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Shifting Towards the Right - The Systematic Persecution of the Ahmadis in Pakistan

By Mehmal Sarfraz

October 12, 2017

Pakistan has no dearth of bigots but if bigotry had a name, it would have been Captain (retd) Muhammad Safdar Awan. He is not just an ordinary member of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz; he is also the son-in-law of the former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. On Tuesday, Captain Safdar turned the National Assembly of Pakistan into a hate speech centre. His vitriol against the Ahmadiyya community was disgusting and dangerous at the same time.

Less than a year ago, Nawaz Sharif, the then premier, had renamed the Quaid-i-Azam University's physics centre after Professor Abdus Salam, Pakistan's first Nobel laureate and an Ahmadi. Captain Safdar had the gall to demand that this be undone. "These people [Ahmadis] are a threat to this country, its Constitution and ideology," said Safdar. He further went on to say that he wants to table a resolution in the Assembly asking for a ban on the recruitment of Ahmadis in the armed forces. Maybe he has forgotten the names of several brave Ahmadi soldiers who have served Pakistan valiantly. But, then again, maybe Safdar knows this all too well since he had also once served in the army. But he has wilfully chosen to ignore their services and wants to play to the religious galleries.

It is not the first time that he has made a bigoted statement. In the past, Safdar had praised Mumtaz Qadri, the self-confessed murderer of Punjab's governor, Salmaan Taseer. Even on Tuesday, he chanted slogans in favour of Mumtaz Qadri while he was still on the premises of the National Assembly. Just last week, Pakistan's interior minister, Ahsan Iqbal, had said something quite opposite of what his party leader's son-in-law is propagating. Iqbal said: "Another thing people do is give out Fatwas [religious decrees] about who can be murdered - that is not for individuals to decide, only the State can decide such matters. No individual has the right to do that." It is time Iqbal puts his money where his mouth is and takes action against Captain Safdar for raising slogans in favour of a convicted murderer, Qadri, who was hanged by the State itself. If a member of parliament justifies, nay glorifies, a man who assassinated a sitting governor because of wrong and unlawful fatwas against him, he/she does not deserve to be part of our Parliament. Safdar is guilty of glorifying a terrorist, a murderer, and, on top of that, he crossed all limits of decency and virtually called out for the ostracisation and disenfranchisement of the Ahmadiyya community.

The Ahmadiyya community already faces persecution at the hands of the State as well as our society. Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims in 1974 by the State of Pakistan. When General Zia-ul-Haq came to power a few years later, he further amended Pakistani laws by introducing Ordinance XX, which specifically targeted the Ahmadis. It is for this reason that Safdar's diatribe against the Ahmadis makes it all the more alarming as religious zealots are already out there in full force against this community. There have been countless attacks on Ahmadis all over the country, be it in educational institutions, Ahmadi mosques, their homes and/or on the street. Safdar and his ilk are the ones who legitimize violence against the Ahmadis and other minorities by questioning their patriotism. Shame on Captain Safdar and shame on all those who silently stand by and not condemn such hateful acts.

On the one hand, we have parliamentarians like Captain Safdar who wear their faux-religiosity on their sleeves and on the other our State has decided to mainstream jihadis/militants. Both paths spell doom and danger.

For many, the recent by-elections in Lahore's NA-120 were an eye-opener. While the main contestants were Nawaz Sharif's spouse, Begum Kulsoom Nawaz, and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf's Yasmin Rashid, the surprise factor was how well candidates from the religious (or in this case militant) parties did. The candidate from the Milli Muslim League, which is the newly launched political party of Lashkar-e-Toiba, got fourth position while the candidate of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah, a party that supports Mumtaz Qadri, came third. Astonishingly, both these parties were far ahead of the Pakistan People's Party which shows that Punjab's shift towards the Right, be it Centre-Right or extreme Right, is now complete and it is very difficult to undo this damage. Some believe it is not just Punjab but Pakistan as a whole that is shifting towards the Right.

The military establishment may think it is alright if militants are mainstreamed and become part of our political process but for any sane person, this policy should raise alarm bells. Who are these militants that are going to be part of our political process? The likes of LeT and Qadri supporters? If so, they have certainly not renounced violence or given up arms - the preconditions for any mainstreaming process. No good will come out of this policy until and unless these proscribed organizations give up militancy completely.

Such half-baked and flawed policies in the past have led Pakistan to a juncture where it is hard to move forward because of religious extremism, violence and intolerance. Just a day before Captain Safdar's anti-Ahmadi spiel, three Hazara Shias were gunned down in Quetta. Sectarian militant outfits were once nurtured by our State for proxy wars and jihad. Whether they have outlasted their use still remains to be seen but on the surface our State has started taking action against some sectarian terrorists, but most of them are still operating with impunity.

Pakistan's foreign minister, Khawaja Asif, said many a good thing during his recent visit to the United States of America as far as militant organizations are concerned and on changing the narrative but we need to walk the talk. Making progressive and liberal statements in front of international audiences will not do us any good. Our rulers need to understand that this country has already borne the brunt of the Afghan jihad, the Kashmir jihad, and various other wars that have no relevance whatsoever when it comes to Pakistan's own vested interests. We are leaving a bleak future for our next generation, which will grow up watching terrorist attacks on their television screens, on their schools, on the streets.

We need to leave behind a country where no one will hand out certificates of patriotism, where no one will ask which faith/sect you belong to, where your religion is not the State's business, where you can have a peaceful debate on religion without worrying for your safety, where you can walk without the fear of a terrorist attack and where people - even powerful parliamentarians - are taken to task for hate speech. If our ruling elite is actually interested in a progressive and peaceful Pakistan, they need to challenge the narrative of the far-Right.

Mehmal Sarfraz is a journalist based in Lahore