It was a summer afternoon in school on 14 April 1999 in Pakistan’s capital. I was a 16-year old GCE student, preparing to sit my exams that May. The school I attended was a small one, founded two years earlier by my mother along with her two long-standing colleagues and named after the 14th century historian Ibn Khaldun. Our current premises sat directly opposite the Pakistan National Council of Arts in the heart of Islamabad, which to my delight meant that frequent trips to scale the work of Sadequain, a world-renowned painter and calligrapher could be undertaken between lectures.
During a lecture that afternoon, I got called away with a message that my mother is asking to take leave. In a place where my mother’s workday would end long after the last child had gone home, this was certainly an odd prospect. As I sat in the car I knew I ought to brace myself to hearing the worst. My mother was weeping incessantly, barely managing to utter phrases and then managed to say, “They have killed qikkay” – our family nickname for my mother’s first cousin Qadir.
Her words set off a storm of both confusion and emotion. Who had killed him? Did she really mean kill ? How could it be possible that such a close family member had been murdered? Who could have done it and why? As my adolescent mind struggled to make sense of the tragedy, the details trickled in steadily and it became clear that my late uncle had been targeted because of his faith – he had been kidnapped by the now banned extremist outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba near his farm in the Province of Punjab and eventually shot to death. He was 37.
He was survived by his 32 year old widow and 4 children – a daughter 9, a son 7 and two and a half year-old twin boys – and while the elder two were incomprehensibly devastated, I can still recall my heartache at seeing his young twins clasping a picture of him in their hands and saying, “We’re taking baba for a walk.”
While the experience shook me to my core it raised a renewed sense of my place in a country I called home. I felt betrayed, angry and frustrated. This was a country I had loved and lived in since the day I opened my eyes – till my 19th birthday I did not breathe any foreign air. For the first time my fondness for the quiet hill station I had called home for all these years was challenged and it opened a Pandora’s box of vulnerabilities and anxieties.
My family and I are members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (AMC) – a minority sect in Islam deemed heretical by mainstream Muslims for believing the founder of their faith is a Messiah. The AMC was founded towards the end of the 19th century with humble beginnings in a small town in the Indian Punjab. The AMC rejects extremism in all its forms, advocates loyalty to one’s homeland, calls for a separation of mosque and state and has firmly devoted itself to furthering peace and justice in the world.
While Ahmadi Muslims strongly identify with their homeland, the Pakistan constitution under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto cast them out of the fold of Islam. Ahmadis have sustained consistent and intense persecution since the formation of Pakistan – including target killings, attacks on their mosques, imprisonment without bail for alleged proselytising and having even their graves vandalised. Promotions are blocked, entries to colleges denied and state television participants at times openly call for their murder – all with relative impunity.
On 9th March this year, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) issued a ruling declaring that a faith affidavit was compulsory for anyone applying for a government or semi-government position, including the judiciary, armed forces and civil services. Furthermore, the IHC’s Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui directed that parliament pass all necessary legislation to ensure that terms specifically used for ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’ are not appropriated by minorities for concealing their identity or for any other purpose. This appeared to cement the views of the Pakistan Supreme Court which in a landmark but highly controversial judgment in 1993 held that terms particular to Islam were subject to trademark and “belonged” to the Islamic faith alone and hence could not be appropriated by minorities.
Thus, 19 years following the murder of Mirza Qadir Ahmad, the abysmal state of affairs for Ahmadis in Pakistan continues. Many have succeeded in fleeing persecution abroad but ten of thousands remain in Pakistan – caught in the predicament of being hunted down by their own people. Just weeks after the IHC ruling on 25th March this year, several graves belonging to the AMC were vandalised in the dead of the night in a town in Punjab, a chilling reminder that Ahmadi Muslims remain marginalised even in death.