On May 28, 2010, two gunmen stormed into a Lahore mosque during Friday prayers, spraying bullets as they went. About fifteen kilometers away, two more attackers lobbed grenades and exploded suicide vests in another mosque.
The brazen, four-hour massacre of minority Ahmadi Muslims left up to ninety-five people dead and 120 wounded. Days later, gunmen targeted a nearby hospital where many of the victims were being treated. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) local affiliate claimed responsibility for the attacks. “This is a final warning to the [Ahmadi community] to leave Pakistan or prepare for death at the hands of the Prophet Muhammad’s devotees,” the group told journalists in a text message reported by TIME.
Just days after the 2010 attacks, an Ahmadi man in the Narowal district, in northeastern Punjab, was stabbed to death in the night while he slept beside his wife. His murderer had been inspired to violence after local clerics had described the entire Ahmadi community as wajib-e-qatl, or “deserving of death.” Town residents said the man claimed he would leave no Ahmadis alive.
In January 2015, after years of prodding from international and local human rights groups, an anti-terrorism court sentenced one captured gunman from the Lahore attack to life in prison. His accomplice received the death penalty.
While more aligned with Sunnism, the belief system of the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam diverges from both Sunnism and Shi’ism. According to orthodox Sunni and Shia Muslims, many of whom believe that Ahmadis are heretics, Muhammad is the last in a long line of prophets sent to the world. While Ahmadis believe Muhammad brought the last religious law to humanity, they believe their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, followed him as a promised reformer. They also believe Ahmad is the second coming of Jesus, who they claim died a natural death.
In the intervening years since the Lahore attack, violence against Ahmadis in Pakistan has not slowed. Last year, at least eleven Ahmadis were killed for their faith, according to data from an Ahmadi community organization. In most cases, authorities did not apprehend the perpetrators; in other cases, the accused were let out on bail.
In May 2014, two motorcyclists gunned down an Ahmadi cardiologist from Ohio, Mehdi Ali Qamar, in front of his wife and two-year-old son while they were visiting Pakistan on a humanitarian mission. At the time, Qamar was paying respect his parent’s graves in an Ahmadi cemetery in Rabwah, the small town where the country’s Ahmadi community is headquartered.
Police said they found no motive for the murder. But, according to a spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya community, leaflets had recently started to circulate near the town, claiming that receiving treatment at the Ahmadi-run heart institute where Qamar volunteered was un-Islamic.
Discrimination against Ahmadis in Pakistan
Since the sect’s founding in 1838, Ahmadis have been persecuted by Sunni and Shia communities alike. This persecution has taken place in various countries, including Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia, the latter of which has forbidden them from performing pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca. But nowhere is this persecution so institutionalized as in Pakistan.
In Pakistan, discrimination against Ahmadis has deep roots. Through an amendment to the Pakistani constitution, passed in 1973 under Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the government declared Ahmadis non-Muslim. The move intensified popular boycotts and harassment of Ahmadis in the country.
In 1984, the Pakistani government criminalized the act of “posing as Muslim” through Ordinance XX, passed under dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamization initiative. The provision prohibited Ahmadis from referring to themselves as Muslim, performing the Muslim call to prayer, building mosques or referring to their buildings as such, quoting from the Quran, or using the Islamic greeting in public. The law represents the legal backbone for the sectarianism and mob justice now rampant throughout the country.
In addition to targeting Christians, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws also disproportionately impact the beleaguered Ahmadiyya community. These controversial laws mandate the death penalty for defiling the Qur’an or the name of Prophet Muhammad. According to Pakistan’s National Commission for Justice and Peace, about 500 Ahmadis have been accused of blasphemy since 1987, a year after the law came into force; an Ahmadi organization puts the figure at 1,024.
When legal persecutions do not follow accusations of blasphemy, hard-liners often take justice into their own hands. Since 1990, more than sixty people in Pakistan have been killed by civilians after being accused of blasphemy, according to the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad.
In July 2014, one day before the celebration of Eid-ul-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, a frenzied mob of a thousand Sunni and Shia Muslims in the city of Gujranwala set Ahmadi homes and businesses ablaze in retaliation for an allegedly blasphemous Facebook post by a young Ahmadi man. While the mob danced and police stood idly by, a fifty-five year-old Ahmadi woman and her two young granddaughters suffocated to death as a result of the smoke. The girls’ pregnant aunt miscarried during the ensuing chaos.
“Police were there, but just watching the burning,” a representative of the Ahmadi community said in a statement reported by The Telegraph. “They didn’t do anything to stop the mob. First they [the mob] looted their [Ahmadi] homes and shops and then they burnt the homes.”
Persecution of Ahmadis Part of a Broader Problem
Stories like these are commonplace for all of Pakistan’s minority groups. Broad persecution of Christians, atheists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Shia Muslims is rampant in the country. The testimony of one Sunni is enough to charge anyone with blasphemy; a mere whisper of heresy is more than sufficient to kick-start a brutal vigilante killing.
In November 2014, an enraged mob of up to 1,500 villagers in a town south of Lahore burned a pregnant Christian woman and her husband alive in a kiln, over allegedly desecrating the Qur’an. No actual evidence of desecration was ever found, and neighbors told media an unpaid loan had actually sparked the rumor. Just this month, armed men opened fire on a bus full of Ismaili Shia, leaving at least forty-three people dead.
Efforts to overturn or reform Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to prevent these sorts of incidents, have been met with resistance.
Before she was assassinated in April 2015, Pakistani human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud had thrown her support behind a plan, introduced by a researcher in Lahore, to counter extremist logic by highlighting the blasphemy laws’ moral flaws to religious scholars. Though Mahmud’s death was reportedly unconnected to her support for this plan, the targeted killing of the blasphemy laws’ high profile opponents is tragically common.
In 2011, Punjab governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by his security guard because of his staunch opposition to these laws. His murderer was showered with support from about 500 religious clerics. After his death, Sherry Rahman, former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, attempted to lead efforts to reform the blasphemy laws, but was flooded with death threats from the religious right. Government officials claimed she pulled her reform proposal, but Rahman told media the legislature caved to religious clerics and rejected the bill outright. Later, Rahman was charged with blasphemy under the same laws she had hoped to counter.
In March 2011, the country’s first federal minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, was ambushed by gunmen in broad daylight for condemning the blasphemy law. The TTP claimed responsibility for his assassination, calling him a “blasphemer.” In May 2014, human rights lawyer Rashid Rehman Khan was shot and killed in his office by two young men after he defended a university professor accused of blasphemy. Khan had reported receiving death threats in previous weeks.
The Ahmadis Are Particularly Vulnerable to Persecution
These attacks speak to the dark reality that is faced even by those who dare defend Pakistan’s religious minorities, and the degree to which sectarian strife seeps into the lives of all Pakistanis.
But few minorities are as targeted as the Ahmadi community. Indeed, because the blasphemy laws disproportionately spotlight Ahmadis, those who oppose the laws are often seen as supporting heresy. This places activists in harm’s way and perpetuates the cycle of violence against the Ahmadi community.
Attempts at countering this legacy of violence against the Ahmadis have been slow in coming. Visual imagery and social limitations continue to enforce the othering of the Ahmadi community. Lahore’s streets, for example, feature posters calling for an end to the sect. Desecration of Ahmadi graves is an ongoing problem, in which uniformed police participate, and many businesses forbid members of the sect from entering their establishments. Claiming not to want to antagonize anti-Ahmadi groups, the government has all but refused to intervene in these displays of public harassment and discrimination.
Indeed, the Pakistani government has frequently worked to undermine the Ahmadi community as a legitimate branch of Islam. In early May 2015, a judge ordered a local Ahmadi mosque’s minarets and arch razed for “posing” as Islamic structures. Police have reportedly prevented Ahmadis from participating in the traditional sacrifice of animals on the Eid-ul-Adha holiday, claiming observance of this Islamic ritual has no relevance to the sect. Dozens of Ahmadi students have been expelled from state-run schools because of their religious background. “The…government is either in denial about threats to Ahmadis and other minorities or [it] is following a policy of willful discrimination,” Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
In the past decade, human rights organizations across the world have taken notice of the state-sponsored oppression of Ahmadis. Even President Barack Obama has condemned Pakistan’s persecution of Ahmadis. It is hard, however, to see things improving for Ahmadis in Pakistan, with the government working in constant opposition to the community’s interests and those advocating against the blasphemy laws in perpetual danger. Until these divisive laws are reformed, zealots will continue to target the Ahmadis and other religious minorities, without fear of accountability.
As long as this is the case, incidents like the 2010 Lahore attacks will only become more and more common.
This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Ordinance XX was passed in 1984, not 1974.