The Pakistan general election is fast approaching - but one community will not be casting votes

Samira Shackle talks to members of the Ahmadiyya, a minority numbering 4 million. The Ahmadis are branded as "non-Muslims", suffer violent attacks on their mosques and will boycott this weekend's elections.

Pakistan is gearing up for the historic election on 11 May that will mark its first democratic transition from one civilian government to another. Turnout is set to be higher than ever before. But there is one community, numbering around 4 million, who will not be casting their votes.

The Ahmadis are a vilified religious minority in Pakistan, who have undergone decades of persecution. It comes down to a theological dispute. Ahmadis believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who founded their movement in pre-Partition India in 1889, was a messiah. That contradicts the central belief in mainstream Islam that Muhammad was the final prophet.

In 1974, a law was passed that not only declared Ahmadis non-Muslims, but banned them from “posing as Muslims”. They have not voted since; doing so would be a tacit acceptance that they are not Muslims, as they would be placed on a voter list with other religious minorities, such as Christians and Hindus. Voter registration forms require Ahmadis to disassociate themselves from the Prophet Muhammad; they say that to do so is against their religion, and so the stalemate continues.

“We are Muslims so we want the majority to accept us as Muslims,” Bilal Haider, the president of the Ahmadi Youth Committee in Karachi tells me when we speak on the phone. “Until then we cannot vote.” Like many young Ahmadis, he is angry. “When a political party confirms they will give us our rights, then we will vote for them. Until then, I cannot see the situation changing.”

Although the community has not voted for more than three decades, this year there was some fanfare around the boycott. This is because the level of official discrimination appears to be getting even worse. In 2011, the Election Commission issues instructions for an “Ahmadi-only” voter list, separate even to the other religious minorities. “It is the worst kind of discrimination and bigotry,” says Saleem Uddin, the spokesperson for the Jama’at Ahmadiyya, the community’s main organisation. “It is an attempt to exclude Ahmadis from the national discourse.”

Uddin lives in Rabwah, a quiet town in central Punjab where around 90 per cent of the population is Ahmadi, considered the headquarters of the community. I met him in the headquarters of an NGO in a central area of Islamabad, days after the boycott was announced. His statement created quite a stir on social media, with comparisons being drawn between the steady marginalisation of the Ahmadis to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany.

The Ahmadi issue was a hot topic after a video surfaced in late April of someone from Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party meeting with an Ahmadi community leader in London. Khan promptly released a video statement swearing that he had not solicited Ahmadi votes, and that if he was elected, he would not repeal anti-Ahmadi laws. As the only untested political force, Khan was the Ahmadis’ last hope for their cause to be taken up by someone in the mainstream. So his keenness to disassociate himself from this group as a depressing moment, for both Ahmadis and those concerned with human rights. This is one vote bank which no politician has any interest in winning.

Uddin, a large, softly-spoken man who shrinks from cameras, explains that the separate “Ahmadi-only” voter lists could have serious ramifications. He shows me a photocopied page from the electoral roll. The full address of each individual is listed. There is one column for “family number”, which typically consists of about five digits or letters. But Ahmadis do not have a family number: they are listed simply as “Q”, which stands for “Qadiani”, a common but derogatory term for Ahmadis. “We are already on the hit-list for terrorists,” says Uddin. “This list is made public for all cities, so people can now target us even more easily.”

The risks are very real. In 2010, more than 90 people were killed after the Taliban bombed an Ahmadi mosque in Lahore. Last year, more than 100 Ahmadi graves were desecrated in the city, with graveyards elsewhere in the country also attacked. Individual acts of vigilantism and official harassment are almost more disturbing than big terrorist attacks, because they are so routine. There are currently 278 legal cases registered against Ahmadis for “impersonating Muslims”. There are many recorded instances of people breaking into Ahmadi houses and forcibly removing Arabic inscriptions of Qu’ranic verses. Protected by the law, these vigilantes do not fear any consequences; indeed, it is often the police carrying out these acts.

In the province of Punjab, students must write down their religion when sitting external examinations, and many have suffered harassment not just from other students but from teachers. It is not unusual for individual Ahmadis to receive threatening phone calls and letters. “This is psychologically disturbing, because people do not always know how serious the threat is,” says Uddin. The situation has undoubtedly worsened as extremism and sectarianism have spread, but in the case of Ahmadis, the persecution, which has its basis in discriminatory laws, is state-sanctioned.

Uddin was in Islamabad to hold an informal Q&A session about the vote boycott. One young Ahmadi man, visibly frustrated, argued that the community must take part in the political process if it is to have any chance of bringing change. But the argument always ends with the same point: it is impossible for Ahmadis to participate without effectively renouncing the Prophet Muhammad, which their religion forbids them from doing.

Tentative attempts by President Musharraf to end the practice of separate voter lists in 2002 were shelved after pressure from the religious lobby. I ask Uddin if there is any hope of the situation ever improving. “Religion must stop being the dominant force in politics,” he says.  Given Pakistan’s current political landscape, it does not look like that is happening any time soon.

“It is disappointing that the Ahmadi community feels that they cannot be properly represented in the current electoral process in Pakistan,” says Mustafa Qadri, Pakistan researcher for Amnesty International. “This is yet further demonstration of the disenfranchisement of this heavily persecuted community. It looks unlikely the situation will change soon – in fact, it appears to be getting worse."

While the English-language media is cautiously sympathetic to the Ahmadi cause, the Urdu-language press, which has a much, much larger audience, is certainly not. Discriminatory and inflammatory statements are commonplace; “The US is destroying Pakistan through Qadianis” (The Daily Jang, May 2012); “Qadianis are enemies of Islam and agents of Jews” (The Daily Express, May 2012); and “Apostates must be killed. To declare Qadianis as a non-Muslim minority was an act of generosity for them” (The Daily Khabrain, July 2012).

Speaking after the conference, I ask Uddin whether being unable to vote is really the biggest priority for Ahmadis, given the scale of serious, daily persecution they face. “Oh very much so, it’s very important,” he says. His eyes mist up. “I would love to vote. I pay my taxes. I am a Pakistani. So why am I a second class citizen?”

Click here to read more from Samira Shackle on the run up to the general election on 11 May and the place of minority communities in Pakistan

Campaigners protest the killings of Ahmadis outside a Lahore mosque in 2010. Over 80 people died as squads of militants burst into prayer halls in May 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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To the Commonwealth, "Global Britain" sounds like nostalgia for something else

And the former colonial subjects have a less rose-tinted view of the past. 

Earlier this month, Boris Johnson became the first British foreign secretary to visit the Gambia since independence. His visit came a few days before the inauguration of the Gambia's new President, Adama Barrow, who has signalled his intention to re-join the Commonwealth - an institution that his dictatorial predecessor had left in protest at its apparent "neo-colonialism".

Accusations of neo-colonialism, regrettably, seem to be of little concern to the foreign secretary. After Johnson committed himself to facilitating the Gambia's Commonwealth re-entry, he declared that "the strength of our partnerships show that Global Britain is growing in influence and activity around the world". 

His comments are the latest example of the government's Brexit mission-creep in its foreign engagements. Theresa May mentioned "Global Britain" no fewer than ten times in her Lancaster House speech last month, reminding us that Britain "has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world" and emphasising the UK's post-referendum desire to "get out into the world". Ministers' repeated subsequent referencing of Global Britain has almost come to the point of re-branding Great Britain itself. But now the government seems to be directly equating Global Britain with the Commonwealth, the organisation comprising most of the former territories of the British Empire. If the Commonwealth is wooing back former members and seemingly growing in stature, that must mean Global Britain is doing the same. The Gambia's proposed re-admission to the Commonwealth is reconfigured as a victory for British clout and prestige in the face of the Brexit naysayers.

But the Commonwealth cannot be a vehicle or front for Global Britain, on either a technical or political level. The Commonwealth emphasises that it is an organisation of 52 equal member states, without any preference in decision-making. India (population 1.26bn) and Tuvalu (10,000) are treated the same. The organisation is headquartered in London, receives the most money from Britain, and its members share elements of history, culture and political systems; but it is not a British organisation and will not take orders from the British government. Commonwealth states, particularly poorer ones, may welcome UK political, financial and developmental support, but will reject the spectre of neo-imperialism. Diplomats remark that their countries did not leave the British Empire only to re-join it through the back door. 

And yet, shorn of influence following the decision to leave the EU, and the single market so instrumental to British jobs and prosperity, the government is desperate to find an alternative source of both power and profit. The members of the Commonwealth, with their links of heritage and administration, have always been touted as the first choice. Leading Brexiter Dan Hannan has long advocated a "union with the other English-speaking democracies", and Liam Fox has been actively pursuing Commonwealth countries for trade deals. But the Commonwealth cannot replace the EU in any respect. While exports to the EU account for just under a half of Britain's total, the Commonwealth receives less than 10 percent of our goods. The decline of UK trade with the Commonwealth was taking place long before Britain joined the EU, and it has in fact revived in recent years while being a member. The notion that Britain is restricted from trading with the Commonwealth on account of its EU membership is demonstrably false.  

The EU, the beloved scapegoat for so many ills, cannot fulfil the role for much longer. Indeed, when it comes to the Commonwealth, 48 of the 52 members have already completed trade deals with the UK, or are in the process of negotiating them, as part of their engagement with the EU. Britain could now be forced to abandon and re-negotiate those agreements, to the great detriment of both itself and the Commonwealth. Brexiters must moreover explain why Germany, with a population just 25 percent larger than ours, exports 133 percent more to India and 250 percent more to South Africa than we do. Even New Zealand, one of Britain's closest allies and a forthcoming trade-deal partner, imports 44 percent more goods and services from Germany, despite enjoying far looser cultural and historical ties with that country. The depth of Britain's traditional bonds with the Commonwealth cannot, in itself, boost the British economy. The empire may fill the imagination, but not a spreadsheet.

The British imperial imagination, however, is the one asset guaranteed to keep growing as Brexit approaches. It is, indeed, one of the root causes of Brexit. Long after the empire fell into history, the British exceptionalism it fostered led us to resent our membership of a European bloc, and resist even limited integration with it. The doctrine of "taking back control" for an "independent Britain" speaks to profound (and unfounded) anxieties about being led by others, when in our minds we should be the ones explicitly leading. The fictional, if enduringly potent victim narrative that we became a colony of someone else's empire, has now taken hold in government. The loss of our own empire remains an unacknowledged national trauma, which we both grieve and fail to accept. The concept of being equal partners with like-minded countries, in a position to exert real, horizontal influence through dialogue, cooperation and shared membership of institutions, is deemed an offence to Britain's history and imperial birthright.

The relentless push for Global Britain is thus both a symptom and cause of our immense global predicament. Through an attempt to increase our power beyond Europe, Brexit has instead deflated it. Britain has, in truth, always been global, and the globe has not always been grateful for it; but now the government preaches internationalism while erecting trade barriers and curbing migration. After empire, Britain found a new role in Europe, but with that now gone, Global Britain risks producing global isolation. Despite the foreign secretary's rhetoric, the Commonwealth, geopolitically and economically, has moved on from its imperial past. It is not waiting to be re-taken.

Jonathan Lis is the deputy director at British Influence.