Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
In 2006 there were an estimated 2.9-5.2 million Ahmaddiyas in Pakistan. The Ahmaddiya religious movement is a religious sect that originated in India. In many ways the life of Ahmaddiyas conforms to Islam, although there are significant differences between orthodox Muslims and Ahmaddiyas. 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 Mohammad). 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, Ahmaddiyas emphasize education, learning and spiritual reform. They have penetrated deeply into all walks of life and become one of the most significant groups within Pakistan politics. Many eminent figures and politicians, including Pakistan’s first foreign minister and a judge at the International Court of Justice, Sir Mohammad Zarfarullah Khan. have been Ahmaddiyas.
Ahmaddiyas are sometimes referred to as Qadiyanies, from the village of Qadian where the founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), was born. 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 Indian territory, after 1947 the Ahmaddiyas shifted their headquarters to Rabwah (western Punjab) 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 Ahmaddiyas non-Muslims. As a result of this pressure, Ahmaddiyas 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 Islamisation
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 S.298-B and S.298-C to the Pakistan Penal Code, according to which identifying yourself 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. Ahmaddiyas 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 Ahmaddiya could be deemed to contravene these clauses of Pakistan Penal Code. These pieces of legislation opened the way for Ahmaddiyas to be intimidated and victimized by members of the general public. Ahmaddiyas 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 having ‘indirectly or directly posed as a Muslim’.
In an environment charged with religious intolerance, various actions challenging the legal validity and constitutionality of the ordinances imposed by Zia-ul-Haq failed. In Mujibur Rahman v. Government of Pakistan the Federal Shariat 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 Ahmaddiyas, 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 Ahmaddiyas 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 Ahmaddiyas holding their centenary celebrations. The Advocate General had argued that to allow the celebrations would be tantamount to giving Ahmaddiyas 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.
There have been a few positive developments, although their concrete impact has been negligible as far as the Ahmaddiyas are concerned. First, the present military government made a declaration abolishing the separate electorate system. Second, it has been possible to bring about minor procedural changes to the anti-blasphemy laws, whereby no police officer below the rank of a Superintendent of Police is authorized to investigate allegations related to S.295 of the Pakistan Penal Code. 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 Ahmaddiyas, 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 Ahmaddiyas 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. Ahmaddiyas also point to the array of anti-blasphemy laws which are not confined to S.295. On 24 March 2005, the federal cabinet also approved the instating of a religion column in the new Pakistan machine-readable passports. According to Ahmaddiyas (and other religious minorities), the insertion of religion in the passport is unjustified and unnecessary, and would result in their being singled out.
During 2005 a number of attacks led to the destruction or desecration of Ahmaddiya places of worship. There are further reports of several Ahmaddiya mosques having been sealed up. At the same time, fundamentalist Muslims threaten to carry out further destruction of mosques, which represent building structures similar to traditional Islamic mosques with minarets and gumbads. There are also substantial allegations of arbitrary detentions and the usage of anti-terrorist courts to further victimize the Ahmaddiyas.
In 2007 Human Rights Watch issued a statement accusing the Pakistani government of pandering to fundamentalist groups and violating rights of groups such as the Ahmaddiyas. The statement said police in Lahore had supervised the demolition of a boundary wall in an Ahmaddiya graveyard. Two Islamic groups had for some time exerted pressure on the provincial authorities to bring down the wall.
Updated June 2018
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