After a decade's worth of service in Pakistan’s Armed Forces, Ali Akhtar Tariq, a 38-year-old aeronautical engineer, says he was demoted, threatened, and eventually dismissed following his conversion from Sunni to the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam. He identified Islam as his religion in the annual military paperwork only to be reported by the records office for “posing as Muslim,” as prohibited by the Pakistan Constitution, and was threatened to be shot if he did not convert back in 24 hours, according to Tariq's account.
Though Tariq reported the threat to higher officials, he was socially ostracized once his colleagues discovered he became an Ahmadi. “Those who used to eat and drink with me stopped talking to me. One time I was reading prayers, and my Air Force colleagues tried to force me out of the room,” he said.
Tariq’s account by no means exhausts the record; it is representative of a widespread campaign against roughly half a million Ahmadis in Pakistan, according to a study by Human Rights Watch. The long-persecuted minority is victim to the country’s draconian laws, starting with the second constitutional amendment which deems Ahmadis as non-Muslim and threatens prison sentences if they refer to themselves as such.
“According to the constitution, Ahmadis are not Muslims, not by our own belief,” said Qamar Suleman, the director of the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan.
Ahmadis believe that their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, is another Islamic prophet, a view at odds with the orthodox belief that Muhammad was the final messenger sent by God. “We believe in the Quran and the Holy Prophet,” said Suleman. “No matter the difficulty, we are told that whenever the messiah comes you must accept him, even if you must crawl over snow.”
Since the amendment’s passing in 1974, the sectarian angst has become integral to Pakistani law. Unlike all other Muslims in the country, Ahmadis are prohibited from calling their place of worship a mosque and saying the common Islamic greeting of “Assalamo Alaikum” or the testimony of faith, known as the kalima. They are singled out in their passports and legal identification and cannot hold governmental positions without publicly denouncing Mirza Ghulam Ahmad.
This anti-Ahmadi legislation influences societal attitudes, leaving Ahmadis shunned by many mainstream Muslims and vulnerable to extremist violence. Since 1984, over 260 Ahmadis have been killed, with the most recent attack burning down an Ahmadi mosque in Faisalabad, which left 30 injured.
Conspiracies and tropes affecting Ahmadis’ reputations are based on myth, painting them as Jewish-backed “enemies of Islam,” according to Mirza Usman Ahmad, a freelance writer and advocate for the Ahmadiyya community.
“For the day-to-day of Ahmadis in Pakistan, everything is okay until it’s not, until one fine day they’re accused for being Qadiani,” said Ahmad. Based on the fact that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad originated from Qadian, India, derogatory names like “Qadiani” or “Mirzai” are plagued by contempt. “Even families who are superficially living comfortable lives, they are vulnerable to the flicker of flame that can change everything for them.”
Shazia Shamoon, a 42-year-old mother, understands this vulnerability: “There is great anxiety in our hearts. What are the enemies going to do to us?”
Shamoon’s son and nephew were abducted then jailed, her home was stoned, her daughter was harassed at university, and she has been refused service at markets multiple times for her hijab style that is distinctive to Ahmadi women.
After facing the persecution successively, Shamoon’s family relocated to Rabwah, the only Ahmadi-majority town in the country. Though Rabwah is in the same country that inflicts the state-sanctioned and societal oppression, many Ahmadis experience a rare “strength in numbers” within its isolated radius, according to Ahmad.
“We aren’t safe in Pakistan,” said Shamoon. “There is so much opposition against us that we have become bound in our own home.” Her son and nephew’s photos were posted by anti-Ahmadi groups on social media during their arrest. Shamoon said the photos went viral on Twitter, and Shamoon’s family was threatened against returning to their original city.
“There is this sort of safety net in Rabwah that your neighbor will be Ahmadi, but the hostility of Pakistan still applies in here and beyond,” says Ahmad, who has worked in Rabwah for 14 years. “There have been threats and incidents—it’s not like the people here are immune to anything.”
Since the name of this Ahmadi-majority town, “Rabwah,” is mentioned in the Quran, the Punjab Assembly unanimously agreed to rename it “Chenab Nagar,” referring to the town’s location along the Chenab River bank. The name change happened without the consent of any residents.
“While the intention of the second constitutional amendment was to declare Ahmadis as non-Muslim, its exclusionism and hatred have gone so unfettered that the name ‘Rabwah’ was an unpalatable prospect to the people of Pakistan,” said Ahmad.
Despite the fact that Rabwah is home to nearly 70,000 Pakistanis, of which over 90 percent are Ahmadi, the government refuses to fund schools, hospitals, libraries, or a postal system. The Ahmadiyya Community privately funds its own nonprofit institutions in Rabwah, which are all within cycling distance of each other. A bike stroll down its sandy, placid streets passes a state-of-the-art cardiology hospital, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and portraits of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad decking the storefronts.
The quiet streets can easily mislead one into thinking the town is undisturbed. In 1989, the Punjab police lodged a First Information Report (FIR) against the whole of Rabwah’s Ahmadi population on religious grounds, specifically for displaying Quranic texts on their graves and buildings.
“We are not even secure in Rabwah. But what can we do? We love our country, even if we leave everything behind the circumstances will still remain the same,” said Ahsan Ahmad, a youth leader for the Ahmadiyya chapter in a Toba Tek Singh, a district in Punjab. He was involved in a dispute with the local police and clerics who approached him about removing the minarets on the Ahmadi mosque, as those are “only allowed in Islam, for Muslims.”
In the 44 years since the Pakistani government denied Ahmadis as Muslims, no politicians have spoken out in their support, but instead they have exploited the societal attitudes towards Ahmadis for narrow political advantage. In September of 2018, newly-elected Prime Minister Imran Khan removed Atif Mian, a world-renowned economist, from his advisory board since Mian is of Ahmadi faith. Similarly, Pakistan’s only Nobel Prize winner, Abdus Salam, was unfavorably Ahmadi. The Islamic scripture has been censored from his tombstone in Rabwah, and the government has yet to acknowledge him as a Muslim.
The opportunistic government and self-serving clerics of Pakistan jointly persevere in the exploitation, according to Suleman. “Because religious parties cannot introduce laws by themselves, the clerics have joined hands with the political parties to start making laws against us,” said Suleman.
Under Pakistan Penal Code, Ahmadis are not allowed to preach their faith, which is interpreted by many Pakistani courts as Ahmadis not allowed to speak about their faith. “It’s just impossible to talk about this subject civilly, in any way shape or form. Nobody wants to hear our side of the story,” said Ahmad. “From the side of Ahmadis, that conversation has been completely suffocated. Then what you have here is a vacuum in which that conversation is happening and led by anti-Ahmadi clerics and politicians.”
“This is a severely underappreciated problem since there’s a binary link between the future of Pakistan and the future of its Ahmadis,” said Usman Ahmad. “The Ahmadi issue is edifice of this country’s sectarian strife. Until Pakistan resolves its religious rights, it has a threshold of tolerance, pluralism, and stability. Beyond this threshold it cannot pass, this persecution is blocking it like a glass ceiling from moving forward.”
In the past decade, tens of thousands of Pakistani Ahmadis have sought asylum in other countries, according to estimates compiled by the community.
“Those who can leave Pakistan are leaving, but not all of have the resources. Our families are here, our jobs are here, and we’ve spent our entire lives here,” said Kashif Javed, a fabric store owner based in Rabwah. When Javed went to Lahore, the capital city of Punjab, local merchants refused to ship materials to his store when they saw the address was located in Rabwah.
“So we are just making do in these circumstances,” said Javed. “We are surviving—that is all there is here.”