A POLICE officer stands guard outside the Batul Noor mosque of the Ahmadi community in Lahore in 2013..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It was a warm October morning in Washington, DC, and as I walked past the State Department on 23rd Street in my mind I was rehearsing the question I was going to ask Pakistan’s foreign minister.
Khawaja Asif had assumed the position just two months ago and was already on a visit to cozy up with the Trump administration.
Just a day before on October 4 he had met US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. I was hoping I would be able to use that in my favor and ask Asif about the remarks made by Tillerson back in August.
On August 15, Secretary Tillerson had questioned Pakistan’s religious freedom obligations and had blamed the government for “marginalizing” the country’s Ahmadiyya Muslims.
This was the point I wanted to raise with Asif. The question’s timing was relevant too, since as he was on his US tour, back home in Pakistan his political party the PMLN was under fire for apparently changing a law that would allow the Ahmadis to take part in the electoral process.
Ahmadis are a very unique Islamic sect. They believe in a prophet after Muhammad but identify themselves as Muslim, yet they are considered heretics by other Muslims. Pakistan refuses to recognize them as Muslim, so much so that in 1974 Pakistan’s supposedly secular prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto amended the constitution to declare the Ahmadis “non-Muslim.” That legacy of hate was carried on by his daughter Benazir Bhutto, who refused meet Pakistan’s top scientist, Dr. Abdus Salam, because of his Ahmadi faith.
In January I managed to question her son Bilawal on his family’s political role in persecuting the Ahmadis, who currently number no more than 500,000 in Pakistan. In his two-minute answer, he did not say “Ahmadis” even once.
I had learned from that encounter and this time I wanted to direct Tillerson’s question to Asif: why does Pakistan marginalize Ahmadiyya Muslims, and refuse to recognize them as Muslim? However, as the over-attended event ended Asif refused to take any questions from the media and got up to leave after answering few questions from the audience.
I felt frustrated that a forum which gives breaks to minority journalists like me was being used to silence the press. As soon as the audience got up, an old man with silver hair got up and shook hands with the minister and had his picture taken with him.
As all of this was going on I was snapping away with my iPhone. The man was a Zaheer Bajwa, a prominent member of the Ahmadiyya community in the US, and this interaction between him and the minister was about to go viral.
As I woke up the next morning there was a nonstop stream of Twitter mentions and Facebook likes on the photo of Bajwa and Asif. Although it was a blurry photo of two old men exchanging pleasantries, the picture was widely shared by Pakistani journalists, and by Pakistan’s opposition leaders as proof that the ruling party PMLN was conspiring with the Ahmadis to abolish the country’s law against them. The same laws that are used to jail Ahmadis for saying the Islamic greeting “Assalam Alaikum.”
The controversy was growing, as the picture was retweeted again and again by supporters of the PTI, a political party led by former cricketer Imran Khan. Pakistani social media claimed this was a direct attack on the Islamic republic and that Minister Asif must resign.
As soon as Asif got back to Pakistan he was interviewed on the background of the picture and while answering the host’s question, Asif laughed and said he had unknowingly met the Ahmadi and did not know his faith. The minister further explained how he now even questions the faith of kids who come up to take pictures with him. Relating an incident, he said, “ I asked them, you are not Qadiani are you? I even have two witnesses that I asked them this.”
“Qadiani” is a derogatory, highly offensive term for Ahmadis.
The episode, however, did not end there. On October 9 an Ahmadi lawyer, his wife and two-year-old son were murdered, just as the son-inlaw of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, Muhammad Safdar, lashed out against the Ahmadis in a 20-minute tirade in Parliament.
Safdar also announced that he would bring in a resolution in Parliament which would exclude the Ahmadis from the army and prevent them from holding any public office.
The speech was just a day after he had arrived in Pakistan from London and was arrested at the airport on corruption charges, before being released on bail.
MP Safdar, Foreign Minister Asif and leaders of his political party the PMLN including former prime minister Nawaz Sharif are under investigation by Pakistani courts on corruption charges. The Sharifs think that Pakistan’s army is pulling strings against them, and the only trick they have up their sleeve against the powerful army chief is his family’s faith.
The army’s chief of staff is alleged to have family members who are Ahmadi, making him easy game. The only way the Sharifs can turn the majority of the conservative Pakistanis against their own army is if they are able to prove that military chief Qamar Bajwa is an Ahmadi.
Safdar’s speech was a signal to Bajwa that they have one last card in their pocket and if Bajwa does not stop the courts from going after them, he and his family will not be safe from the religious Right that the PMLN has influence over.The author is founder and editor of the Rabwah Times, a digital publication with a focus on minorities.