Pakistan’s Ahmadis: Victims of Identity Theft
“Language is legislation, speech is its code … all speech is a classification, and all classifications are oppressive.” —Roland Barthes, 1977
In one of my recent columns I wrote about how the Shias of Pakistan are being attacked by extremists who wouldn’t mind if all Shias were wiped off the face of the planet—in other words, genocide. However, there is a group of people in Pakistan who are facing equal amounts of hatred and prejudice, but the bigotry against them is actually codified under Pakistani law.
- Pakistan is a country of contradictions – full of promise for growth, modernity and progress, yet shrouded by political, social and cultural issues that undermine its quest for identity and integrity. My bi-monthly column “Pakistan Unveiled” presents stories that showcase the Pakistani struggle for freedom of expression, an end to censorship, and a more open and balanced society.
- Bina Shah is a Karachi-based journalist and fiction writer and has taught writing at the university level. She is the author of four novels and two collections of short stories. She is a columnist for two major English-language newspapers in Pakistan, The Dawn and The Express Tribune, and she has contributed to international newspapers including The Independent, The Guardian, and The International Herald Tribune. She is an alumnus of the International Writers Workshop (IWP 2011).
This group of people is known as the Ahmadis, and they constitute a community that has been declared non-Muslim—not just by religious clerics but also the Pakistani government, who are controlling language to rob the Ahmadis of their very identity.
The Ahmadis are a reformist movement within Islam, but orthodox Muslims reject them because the Ahamdis believe their leader, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who lived in India during British rule in the 19th century, was the “reformer promised at the End times,” an individual also known as the Mahdi, or Messiah. In the eyes of orthodox Muslims, this claim throws doubt on whether or not the Ahmadis truly believe the Prophet Muhammed was the last and final prophet sent from God to spread the divine message—a central tenet of Islam. Their belief in the divine role of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, along with other practices that seem to contradict mainstream Islamic thought, is what drove orthodox Muslims to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims.
In Pakistan, there are about two million Ahmadis who live under the most stressful conditions imaginable thanks to the Pakistani government’s myriad ordinances and constitutional amendments declaring them non-Muslims. Of course, there has always been tension between the Muslim orthodoxy and the Ahmadi community because of the differences in belief, but in order to curry favor with the religious clergy in 1974, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, changed the constitution so that it actually defined a Muslim as “a person who believes in the finality of Prophet Muhammed.” With a stroke of the pen, Ahmadis became non-Muslims, and lost their identity as Muslims forever more.
As a follow-up, the dictator General Zia introduced Ordinance XX, which was designed to “prevent anti-Islamic activities.” Suddenly Ahmadis were told that they could not “pose as Muslims,” and could not call their mosques “mosques” – henceforth they would be referred to as “places of worship.” Additionally, Ahmadis were not allowed to preach, convert, disseminate religious material to, or perform prayers with Muslims. Even worse, they were barred from greeting anyone with the traditional Islamic greeting “assalam aleikum” (Peace be upon you), which even Hindus, Christians, and anyone of any other faith is allowed to utter.
Tellingly, Pakistan’s only Nobel Prize winner, the physicist Dr. Abdus Salam, an Ahmadi, has never properly been recognized for his achievements because of the controversy surrounding Ahmadis. Since his death, his tombstone has been defaced, with the word “Muslim” scratched off it. Moreover, all Pakistanis who want a passport or ID card have to sign an oath saying that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was an impostor and that Ahmadis are non-Muslims.
Ahmadis are also derogatively referred to as “Qadianis” (Qadian being the town that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad came from in India). And, on that note, a look at the Qadianis Wikipedia page reveals it has been hacked and Urdu curse words inserted into some of the sentences. As follows in the real world, Qadianis are also the subject of unbelievable amounts of hate literature and hate speech. In May 2010, suicide bombers entered two Ahmadi mosques, opened fire, then blew themselves up, killing nearly a hundred people.
Prejudice and bigotry against minority groups and sects is nothing new in any part of the world. But in the case of Pakistan’s Ahmadis, language itself has been enlisted as a weapon against them. Let alone the changing of the constitution or the requirement to sign an oath against them when other Pakistanis need documents to prove their own identity, the Ahmadis themselves have been forbidden to use certain words central to life in Pakistan. They are forbidden to spread the word or profess anything about their own beliefs in any sphere of public life. Perhaps the most frustrating part is that they are not even allowed to call themselves what they want to be called. This kind of identity theft operates on the subtlest level, resulting in the robbing of dignity from an entire community with not-so-subtle results: Death and destruction, and injustice for all.