Two weeks before Pakistan's general elections on May 11, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that Washington designate Islamabad as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) with regard to the freedom of religion enjoyed by all citizens. The USCIRF says, among the countries that are currently not on the U.S. government's CPR list, "Pakistan represents the worst situation in the world for religious freedom."
While the USCIRF has been making this particular recommendation since 2002, the State Department has avoided taking action apparently because of the fear of annoying Pakistan, Washington's defiant ally in the war on terror.
Pakistan's religious minority groups, such as the Ahmadis, seem to have little faith in the outcome of the elections. They deem these polls as the harbinger of challenging times ahead. Their fears are validated by a renewed hateful election campaign unleashed by Imran Khan, the country's rising right-wing leader. Khan, who was ranked this week by the Pew Research Center as Pakistan's second most popular leader, has revived the anti-Ahmadi sentiments among orthodox Muslim voters to win more parliamentary seats.
Shaken by the political parties' hateful campaigns, the fear of attacks from Muslim extremist groups and the State's interminable discrimination, the Ahmadis boycotted the elections. They complain that no party has committed to end widespread social and political discrimination.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (AMC), whose followers are known as Ahmadis or Qadianis (the latter being a derogatory term only used by the Muslim clerics), is a consistently prosecuted population in Pakistan. The Ahmadis, whose faith is based on disputing the finality of Prophet Muhammad, consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a 19th century messiah, a prophet, and they renounce the Islamic concept of jihad. Their global headquarter is located in Rabwah, a small town in the Punjab province.
akistan treated the Ahmadis as equal Muslim citizens until it passed the discriminatory Second Constitutional Amendment in 1974, which officially declared them as "non-Muslims."
Since its independence in 1947, Pakistan has had an agonizing history of anti-Ahmadi movements headed by radical Muslim political groups. Unfortunately, these movements did not only give impetus to right-wing political groups such as the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Pakistan's version of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they also compelled the secular parties to surrender before the pressure of religious parties in order to protect their own Muslim vote.
The first violent anti-Ahmadi riots, instigated by the Muslim League, began in the Punjab in 1953, which led to the imposition of a martial law in the province. While the protests failed in enjoining the government to declare the Ahmadis as non-Muslims, it formally inducted political Islam, predominantly led by the JI, in Pakistan's mainstream politics.
When elections were held in 1970, the Ahmadis voted for the secular Pakistan People's Party (PPP) so that it guarded from future assaults from Muslim fanatics as witnessed in 1953. Ironically, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto of the PPP betrayed the Ahmadis. Known as a secular, Bhutto still compromised with the Islamists as soon as they initiated the second wave of anti-Ahmadi movement (May-October 1974). Bhutto surrendered to save his own government.
General Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan's ultraconservative dictator (1977-1988), continued the state's anti-Ahmadi policies by depriving them of their identity. In 1984, he passed an ordinance making it unlawful for the Ahmadis to identify themselves as Muslims or even "pose as Muslims." It is illegal for the Ahmadis to call their places of prayers as "mosque."
Incessant curtailment of Ahmadi rights has encouraged Muslim extremists to attack their mosques. In 2010, for instance, 86 Ahmadi worshipers were killed in the city of Lahore. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Punjab claimed responsibility for the attack. The Pakistani authorities never brought the perpetrators to justice either they feared or favored the attackers.
The Ahmadis have richly contributed to Pakistan's development. The country's first foreign minister, Sir Zafarullah Khan, and the nation's sole Noble Prize laureate, Dr. Abdul Salam, both belonged to the Ahmadiyya community. Pakistan does not recognize Dr. Salam as a national hero.
Pakistan's army, democratic institutions, political parties and the youth have recently shown alarming signs of Islamization. Surveys show that the Pakistani youth prefers Islamic rule over western-style democracy. Such regressive tendencies weaken Pakistan's democracy and divide people in the name of religion. Pakistan needs bold leadership that can restore the Ahmadi community's pre-1974 status and accord them equal rights. The more Pakistan Islamizes itself, the more it will compromise the safety and well-being of its religious minorities.
Personally, I am not an Ahmadi. I was born and raised in an orthodox Sunni Muslim family. But I believe the treatment of the Ahmadi citizens in Pakistan, where I lived most of my life, is highly objectionable and inhumane. No state, including Pakistan, should discriminate its citizens based on their religious beliefs. After all, Pakistan's founding fathers claimed that they had created the country as a reaction to what they billed as the so-called "Hindu discrimination" against the Muslims in India. What makes Saturday's elections less exciting is the fact that Muslim Pakistanis voted and the Ahmadi Pakistanis boycotted. By excluding the Ahmadis from the elections, Pakistan's democracy is indeed missing something very important on the election day.