Thursday, June 10, 2010

We decide whether you're Muslim or not

ON MAY 28th, during Friday prayers, two squads of gunmen entered a pair of mosques belonging to the Ahmadis, a minority Islamic sect, in Pakistan’s south-eastern city of Lahore. Methodically, they emptied AK-47s into the assembled worshippers, lobbed grenades and exploded suicide vests. Their rampage has claimed 95 lives to date. Our Pakistan correspondent writes about the perpetrators, the Punjabi Taliban.

The deaths were shocking, but so was the response by officialdom, the media and the public. Yes, the attacks aroused a deal of concern in Pakistan. Lahore, after all, is the Punjabi capital and Pakistan’s cultural heart, a place of sophistication far removed from the country’s lawless frontiers, where extremism tends to make its breeding ground.

Yet the concern was palpably not for the Ahmadi victims. Politicians have shunned the bereaved. Punjab’s chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, has not shown his face at either mosque, despite living down the road from them. Admittedly, an admirable trio of women in parliament pushed through a motion abhorring the attacks, but it only just squeaked through, and that because it was hitched to another motion condemning Israel’s deadly commando raid on the Gaza aid convoy.

On television, pundits have failed to call for solidarity with the beleagured Ahmadi community, who number 4m-odd in Pakistan. At street protests called in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, meagre numbers showed up. To understand better what a fellow journalist, Declan Walsh of the Guardian, calls a conspiracy of silence, I joined the Ahmadis for their Friday prayers exactly a week after the attacks, at the Darul Zikr mosque that bore the brunt of the violence.

I had been invited by Shahid Ata-ullah, an active Ahmadi elder with the pep and twinkling energy that comes with being a retired Pakistani military man. I had met his daughter earlier that week at dinner in Islamabad. She told me how sick with worry about her father she and her family had been, as the story of the attacks unfolded live on television. But a week later Mr Ata-ullah could chuckle about it. “When I came out and checked my phone, I had 103 voice messages! Could be something of a record, eh?”

At the mosque most evidence of the carnage had been cleaned up. There remained only a few pockmarks on pillars and a pile of mangled metal in the courtyard, the remains of a door by which an attacker had detonated his vest. By the look of things, nothing much might have happened.

Most striking was the community’s outward calm. Young Ahmadis frisked the worshippers, admittedly more thoroughly than usual, as they entered the mosque. A dozen men stood silent guard about the compound, armed with submachine guns against repeat attacks; every one of the guards had lost a father, brother or son. Mr Ata-ullah embraced one young man without a word exchanged, the son of the late leader of Lahore’s Ahmadis, Munir Ahmad Sheikh, who had been shot as he led the prayers. Late last year Mr Sheikh had sat down with one of my colleagues and explained how anti-Ahmadi thuggery was on the rise. Very quickly it was clear to me that this was a community not just used to persecution, but determined to continue their faith in the face of it.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community was founded by a 19th-century cleric, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who claimed divine revelation in restoring a corrupted Islam to a purer form. His revivalist teachings were an eclectic mix of Sufism and other Islamic and Christian elements. His claim to be a prophet sent by god, albeit not a "law-bearing" prophet, has enraged more orthodox Muslims. Ahmad was also convinced that Jesus survived his ordeal on the cross to die at a ripe old age—in Kashmir. This also challenges orthodox Islam, which holds that Jesus was raised alive to heaven.

Reasonable men ought to be able to differ. (I confess, so strike me god, that my early Roman Catholic catechism of Jesus’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection seems no less implausible than the Kashmiri theorem.) But from the start, of all Islam’s many sects, Ahmadis have been singled out for persecution.

Worse, from the 1970s the Pakistani state has officially sanctioned the persecution. In response to anti-Ahmadi riots in 1974 parliament passed a constitutional amendment to define what it was to be Muslim. Ahmadis were pointedly excluded. Then in 1984 General Zia ul Haq, Pakistan’s Sunni dictator, amended the laws again.

Henceforth Ahmadis were prohibited from professing their faith, and banned from “indirectly or directly posing as a Muslim”. In other words, even saying asalaam aleikum was out of bounds, though Pakistan has no other common greeting.

Ahmadis henceforth could not call the faithful to prayer. They could not display Koranic inscriptions. They could not build new mosques, repair old ones or even refer to their "mosques" as such—they were now “places of worship”, if you please. Indeed belief in the prophethood of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad itself was blasphemous, because it defiled the name of the Prophet Muhammad—a capital crime.

Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch points out that while the government persecutes Ahmadi—some 400 Ahmadis have been charged in the past decade—it rarely brings cases against the perpetrators of anti-Ahmadi violence. In Lahore when I was there, banners flew from some of main thoroughfares proclaiming death to the “Qadianis”, a derogatory term for Ahmadis. The Punjab government of Mr Sharif refuses to pull them down, on the grounds that removing them might generate an “adverse reaction”.

Mr Ata-ullah and colleagues—gentle, cultured men—guffaw at what they call the “mischief of the law”, the multiple absurdities of their persecution. Mr Ata-ullah points to an engraving of the Kalima that the government has crudely boarded over. Anywhere else, he says, covering up that profession of the Muslim faith would be a shocking act. The Ahmadis maintain thick volumes that keep a tally of the persecution. In one instance, the entire Ahmadi population of nearby Rabwah town, about 60,000 people, was booked for dressing up smartly and distributing sweets to children on the centenary of the community’s founding.

During the first Friday prayers after the massacre, there was no sign of anger at the perpetrators, nor of self-pity. But as the worshippers knelt with their heads to the ground, a low keening like the sound of a rushing wind ran through the mosque, and shoulders suddenly shook in grief. “In our prayers we always weep,” Mr Ata-ullah said afterwards. “The milk does not rise in the mother’s breast until the baby cries. Before Allah we must cry like babies if we want his blessing. We cry like a whole pot on the boil.” John Banyan, The Economist

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