The recent act of violence against Ahmadis in Gujranwala is part of a series of such events, which have been taking place in Pakistan for many decades now. While all religious minorities in Pakistan have been under attack, Ahmadis are the worst affected. I will argue that this is because the very entity of followers of this community has been criminalised in Pakistan.
It has been exactly 40 years since Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims by the National Assembly of Pakistan. The proceedings of the debate, which took place in the August-September of 1974, have now been officially declassified and can be accessed online (although the staff of the National Assembly continues to maintain that this record was destroyed by fire during the 1990s). These proceedings comprise 21 volumes with over 3,000 pages. I am leaving out the details of the extensive debate, which took place in the assembly and jump to the concluding speech made by the attorney general on September 6-7. Yahya Bakhtiyar, the then attorney general, did not just give theological reasons for declaring Ahmadis non-Muslims; he also furnished arguments, which, in a nuanced way, were suggestive of the inherent disloyalty of Ahmadis towards the state.
He said: “Then, Sir, when we are happy, they are not happy; when we are unhappy, they are happy. This is what the evidence has shown. We created a separate state, with the help of God, because we thought and felt like one man that we shall remain together because we think and feel in the same manner; there is a subjective psychological feeling of belonging to one another, whether we are Baloch or Pathans or Sindhis or Punjabis, and for this reason, we feel and think very differently from them.”
The top lawyer’s referral to the disparate ethnic groups of Pakistan underlay his anxiety to reaffirm the unified basis of the political community sought through religion –- an anxiety which had become deeper in the wake of the events of 1971. It can be inferred from Bakhtiyar’s estimation that the Ahmadis could not be accommodated within the body politic of the nation because they did not share any of the constituents of nation-building, such as a common religion, psychological make-up or similar feelings of grief and pleasure. In the reconstitutive Pakistani identity during the post-1971 period, the need for cementing national cohesion through religion was even more pronounced.
In other words, if the organic unity of religion was being undermined by Ahmadi doctrines, it also amounted to subverting the unity of the Pakistani state on their part. It is then not surprising that Ahmadis are routinely described as traitors and disloyal towards Pakistan. The day following the Gujranwala violence, a local newspaper carried a column by the ‘father of the atom bomb’ — Abdul Qadeer Khan — who accused Professor Abdus Salam of spying for the US and divulging secrets about Pakistan’s nuclear programme.
I now turn to a second aspect of the criminalisation of Ahmadis in Pakistan. An ordinance was passed by General Ziaul Haq, in 1984, which barred the Ahmadis from ‘posing’ as Muslims or making use of repertoires of symbols or practices identifiable with Islam and Muslims. It is obvious that such an open-ended and vague piece of ‘law’ was going to create a number of problems for Ahmadis. A number of lawsuits were filed by them on different occasions against this ordinance. It resulted in the famous “Coca-Cola judgment”, in which the court invoked copyright laws to justify the ban on Ahmadis from performing Islamic practices. It said that just like the Coca-Cola company had a right to manufacture Coca-Cola, in similar vein, only Muslims had the right to practise Islam. In another judgment, every Ahmadi was declared a potential blasphemer. Trickily, Ahmadis have been barred from Islam but ‘Ahmadi beliefs’ as such are not banned in Pakistan nor are Ahmadis disallowed to believe in them as long as they do not propagate it with the tag of Islam attached to it.
In this way, every single Ahmadi in Pakistan has been criminalised as a traitor and blasphemer. The minimum punishment in Pakistan for both these offences is death. Violence against them, hence, does not remain a criminal act anymore. It amounts to killing a traitor or a blasphemer.
After the second amendment had been passed, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto addressed the National Assembly and described the unanimous decision of the assembly to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims as the “final solution” of the “90-year-old [Ahmadi] problem”. Whether this was a Freudian slip or not, but the elder Bhutto’s inappropriate choice of words for Pakistan’s Ahmadis have come perilously close to bearing resemblance with the situation faced by the Jews of Nazi Germany.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2014.
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