Is it Time to for Pakistan to Revisit the 'Ahmadi Question'?

Pakistani news photographers take pictures of desecrated graves at the minority Ahmadi sect graveyard in Lahore on December 3
Pakistani news photographers take pictures of desecrated graves at the minority Ahmadi sect graveyard in Lahore on December 3, 2012. Gunmen desecrated graves of Ahmadis in eastern Pakistan, members of the minority community said, in the latest act of intimidation and religious hatred against the beleaguered group. AFP PHOTO/Arif ALI (Photo credit should read Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

Neatly nestled amidst the immaculately kept 'Bahishti Maqbara' cemetery in Rabwah, is the final resting place of Professor Abdus Salam, Pakistan's first Nobel Laureate and the first Muslim to receive the prize. The headstone marking his burial spot is a discreet slab of white marble, distinguishable from those around it only by virtue of its slightly taller height.

It is disarming to see one of Pakistan's most famous sons buried in such obscurity. Of greater concern are the whitewashed words from the epitaph inscribed on the stone. In one particular dark irony, Salam is hailed as the 'first Nobel Laureate' with the word 'Muslim' erased as part of the desecration and thereby conferring on him a higher honor than was his due.

This unceremonious treatment stems from the fact that the physicist was an Ahmadi - a community long persecuted in Pakistan for their perceived heresy.

With his name vanished from the record books, his ground-breaking achievements in theoretical physics ignored and his role of national hero usurped by figures of much lesser worth, Salam's plight mirrors that of Ahmadis in Pakistan who have for many years now been forced to retreat to the farthest margins of public life.

So far in fact that they are for the most part consigned from memory - a societal taboo few dare to confront. Though there are sporadic instances where the nation comes face to face with the longstanding 'Ahmadi question' as was the case after the recent mob attack on an Ahmadi owned chip board factory in Jhelum, they are not only rare but seldom venture beyond the realm of platitude or convoluted theology.

But at a time when Pakistan, on the surface at least, is demonstrating a greater commitment to fighting extremism and religious intolerance through the ongoing army operation 'Zarb-e-Azb' against Islamic insurgents in North Waziristan and policy initiatives like the National Action Plan perhaps its time to avail the Jhelum tragedy by bringing back the Ahmadi question to the forefront of the national discourse.

More than anything else, Pakistan's deep-seated climate of intolerance has been built on the foundations of anti-Ahmadi sentiment.

Historically, when Pakistan was first formed, the role of Islam in the new polity assumed a prominent position in the national debate and religious groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami, who had originally opposed its creation, seized the opportunity to advance their own theocratic version of statehood.

One primary tactic in consolidating their position was to turn to the Ahmadi question and call on the government to have the community excommunicated from Islam. Matters first came to a head in 1953 when agitations broke out across Punjab and were at their worst in the provincial capital of Lahore. The army were called in to quell the disturbance and a city-wide martial law was announced.

After a period of relative calm the issue resurfaced when the government of then-Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto finally had Ahmadis declared non-Muslim through the second constitutional amendment of 1974 as part of his efforts to reshape the ideological paradigm of the country and bring the religious parties under his control. This confirmation of the union between state and religion paved the way for the Islamisation policies of General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980's again spearheaded off the back of the Ahmadi question with the promulgation of Ordinance XX which essentially criminalised every aspect of the religious and civic life of Ahmadis in Pakistan.

As of now the Ahmadi issue is so woven into the national fabric that the only way to be recognised as a Muslim in Pakistan is to deny the founder of the movement and the community itself as per the declaration found on Pakistani passport and ID card forms. This again has given way to another dark irony; a community accused of being an enemy of Islam is now essential to its existence for without rejecting it one cannot enter the fold of the religion.

Within a broader context the reverberations of this acrid controversy have given rise to the growth of sectarianism in the country, with the second constitutional amendment used as a precedent by which to ostracise other minority groups; played a key factor in the politicisation of religious issues; and provided a constant platform for religious groups to reach for relevancy.

How strange then that a crucial determining factor in Pakistan's current travails should be assiduously ignored.

Part of this is due to fear and even talking about Ahmadis can be a dangerous business. Part of it has to do with the fact that after years of indoctrination and one-way rhetoric many people actually support the persecution of the community. And part of it is from the embarrassment that comes with being associated with such a sordid affair.

Notwithstanding all this, there was a noticeable difference in the way the mainstream media covered the Jhelum attack compared to previous atrocities. Apart from formal condemnations, genuine and nuanced discourse about the rights of Ahmadis in Pakistan, social attitudes towards them and what it means to be a citizen in Pakistan was brought into open discussion.

It is exactly this kind of conversation that has to come to the fore because the handling of the Ahmadi question is integral to the future direction of Pakistan through its inextricable link with the darkest recesses of its past. An honest and fair-minded discussion has become a necessity. Not just in newsrooms, but in all public spheres.

More fundamentally it needs to be conducted in a mature manner, free of polemics, the threat of violence and by taking on board the viewpoints of Ahmadis themselves.

It is imperative that the Ahmadi question be revisited. Without engaging with one of the principle causes of religious tension in Pakistan no amount of military operations or action plans will be able to prevent further blazes, like the one in Jhelum, from being lit. And fire is something that can only be contained for so long.