By Peter Gottschalk
August 8, 2018
Pakistani cricket star-turned-politician
Imran Khan, is all set to be the country’s new prime minister. His party
emerged the single largest in recent elections.
It is only for the second time in the
71-year history of this second largest Muslim majority country that a democratically
elected government will transfer power to another after completing its full
term. The nation’s military has intervened repeatedly to remove leaders and has
directly controlled the country for about half of its history.
And so this recent milestone in Pakistan’s
democracy has elated many citizens. However, one community boycotted the recent
elections, as they have for over three decades: the Ahmadi, a religious
Who are the Ahmadis and what does their
boycott tell about the role religion has played in Pakistan’s nationalist
The Ahmadi of Pakistan
The origin of the Ahmadi community goes
back to the British-ruled India of 1889. At the time, in the province of Punjab
(a region that would later be split between an independent India and Pakistan),
a Muslim religious leader, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, became disenchanted with what he
viewed as Muslim decadence that allowed for the humiliating experience of
Like many Indians, he wondered what needed
to change in order to overcome the invaders.
Many European missionaries wanted to “free”
Indians – both Muslims and Hindus – of what they characterized as their
religious ignorance by bringing them to the “truth” of Christian traditions.
With the British government’s consent, some
travelled through cities and rural areas to publicly denounce Islamic and Hindu
traditions, while others published pamphlets doing so.
To restore the wholesomeness of Islamic
traditions that had once influenced much of South Asia, Ghulam Ahmad
reinterpreted branches of Islamic thought. He broadcast the message of reform
through his prolific writing. Most prominently, he claimed to be both the
Messiah and a prophet.
Most Muslims believe that Isa, or Jesus –
whom they recognize as a prophet akin to Muhammad – will return as a Messiah, a
figure expected to prepare the world for Judgment Day. In contrast, Ghulam
Ahmad claimed to displace Isa in this role and announced that the end times
What was more problematic, particularly to
Islamic scholars, was his claim as a prophet. Most Muslims understand Muhammad
as the “seal of the prophets,” the last sent by God. The Quran represents the
final revelation offered to humanity by God. Ghulam Ahmad addressed these
concerns by claiming to be a lesser type of prophet.
His message attracted growing numbers of
followers among Muslims struggling to deal with the realities of British rule.
Many were drawn partly to his strident criticism of Christian missionaries and
Hindu activists who denigrated them. In 1889 he inaugurated a small group
called the Jamaat-i Ahmadiyya (the Organization of Ahmad), that helped spread
Although some Ahmadis later turned away
from their leader’s most disputed assertions, the Jamaat-i Ahmadiyya held
steadfast to his claim to Prophethood. This group viewed him as nothing less
than the Messiah who had returned to help humanity as it faced its end.
They made Rabwah, a town in Pakistan’s
province of Punjab, their headquarters.
During Ghulam Ahmad’s life, Islamic
scholars expressed disapproval with other scholars or individual Ahmadis.
However, in 1947, after Pakistan was established as a separate Muslim homeland,
some Islamic scholars publicly attacked the theology of the Ahmadis. Various
politicians harnessed the controversy to their nationalist politics.
The Politics of Defining the True Muslim
The first major expression of anti-Ahmadi
sentiment targeted an Ahmadi, Chaudhry Zafarullah Khan, who held the foreign
minister’s post in 1953.
Some Muslims circulated rumours that
Ahmadis proselytized among Muslims and represented a Western-supported
conspiracy. This spurred riots throughout the country in 1953 that led to six
deaths. Subsequently the government removed all Ahmadis, including Zafarullah
Khan from prominent official posts.
For the next two decades, the campaign
against the Ahmadi proceeded haltingly, staggering between occasional local
tensions and evolving political agendas.
In 1974, however, the town of Rabwah became
the epicentre of antagonism. Following riots targeting Ahmadis in many parts of
Pakistan, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Bhutto – among the least religiously inclined
of Pakistan’s leaders – bowed to Islamist pressure to make constitutional
amendments declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims.
Later in 1984, legislation prohibited
Ahmadi from proselytizing or even professing their beliefs.
Matters worsened a year later when the
government divided Pakistan’s electorate into “Muslim” and “non-Muslim.” This
required voters to declare whether they accepted Muhammad as the final prophet.
Ahmadi who declared themselves Muslim faced penalties.
The bottom line is since 1985 most have not
participated in an election. Casting a vote would require them to explicitly
denounce themselves as non-Muslims, which would have its own consequences.
What is important to understand is that the
roots of the current electoral conflict do not inherently lie either in Mirza
Ghulam Ahmad’s message or the Ahmadiyya community.
The conflict emerges from an ideology of
nationalism that inherently promotes a sense of belonging in its citizens, at
the risk of exclusion of certain “outsiders.”
As Britain abandoned South Asia in 1947,
Pakistan’s founders established a secular state meant to protect Muslims as a
separate homeland from the political threats they saw in a Hindu-majority
India. Certain Islamist political groups and politicians combined religious
identity, language and symbols to foster national unity.
Specific domestic religious groups were
targeted as the enemy of the public in order to garner popular support. In
2011, Pakistan was ranked at the top on Pew Research Center’s index on social
hostilities involving religion. The Ahmadis were one targeted group.
Just as the Trump administration questions
the loyalty of Muslim-Americans and simultaneously defines “true” Americans,
increasing numbers of Pakistani politicians and Islamists after 1947 portrayed
the Ahmadis negatively in order to project themselves as protectors of “true”
By 2012, only 7 percent of Pakistanis
considered Ahmadis as Muslims.
Target of Attacks
In this environment the Ahmadis,
representing perhaps 0.2 percent of Pakistan’s 208 million population, continue
to struggle. They have been the targets not only of electoral discrimination
but also of vandalism against their places of worship. They have been accused
of blasphemy, and laws have made it illegal for them to recite the Quran. They
are also not allowed to have Islamic inscriptions on headstones, or even call
their places of worship “mosques.”
Many have despaired of finding acceptance
in their national homeland and emigrated to other nations. In Pakistan, as the
recent election shows, they continue to struggle with a nationalist politics of
Peter Gottschalk is a Professor of Religion, Wesleyan University