheld the ban on Ahmadis holding their centenary celebrations. The Advocate General had argued that to allow the celebrations would be tantamount to giving Ahmadis the freedom to preach their faith, a crime (as blasphemy) punishable by death. The most serious setback, foreclosing the judicial route to challenging the constitutional validity of Ordinance XX, was provided during 1993 by the Supreme Court in Zaheerudin v State. In this case, the Supreme Court, by a majority of four to one, dismissed the claim that Ordinance XX of 1984 violated fundamental rights as provided in Pakistan’s Constitution. The court, in equating religious terms to those of copyrights and trademarks, adopted the position that an Islamic state had the right to protect the sanctity of religious terms, and to prevent their usage by other religious groups.
Failed attempts to reform
Benazir Bhutto, during her tenure as prime minister (1993-6), proposed procedural reforms and, since 1996, stricter rules in prosecuting under the anti-blasphemy laws have been applied. However, Benazir Bhutto was faced with serious criticism and opposition by religious groups. Some religious groups passed a fatwa calling for the death of those who propose change or the repeal of any of the anti-blasphemy laws. The U-turn by Pakistan’s military government during 2000, on the subject of repealing or substantially modifying the anti-blasphemy laws, confirms the present government’s unwillingness or inability to secure minority protection.
On 1 March 1999, the Punjab Provincial Assembly unilaterally decided to change the name of the Ahmaddiya city of Rabwah to Chanab Nagar. This decision completely disregarded the wishes of at least 95 per cent of the population which adheres to the Ahmaddiya faith.
Notwithstanding the promise of reintroducing joint electorates, the system of separate electorates was used in the local elections held in August/September 2005. For the Ahmadis, in particular, the previous system was sustained in that the Election Commission of Pakistan issued a separate list for Ahmaddiya voters for the Local Bodies elections. This was a blatant violation of the joint electorate system and an effort to keep Ahmadis out of the election process. In relation to minor procedural adjustment to anti-blasphemy laws, the Ahmaddiya community continues to be victimized and people are frequently charged on flimsy, insubstantial and uncorroborated evidence. Ahmadis also point to the array of restrictions which are not confined to sections 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code. On 24 March 2005, the federal cabinet also approved the introduction of a religion column in the new Pakistan machine-readable passports. According to Ahmadis (and other religious minorities), the insertion of religion in the passport is unjustified and unnecessary, and would result in their being singled out.
This rising hostility was accompanied by a marked increase in targeted killings of Ahmadis. In a particularly severe incident on 28 May 2010, 94 people were massacred when gunmen attacked two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore.
While Ahmadis consider themselves to be Muslims rather than a non-Muslim minority group, they are regarded by many representatives of dominant Islamic groups as heretics and legally prohibited from declaring themselves Muslims. They are unable to exercise the right to vote because, in order to do so, they must declare themselves non-Muslims, which they are unwilling to do. The marginalization and persecution of Ahmadis has reached extreme levels in recent years, and Ahmadis are now the target of a sustained campaign of violence. Ahmadis live in constant fear of harassment or assault either to themselves or their homes, workplaces and places of worship.
Successive governments have failed to prosecute injustices or provide meaningful protection to Ahmadis. While Ahmadis are frequently sentenced for various dubious charges of blasphemy, the state has repeatedly failed to bring to justice those responsible for numerous attacks against members of the community. Indeed, amidst continued hostility towards Ahmadis – anti-blasphemy protests in November 2017 by supporters of the hardline Tehreek-e Labaik Pakistan party that brought Islamabad to a standstill were driven in part by anti-Ahmadi sentiment – the community continues to be highly vulnerable to attack. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 264 Ahmadis have been murdered on account of their religious beliefs since 1984, when General Zia-ul-Haq’s anti-Ahmadi legislation was passed.
In this context, Ahmadis are marginalized in almost every sphere of public life. For example, a Pakistani passport can only be obtained after signing a declaration that the ‘Qadiani group’ – a derogatory term for the community, referencing their Indian origins – are non-Muslims. Large-scale public events are also regularly held in celebration of the Second Amendment, with speakers calling for further restrictions against the community. As a result, Ahmadis are frequently forced to conceal their identity to ensure they are not targeted. Even in death, however, the community is not spared, with Ahmaddiya cemeteries frequently desecrated. The extent of discrimination is such that Pakistan’s first Nobel Laureate, Abdus Salam, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979, is largely overlooked in his own country and the word ‘Muslim’ has been removed from the epitaph on his gravestone.
Although the system of separate electorates was overturned in 2002, marking the return of joint electorates in the country, full electoral rights for all religious minorities in Pakistan have not been realized. Notably, while all other religious minorities have been added to a common list of voters, Ahmadis continue to appear on a separate list. To complete voter registration, Ahmadis must provide their address and dissociate themselves from Islam, which is in violation of their religion. Furthermore, during the 2013 election Ahmadis expressed the fear that the separate voter list, which is available to the public, could further endanger their already precarious security situation by making it easier for them to be identified by potential attackers. As a result Ahmadis, who have not voted for more than three decades, were once again forced to boycott the election in 2013.
Although blasphemy accusations have been levelled against a range of individuals – including children and the elderly, men and women, as well as Muslims and non-Muslims – Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have a particularly egregious effect on religious minorities, including Ahmadis, due to their content as well as the religious intolerance they help to foment. Figures recently released by the Centre for Research and Solidarity highlight that, given their population size, a disproportionate number of religious minorities have been accused of blasphemy in Pakistan over the last 50 years. Of an estimated 434 blasphemy offenders documented between 1953 and 2012, 57 Ahmadis: this means that while estimates suggest that Ahmadis only make up a small percentage of the Pakistani population, they represent 13 per cent of those charged under the blasphemy laws.
For the Ahmadi population, practising their religion at all, or referring to their places of worship as ‘mosques,’ has been criminalized. Similarly, because Ahmadis are required to declare themselves non-Muslims in order to obtain a passport, they are not able to perform Hajj. Attempts to build places of worship have also run into obstructions, with district-level authorities frequently refusing to grant permission for their construction.
Updated September 2022
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Section 298 – Documentary screening and panel discussion
Minority Rights Group International is proud to present a free screening of Section 298, a new documentary film on the persecution of the Ah…