Pakistan and the Ahmedis: Headed for disaster or just more of the same?

by Omar Ali

The Ahmediya movement was started in Punjab in 19th century British India, by Mirza Ghulam Ahmed of Qadiyan. He seems to have been a somewhat stereotypical prophet; a quiet, religious loner who brooded Mirza_ghulam_ahmad about the challenges faced by his faith and his people. The decisive military and economic superiority of Western civilization over the Islamicate world had produced a variety of efforts at reform and revitalization. They ranged from the Wahabi-influenced puritanical Jihadism of Syed Ahmed Barelvi (who led an extremely fanatical jihadist movement in what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwah, until he was defeated by superior Sikh firepower and a reaction to his extreme views among the local Muslims) to the anglophile reformism of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (founder of Aligarh Muslim University). Mirza Ghulam Ahmed’s response was to start a movement of religious revival that was built around his own charismatic claims. Though he contradicted some mainstream Islamist claims about the finality of prophet-hood and the absolute necessity of military Jihad (military jihad as a Muslim duty is now so widely downplayed that it is hard for Westerners and even Westernized Muslims to figure out why his claim was considered so controversial), his movement was socially conservative and even puritanical. He found some support among modestly educated middle class Punjabi Muslims (including Islamist icon Allama Mohammed Iqbal, who either flirted with joining the movement or actually joined for a few years, depending on what version you believe). As his movement (and his claims regarding his own status as prophet or messiah) grew, it drew more and more orthodox opposition, especially from the dominant Sufi-oriented Barelvi Sunni sect. Ironically this branch of local Islam enjoyed some American (and world media) attention as “moderate and tolerant Muslims” in contrast to their Deobandi/Wahhabi brethren in the aftermath of 9-11 (though this attempt to fight Wahabi/Deobandi fire with Sufi-Barelvi water seems to have run into some trouble recently).

This increasingly vocal opposition (complete with fatwas from Mecca declaring the Ahmedis as apostates liable to the death penalty if they did not repent) led to a sharper separation between Ahmedis and other Muslim sects, but the Ahmedis themselves always claimed to be Muslims and even made efforts to remain fully engaged in “Muslim causes”. Some Ahmedis played a prominent role in the Pakistan movement (most prominently in the person of Sir Zafrullah Khan, first foreign minister of Pakistan and Jinnah’s representative on the boundary commission that divided India) and others held prominent positions in the new state and fought for it with distinction (most famously, General Akhtar Malik in the 1965 war with India). It is likely that neither they, nor the relatively Westernized leadership of the Muslim league had a clear idea of what lay in store for them in Pakistan. Even more ironically, the Ahmedis themselves aggressively pursued “blasphemers” (e.g. Pandit Lekh Ram in Punjab in 1897). It is hard to read this Ahmedi polemic against Lekh Ram without thinking about where the Ahmedis themselves now lie in relation to the blasphemy meme.

Soon after partition, the Islamist factions in Pakistan picked up the Ahmedi issue as a wedge issue with which they could acquire power and influence in a society that was otherwise not very interested in organized political Islam. Various elite factions (and, it is sometimes alleged, the American embassy) maneuvered against each other using this movement in creative ways, until their vicious squabbles derailed Pakistan’s rudimentary democracy. Still, even though they may have been useful to some elite factions, anti-Ahmedi troublemakers were still outside the elite mainstream and remained so until 1971. During the rule of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, this issue was again raked up and various Islamist parties found it useful to beat up on the Ahmedis on the way to power in Islamabad. Bowing to riots and rallies, Bhutto himself undertook to officially declare the Ahmedis as non-Muslims in 1974. Having tasted blood, the Islamist parties have never looked back, with steady increase in persecution and legal restrictions on the Ahmedi community and sustained propaganda that ensures that most Pakistanis find it difficult to publicly defend the threatened community.

It is very likely that the percentage of people in Pakistan who believe Ahmedis should be killed unless they repent is larger than the percentage of Germans who, in 1933, believed that all Jews should be killed (as opposed to, say, “put in their place” or just encouraged to leave). The blasphemy law and specific laws prohibiting Ahmedis from using any Islamic symbols are regularly used to put uppity Ahmedis in their place. Prominent businesses owned by Ahmedis can be targeted for boycotts or worse, and in some cases of mistaken identity, the business has gone out of its way to prove that Ahmedis are not the owners. Property can be grabbed from Ahmedi owners by cooking up blasphemy allegations or simply threatening to do so (in which case the sane owner may decide to play ball before any public effort is launched). Of course, such methods are not restricted to Ahmedis. Once human beings find a good thing, they tend to use it more and more. Still, Ahmedis remain uniquely vulnerable.

Currently, trouble is brewing in Rawalpindi, where the local branch of the Islamic militant network is preparing to bring down a local Ahmedi “house of worship” (the word mosque would be illegal). These Islamists/militants belong to what used to be the military-mullah alliance, though the army’s role in the current kerfuffle is unknown. It may be that the military component of the military-mullah alliance is not be as unified as it used to be, but thanks to decades of secret deals and conspiracies, such things are nearly impossible to figure out with certainty in Pakistan. Anyway, things may yet get settled if the Ahmedis concerned grovel enough (some money may change hands) or they may get worse, but other episodes will undoubtedly follow.

JewsWhat then will be the longer term trend? Will Pakistan gradually become a more liberal and democratic country where anti-Ahmedi discrimination will gradually lessen? Or will it become a “neo-liberal authoritarian” regime that too will have less incentive to encourage free-lance attacks on life and property? Or will the Ahmedi’s role as designated national scapegoat be taken to its logical conclusion in a systematic fashion?

329147-peoplePHOTOINP-1327871200-971-640x480I generally like to think that saner elements in the elite will eventually tone down such persecutions because they tend to become self-destructive, but if the Germans can go to hell in 12 years, isn’t it possible that we too may end up in a less disciplined and less efficient version of the same? Or will the street agitators remain under elite control, to be used as needed in its internal and external squabbles, but not accelerating into anything resembling Nazi Germany or Rwanda? In my optimistic moments, I think it is the second, but this is really an appeal for information; I want your opinion, which way will this go?