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Ahmadis of Pakistan: Nobody Should Have the Right to Define or Categorise Who Is A Muslim and Who Is Not


By Ishtiaq Ahmed

September 13, 2018

In the light of the clumsy and awkward decision of the Imran Khan Government first to include Dr Atif Mian in the Economic Advisory Council and then exclude him the next day under pressure from the Ulema and others has been the subject of unprecedented attention from the world press and social media. One thing is certain, the government is still not a coherent and well-knit entity which knows how to conduct its affairs in a predictable manner. The three-month grace period Imran Khan has requested is a valid one, however.

People have wondered how an economist enjoying the respect of his peers worldwide could be denied inclusion simply because of his faith in Ahmadiyyat. Those who argue that it is consistent with the constitution and laws of Pakistan which describes them as non-Muslims assert that they should not claim to be Muslims. If they accept their status as non-Muslims, they can enjoy all those rights and protections which other minorities are entitled to according to the Pakistan constitution.

Others argue that nobody should have the right to define or categorise who is a Muslim and who is not. The debates and controversies which have emerged are familiar ones and by no means something new.

One argument I have made innumerable times is that since Pakistan is signatory to the UN Charter and accepts the moral status of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), it is under legal-ethical obligation to remove all provisions in the Pakistan constitution which contradict such a commitment.

For example, Article 20 on Freedom to profess religion and to manage religious institutions. — Subject to law, public order and morality, states further:

(a) Every citizen shall have the right to profess, practise and propagate his religion; and

(b) Every religious denomination and every sect thereof shall have the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions.

Other provisions restrict the freedom of religion, however. In 1974 the Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims. Later, severe restrictions were imposed on them including forbidding them to call themselves Muslims or use Islamic nomenclature for their places of worship and so on. Quite simply, the Pakistan constitution is not a coherent document.

It is worthwhile to note that in the seventeenth century, John Locke could talk about liberalism and government by consent, and yet argue that only Anglican Christians should have the right to vote and hold public office in England, while Catholics could at most enjoy their faith privately. This principle was also extended to Jews and Muslims (some thousands were in England at the time). He disqualified atheists from enjoying any rights because he thought that since they do not believe in God — from whom rights derive — they should not be entitled to those rights. All that has changed in the UK and the rest of the West.

Modern human rights theory derives from Immanuel Kant’s notion of the Categorical Imperative. It says that one should act only on those rules of action that one wants to be made universal laws. According to him, a rule of conduct that implies that one person may do something but another, in similar circumstances, may not, is immoral. In other words, the Categorical Imperative demands consistency.

The Categorical Imperative also states that one should treat humanity as rational beings who are an end in themselves and never as a means to an end only. Human beings are uniquely capable of reasoning about their choices and therefore are inherently valuable and worthy of respect for this reason. For human beings to realise their inner worth it is important that they enjoy meaningful autonomy vis-à-vis state and society. Autonomy makes possible for us to make rationally and morally correct choices.

Critics of the universalism of Kant are many, but it will suffice to present two main counterpoint positions. The Communitarians assert that rights are culture or community specific and, more importantly, the ontology of the rational individual is flawed because people are shaped by the communities in which they are born and raised and therefore rights can derive legitimately only from the values and beliefs of the community.

Others argue against rationality alone being made the basis for claiming and enjoying rights. There are human beings who are not able to reason in accordance with a conventional understanding of rationality. These include children and those suffering from impairment of their reasoning abilities. Also, not very long-ago women, working people, and some ethnic and racial groups were also considered incapable of acting like rational human beings. The emphasis on rationality is therefore not the true basis of rights. It can confine the right to enjoy rights arbitrarily to some groups or class of people. Therefore, the true basis of rights must be human sympathy and solidarity, or in other words, the human conscience.

Proceeding along such lines, let me pose the question: would those who insist that Ahmadis should not hold public office because they hold a belief subversive of Khatam-e-Nabuwwat, be willing to accept that if belief in the Christian dogma that Jesus is the Son of God was made the basis for the 15-20 million Muslims in Europe and North America a pre-condition to accept for living in Europe as equal citizens or alternatively accepting secondary status and the discrimination which follows from such a stipulation?

Let me propose another hypothetical situation: imagine a society in which Ahmadis are in majority while Shias and Sunnis are in a minority. Would it be right for such a state to disqualify them from holding public office because they do not subscribe to Ahmadi beliefs?

The Bahais of Iran declared that theirs was a separate religion from Islam. That did not prevent persecution when Ayatollah Khomeini and his clergy captured power. In fact, terrible massacres of Bahais took place. However, the Bahais have closed the discussion on this problem by declaring themselves a non-Muslim minority. Thus far, the Ahmadi leadership is not willing to accept that Ahmadiyyat is a separate religion.

It is not for me to prescribe what to believe or not to believe, but I wonder if belief and dogma should serve as the basis of institutionalised discrimination.

Concrete policy needs to be developed which provides substantive relief to Ahmadis. Most toil like other Pakistanis and their aspirations are not very different from them. Securing the welfare of their families and a bright future for them is what occupies most of their attention. They should be allowed to join the mainstream in the economic sphere while in the private sphere they should be entitled to religious freedom.

Ishtiaq Ahmed is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; Visiting Professor Government College University; and, Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He has written a number of books and won many awards, he can be reached on