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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.