By Tilak Devasher*
An event of considerable significance took place in Pakistan on December 29, 2015; one that went largely unreported in the Indian media. During a meeting of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) the chairman, Maulana Sherani, came to blows with Allama Tahir Ashrafi. Had the issue on which they came to blows not been extremely serious, it would have been laughable to see two maulanas disgracing themselves in this manner.
However, the issue at hand was that Sherani wanted the CII to consider declaring Ahmadis murtads or apostates i.e those who have rejected Islam. Ashrafi, who heads the Pakistan Ulema Council, apparently opposed such a discussion on the grounds that the Ahmadi issue was a settled one and re-opening it would be dangerous and could potentially create violence across the country.
The CII is a constitutional body, though its resolutions to parliament are only advisory in their nature. Even so, a determination by such a body that Ahmadis were murtads would have driven the last nail in the coffin of Ahmadi security since the punishment of apostasy is death in Islam.
The CII reeks of anachronism and its proposed resolution is at worst highly inflammatory coming especially at a time when the Islamic world is aflame, and when Pakistan itself is trying to come to grips with terrorism, extremism and radicalization. Perhaps, it was with the intent of reviving its fading significance that this constitutional body, which is otherwise content to deliberate and rule on issues like restrictions on child marriages are un-Islamic, girls as young as nine should be able to marry if they have reached puberty, DNA is not permissible as evidence in rape cases as Islamic law required four witnesses to determine whether a rape has taken place and so on, decided to go full-throttle on an issue that has the potential of unleashing sectarian clashes in Pakistan.
Two other issue that Sherani wanted to discuss but could not were imposing jizya on non-Muslims, despite enjoying equal rights under the constitution, and a determination which sects fell under the ambit of Islam and which did not. Both these issues would open up a Pandora’s box of violence and strife that could potentially engulf the entire country.
The Ahmadis, estimated to be approximately 5 million in Pakistan, are perhaps the most persecuted minority in the country. No doubt, their persecution is not new. It is also true that anti-Ahmadi sentiment was present even before Partition. The difference was that since Muslims were in a minority in undivided India, violence against Ahmadis was restricted, and perhaps, went unnoticed for the sparseness of its occurrence. Post-partition, all hell broke loose! As early as 1953, there were riots in Punjab to declare them non-Muslims that led to the imposition of martial law in Lahore for the first time. In 1974, they were declared non-Muslims by a constitutional amendment under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
Since then, they have been victimised for their religious belief. Examples of the legal persecution they face includes prohibition from describing themselves as Muslims; from using Islamic terms and titles, using Islamic texts for prayers, calling their place of worship as mosques, building minarets on their places of worship, calling their followers to prayer through the azaan, or even greeting others in the Islamic way. By law, Muslim citizens have to sign a declaration that they are not Ahmadis to get national identity card registration. Some universities even ask for an oath to be taken by the faculty to make sure they do not accidentally hire an Ahmadi.
Other recent example includes a shop-keeper in Hafeez Centre, Lahore putting a sign on his shop entrance: “Qadiani (another term for Ahmadis) dogs are not allowed in here.” The police took down the sign leading to a massive protest against the police for removing the offending sign. A demand was made that they wear a special badge that would publicaly identify them as Ahmadis; a practice, which if implemented, would be comparable to the yellow Juden badge in the Nazi Germany.
Apart from their religious beliefs, what makes the Ahmadi community be singled out is that they are highly educated, hard-working and prosperous. Both in pre-partition India and post-partition Pakistan, they have occupied positions of prominence. This has stoked a lot of jealousy among the other groups who have sought to reduce their prominence through legal and extra legal means ever since.
Treatment of Ahmadis along with the treatment of other minorities like the Hindus and Christians is in a real sense the test for Pakistan, as an Islamic country, to protect religious minorities that it professes to do so frequently. Given the legal and societal disabilities placed on the Ahmadis, the verdict has to be that minority religious groups are not safe in an Islamic country. Worryingly, the danger is that discrimination against them and their persecution could well be taken to an even higher level if the likes of Maulana Sherani were to have their way.
Finally, minority persecution is also reflective of what has gone wrong with Pakistan over the decades since Partition – a growing industry of intolerance, bigotry, extremism and violence that shows no signs of abating.
*Tilak Devasher is a retired Special Secretary, Government of India. He can be contacted at: [email protected]