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In Pakistan, the Ahmedi Community Suffers Under the Religious Right

Even as the Nawaz Sharif government tries to honour Nobel laureate Abdus Salam, an Ahmedi, by renaming the physics department of Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad after him, persecution of the community continues.

The Ahmedi mosque in Chakwal that was attacked by a mob. Credit: Twitter

The Ahmedi mosque in Chakwal that was attacked by a mob. Credit: Twitter

On December 12, a mob of nearly a thousand attacked an Ahmedi ‘place of worship’ in Chakwal, Punjab, Pakistan, situated some 90 kilometers away from the capital Islamabad. One person died of cardiac arrest while trying to defend the building. The assailants claim that six people were injured by gunfire from inside the mosque. The provincial government of Punjab province initially declared the attack on the Ahmedi ‘place of worship’ a misunderstanding between two groups. The word mosque is not used by the Pakistani media when referring to their religious sites, as the state does not recognise Ahmedis as Muslim.

Earlier, on December 9, in what was seen as a bold step toward inclusiveness, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif renamed the physics department of Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad after Nobel laureate Abdus Salam, a Pakistani Ahmedi scientist famed for his work on electroweak unification theory. Salam has received little state recognition due to his religious background despite being the country’s only Nobel prize winner until women’s education activist Malala Yousufzai became the youngest recipient of the peace prize in 2014.

Since the announcement, there are increased concerns about the community facing threats and intimidation. Right-wing religious figures have already condemned the move, including the Council of Islamic Ideology, which is a government body. On the same day that the government announced that it planned to honour the late Salam, the Punjab Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) conducted a raid at the Ahmadiyya community headquarters at Rabwah in north Punjab. “The CTD came to Rabwah and arrested four people from the press department. Nine people have been charged under the Anti-Terrorism Act and four are in custody,” said Saleem-ud-Din, spokesperson for the Jamaat-e-Ahmadiyya, Pakistan.

The Ahmedi community in Pakistan was legislated as non-Muslims in 1974 when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government attempted to gain favour with the religious right. Today, Ahmedis can be accused and tried for blasphemy – a capital offence in Pakistan – for claiming to be Muslim or using Islamic symbols in their religious practice. When they apply for a passport, Pakistani citizens are required to sign a declaration affirming they believe Ahmedis are non-Muslims.

“Acknowledging Dr Salam is long overdue but it is a good thing on the part of the government,” said Saleem-ud-Din. “They should acknowledge the true heroes of Pakistan.” When asked about the incidents that followed the announcement, he is careful not to make any assertions but merely point to facts. “I cannot connect the two events but all I can say is that the raid at Rabwah and Dr Salam being honoured happened on the same day and both actions were taken by the government.”

The attack in Chakwal left the historic mosque badly damaged, a property that the mob was attempting to reclaim in the name of Islam. It reportedly pelted the building with stones and set fire to artefacts and carpets. Later, the mob was also said to have washed the building to symbolically purify it and bring it into the purview of Islam. “Our community in the region is small but they own a lot of the land. So this has always caused tension,” said Salim-ud-Din, pointing out how religious violence in the country often have an economic angle.

The event has left the community reeling, with people fearing for their safety. “Things are very tense in Chakwal. People are afraid, the police have been deployed, the army has been deployed,” reveals Salim-ud-Din. However, police officials insist that everything is being done to restore peace and calm in the community.

Ahmadis stand over graves of victims of an attack on one of their mosques, in Rabwah, May 29, 2010. Credit: Reuters/Files

Ahmadis stand over graves of victims of an attack on one of their mosques, in Rabwah, May 29, 2010. Credit: Reuters/Files

One of the chief instigators of the attack appears to be Malik Rashid Ahmed, a resident of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. Ahmed reportedly travelled to Chakwal to help coordinate the attack and incite more people to join the anti-Ahmedi mob. Ahmed originally hails from Chakwal but has lived in Canada for 40 years. Canadian newspaper The National Post has reported that the Canadian government is considering investigating the allegations against Ahmed.

December 12 also marked the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad. Hate speech against the minority community is particularly high during this holiday because hard-line Muslim clerics view Ahmedis as blasphemers for not accepting that prophethood ended with Mohammad. Salim-ud-Din confirmed that a week earlier “one of our community members heard about the plan to attack the mosque on December 12 and we informed the authorities about this.” Despite this, the assailants were able to organise a large mob and launch an attack on the Ahmedi ‘place of worship.’

These events have soured what was a significant move on the part of the government toward recognising the contributions of Ahmedis and other minority groups in Pakistan. “Ahmedis have worked for the country and made great contributions in the military, as scientists, as economists, but we have not gotten any recognition,” said Salah-ud-Din.

The Council of Islamic Ideology had earlier opposed the move to rename the physics department at Quaid-e-Azam University. When asked for further clarification, senior research officer Ghulam Tasveer said, “If they want to honour Abdus Salam, something new should be inaugurated in his name.” In reality, the name of the physics department at Quaid-e-Azam University was the National Centre for Physics. Moreover, it was modelled on the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy. Asked about the attack in Chakwal, the council spokesman responded: “We have nothing to do with that.”

Given recent attacks and the vitriolic campaigns launched against the community by the religious right demanding the decision be rescinded, the Ahmedis, too, have mixed emotions about the state honouring Salam . “If they want to honour one person but continue to treat the whole community like this then we are better off without the honour.” said Salim-ud-Din.