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On Religious Prejudice Against Minorities in Pakistan

From state to non-state actors

by Saira Yamin, 15 June 2010

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(From: The News on Sunday, 13 June 2010)

The gruesome massacre of close to a hundred Ahmadi worshippers in Lahore on May 28, 2010 was a tragic moment in Pakistan’s history. And it must not be forgotten. It is after all, a reflection of the culture of widespread impunity that pervades the country, holding everyone hostage. The Taliban’s possible involvement in the attack, however, does not absolve the government of its responsibility to provide security to all its citizens, regardless of their religious background. The government may find it expedient to point fingers at the increasingly unpopular Taliban, but it needs to reconsider the role the state has played in the persecution of minorities in the country, and especially in ostracising the Ahmadi community.

For instance, recently on a visit to the Pakistani Consulate General in New York City to renew a passport, I was reminded of the institutionalised intolerance against the Ahmadis. As most Pakistani citizens are aware, acquiring a passport or a national identity card requires one to endorse the following undertaking in accordance with the 1974 Constitutional amendment which declares Ahmadis non-Muslim: "I am a Muslim and believe in the absolute and unqualified finality of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) the last of the Prophets. I do not recognise any person who claims to be a prophet in any sense of the word or of any description whatsoever after Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) or recognise such a claimant as prophet or religious reformer as a Muslim. I consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmed Qadiani to be an imposter nabi and also consider his followers, whether belonging to the Lahori or Qadiani group to be non Muslims."

I signed the undertaking, although I cringed at my involuntary participation, for the umpteenth time in religious bigotry perpetuated by the state. To add insult to injury, the 1974 Constitutional amendment, commonly known as anti-Ahmadi laws, bar the minority community who consider themselves part of the Islamic Ummah, from calling themselves Muslim.

Blasphemy legislation in Pakistan’s penal code also provides an institutionalised mechanism hurting religious minorities. The draconian blasphemy laws are a legacy of the Zia years, introduced under the amendments to the Constitution of Pakistan, specifically the Eighth Amendment Act of 1985. In 1986, section 296-C was inserted therein, making the death sentence mandatory for anyone defiling the name of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) and life imprisonment for defiling the Quran. The ambiguous nature of blasphemy laws in Pakistan has contributed to the victimisation of religious minorities, including the Ahmadi, Christians, and others, as well as vulnerable Muslims, to settle personal scores. The justice and security sectors in particular, have reportedly abused the blasphemy laws to unfairly incarcerate and exploit the Ahmadi community.

The Ahmadi represent a very small section of Pakistani society, approximately 1.5 million among a population of over 180 million. By some estimates, the Ahmadi population in Pakistan may be just a little over half a million. Now consider the fact that between 1984-2004, out of 964 people charged with and convicted of blasphemy, 340 (more than a third), were Ahmadis, clearly pointing towards the systemic bias against a religious sect. In addition to stifling their religious freedom, the Ahmadis’ right of political participation as equal citizens of Pakistan is also curtailed, by the requirement to vote under separate voter lists. Ahmadis have also been prohibited from holding conferences or gatherings since 1984 under section 2.C of the Constitution.

Given the institutional context of the prejudice against the Ahmadis, it is not surprising that the Taliban and other extremist groups, as well as ordinary Pakistanis, feel free to perpetuate atrocities against them, including the use of violence, leading to the loss of innocent lives, on the basis of their religious ideology. Friday indeed was a sad day for Pakistan. Mr. Jinnah, the great founder of the country, in his famous address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947, not stated: "You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State". Alas, the state of affairs in the country, envisioned on the basis of liberal ideals, may possibly make our Quaid-i-Azam, turn in his grave every day.

The author is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, Va, USA.